Frank McCourt

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A Brief Biography

Frank McCourt was born August 19, 1930, in New York City to Irish immigrant parents. The family lived in relative poverty, as the dual stresses of the Great Depression and his father's alcoholism left the family without consistent income. As a result of this, the McCourts moved back to Ireland, staying briefly in Belfast and Dublin before settling in Limerick. Upon settling there, three of Frank's four younger siblings perished, compounding his father's alcoholism and sending his mother into a depression. Thus began the "miserable Irish Catholic" upbringing of Frank McCourt. The family slowly slipped further into poverty, as Frank's father was unable to hold down a job and frequently drank away the government handouts they were given. Frank's schooling took place at a local Catholic school, where the schoolmasters preached about God, Ireland's glory, and the horrible crimes the English had committed against the Irish over the past 800 years. While helping his uncle deliver newspapers, Frank met Mr. Timoney, an old man who treats Frank as a friend and later tells him to "read until your eyes fall out." Mr. Timoney's insistence upon Frank reading was very influential, as it encouraged Frank to learn in addition to working. During his fifth year of school and right after his confirmation, Frank became ill with typhoid fever, and was sent the the hospital for several months. There, he began to read with frequency, and particularly enjoys a bit of Shakespeare that he found. This time in the hospital is very influential to Frank, as it is there where he first notices the beauty of books and the english language. After his release from the hospital, he is made to repeat his fifth year of school, but is promoted to the sixth year after he writes the essay "Jesus and the Weather." This is the first piece he writes which shows he has real potential in the writing field. Mr. O'Halloran, Frank's teacher in the sixth year, plays an influential role in Frank's life because he understands how intelligent Frank is and encourages him to go to America, as there is nothing for him in Limerick. After Frank is forced to end school at age 13 when the Christian Brothers secondary school will not accept him, he has to begin to support his family through a mix of small jobs and stealing, as his father had abandoned the family altogether. His father abandoning the family is the final motivation behind Frank deciding to leave for America, as he realizes he cannot bring his family out of poverty through the minimal jobs available in Limerick. At age nineteen, he leaves for America, and upon arrival, begins working to bring his family along with him. He was drafted into the army during the Korean war, but never saw combat. With the help of the G.I. bill, he talked his way into New York University, despite his lack of a high school education. After graduation he worked as a schoolteacher in New York for twenty seven years. While working as a teacher, he tried to encourage his students to write about their own lives, as he insisted that they were worth writing about. Ultimately, it was his own advice which motivated him to write the autobiography Angela's Ashes, which was his greatest achievement and won him the Pulitzer Prize. He followed this with two more autobiographies, 'Tis, and Teacher Man, each bestsellers, although not on the same scale as Angela's Ashes. Frank McCourt, at age seventy eight, died of Melanoma after a life influenced by a miserable childhood and motivated by his drive to help his family.

"It is lovely to know that the world can't interfere with the inside of your mind."

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This political cartoon is a representation of Frank McCourt's quote, "It is lovely to know that the world can't interfere with the inside of your mind." The mind is represented by the top of the head in the picture, and the troubles of the world, especially those present in McCourt's life, are represented by the words trying to enter the mind. The time period in which McCourt grew up, the 1930s and 1940s, were rife with poverty and bias against the poor. The Catholic church frequently turned its back on Frank, and the Irish government was not helpful either. This cartoon depicts how the only refuge Frank had in a time of desperate poverty, illness, and bias was his own mind.

Comparison to the 1700s

If Frank McCourt had been born in the early sixteenth century, he would have been perceived much differently than he was in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. In the 1700s, had Frank been born in America and then remained there instead of going back to Ireland, he likely would not have had any education, as he was poor and schools were not as common for the lower classes. Irish immigrants, such as Frank's parents, generally became either indentured servants, laborers, or farmers. This would have left Frank with far less opportunity to advance himself, as there would have been no America to move to; he would have already been there. His family would not have moved back to Ireland. At the time, it was under English rule and opportunities for poor Irish Catholics were virtually nonexistent, as a Protestant minority controlled the island and sought to disenfranchise the Catholic majority. In addition to fewer opportunities for advancement, there would have also been far fewer books for Frank to read. One of Frank's main influences in his life was the reading he did, and without the access to as many books, his writing would have likely been less developed. Therefore, if Frank had lived in the early 1700s, he would have been perceived as merely a commoner and not the influential author he had the potential to become.

If I had the abilities which McCourt had, lived in the 1700s, and lived in a situation relative to my current lifestyle, I would have used my skills to write a book which exposed the miserable lives of the poor, either in America or in Ireland, depending on my experiences. If I lived in a situation similar to how I live today, I would have had at least some influence over society, at least enough to where a book I had written would have been noticed. McCourt had an amazing ability to make the reader empathize with the character, and I would use this ability to hopefully influence wealthier readers to connect with those living in poverty. Although this would not have been a panacea for poverty, it could have helped with starting a cause for alleviating poverty at the time.

Parallels between the 1930s-40s and who Frank McCourt became

  • Frank McCourt was raised during the Great Depression, and often had to fend for himself. This fight to survive and get ahead can be seen through the way he talked his way into college. He was not at all qualified, but he used his cunning to convince the admissions department to accept him.
  • The Catholic Church was a dominating influence in Ireland when McCourt was raised. It both shunned and comforted McCourt in his times of need, and the stories of it's saints were influential in McCourt's early years. The stories of these saints, many of whom stayed strong in times of immense difficulty, led Frank on the path to perseverance and mental toughness. Oftentimes, it was only the refuge of his mind which carried McCourt through the trying times in his life.

Summation of "Frank McCourt and the American Memoir."

Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/weekinreview/26shuessler.html?_r=0

Jennifer Schuessler asserts that although memoirs have recently come under fire for inaccuracies and other controversies, Frank McCourt and his memoir Angela's Ashes represent how the line between memoirs and narratives is always blurred, despite the innocence of the book. Initially, Schuessler discusses the controversy regarding James Frey's memoir and the alleged fabrications which it contains, contrasting it with McCourt's memoir, which captivated readers of every variety. She insists that although the memoir genre has come under fire, it still remains the most dominant type of contemporary literature, as demonstrated by the abundance of memoirs, many quite ridiculous, in book stores. Scuessler contrasts the ridiculousness of these memoirs with those that focus on childhood, which she asserts is the center of the genre. Using the example of Tobias Wolfe, who she maintains is the first to write a memoir about one's self, Schuessler describes the memoir boom and how it gave authors the ability to write a book based in non fiction with room for some stretching of the truth as well. She continues, showing that memoirs (participial phrase) and Angela's Ashes in particular were able to truly capture the empathy and understanding of readers. Despite this, however, she asserts that Angela's Ashes had its critics too (periodic sentence). Readers, especially Irish readers, she asserts, viewed the novel as over dramatizing Limerick and its poverty. Finally, she mentions that the line between novels and memoirs will always be blurred, as some fiction will inevitable seep into memoirs. Despite this, Schuessler shows that even McCourt began to be frustrated with the genre, as his later memoirs forced him to change names and details in order to avoid angering people. Ultimately, Schuessler shows through an essay written by McCourt that even though he is constrained, he also has more freedom to spin things as he wants rather than absolute truth, demonstrating the fine line between fiction and memoir.

Angela's Ashes

Context

Angela's Ashes was published in 1996, not long after the end of the cold war and before 9/11, the two major events within five years of the publication. In Ireland, the Troubles, although in their last years, raged on. Despite this, as an autobiography, the context of the novel is less based in world events as it is in the life of McCourt himself. He had recently retired from teaching, and after years of teaching others to write, decided to write a memoir focusing on his childhood. He had always wanted to write the autobiography, but had never been able to. Now that his teaching career had ended, McCourt was able to write the memoir, and did so.

Themes

  • Poverty-the McCourts live in desperate poverty and the weight which it has on Frank and the family is a major theme of the book.
  • The twofaced Catholic Church- the church dominates Irish life, and although it turns away Frank many times, the priests also help Frank learn to forgive himself in addition to advising him. The saints, such as Saint Francis, also bring Frank a source of hope.
  • America-America is the goal Frank works towards, and is the constant source of hope throughout the memoir. He will work hard and live a respectable life there, in order to bring his family out of poverty.
  • The English and the class system-the English are blamed for everything wrong with Ireland. They imposed a class system, a theme of the novel which serves as a reminder of the constant struggle the McCourts face in addition to poverty.

Reflection of the 1990s and McCourt's Life at the Time

Although the early 1990s featured events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War, Angela's Ashes is not so much a reflection of world events, even those in Ireland, as it is of the events in McCourt's life. The memoir reflects a little bit of the Troubles in Ireland as the conflict reached it's final years, as it emphasizes "the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years." However, as an autobiography, Angela's Ashes was reflective of McCourt's life at the time; he had just ended his teaching career and was now transitioning to life as a writer. His career as a teacher is evident in the text through his emphasis on the schoolmasters who taught him in Ireland. McCourt focuses on both his positive and negative experiences with the teachers and especially on Mr. O'Halloran, who showed Frank that not all teachers were totally biased and that they could have a positive influence on the lives of their students. The end of his teaching career led McCourt to finally write his memoir, he had been unable to do so previously but was now able to.

Perception in the 1930s

If Angela's Ashes had been published in the 1930s, it would have been perceived in a much poorer, or at least less enthusiastic, fashion. In the 1930s, the story of Frank McCourt's childhood was one of children in both the United States and Ireland, as the Great Depression was in full swing. Poverty was rampant, and the memoir could have been viewed as simply a complaint rather than a recollection of the misery of the time period. Many potential readers would have had no time to empathize with McCourt; they would have had problems of their own. As a result, Angela's Ashes would've been much less well received in the 1930s.

Writing Style

Frank McCourt has a very unique writing style, it is unlike almost every other author. Most noticeably, he does not use quotations and his writing is set up as a stream of consciousness, and this is the most dominant stylistic device used throughout the memoir. He omits hyphens, commas, and even periods on occasion when it helps the thought flow. Although this may seem odd, it helps the reader emphasize with McCourt; it seems as though you can truly understand what is happening inside of his head and the motivations for his actions. While reading Angela's Ashes, it is easy to view the memoir from McCourt's point of view rather than the view of an outsider. Another element of McCourt's writing style is his frequent use of the Irish language and Irish diction. He uses this to emphasize the difference between Ireland and America, especially at the beginning of the memoir when he has just moved back to Ireland.

-Coincidentally, I was familiar with much of the diction used thanks to my grandparents, who are from Ireland, and my dad, who also uses Irish phrases on occasion. One phrase which both he and McCourt's teachers are fond of is "omadhaun," which means fool, or idiot. Luckily for me, it is used lightheartedly by my dad, whereas McCourt's teachers used it in a much harsher manner.

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How Does McCourt's Writing Style Compare to Other Writers?

Frank McCourt has a very unique writing style largely because of his use of stream of consciousness to write the majority of his memoir. However, it is similar, at least somewhat, to the style of Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. Each author retells their childhoods in a manner which helps the reader empathize with the author. In addition to this, each memoir makes use of their native diction to emphasize their points and the uniqueness of their cultures.

When the writing style of McCourt is compared to that of Nathaniel Hawethorne, one finds that it is drastically different. Hawethorne, especially in The Scarlet Letter, makes heavy use of symbolism, whereas McCourt is very candid in his writing. McCourt explicitly states the points he makes, and they usually relate directly to his life. However, Hawethorne relies on symbolism and narrative to make his points, which makes his style much different than that of McCourt.

Arthur Miller, author of The Crucible, also has a style which is much different than Frank McCourt's. Miller relies almost entirely on dialogue and fictional characters in his play whereas McCourt omits quotations entirely and his memoir is rooted in slightly embellished truth. However, the writing style of Miller is at least slightly more similar to McCourt's style than McCourt's style is to that of Hawethorne's, as both Miller and McCourt based their writings on truth, whereas Hawethorne's writing is reflective of a time period as a whole.

Works Cited

"A Writer Risen From the Ashes." Www.achievement.org. Academy of Achievement, 29 July

2009. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.


"Frank McCourt Obituary." Legacy.com. Legacy.com, 2009. Web. 03 Mar. 2015.


McCourt, Frank. Angela's Ashes. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.


Russell, Tony, Allen Brizee, and Elizabeth Angeli. “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” The

Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 4 Apr. 2010. 22 Mar. 2015


Scheussler, Jennifer. "Frank McCourt and the American Memoir." www.nytimes.com. The

New York Times, 25 July 2009. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.


-Smore will not let me format the second lines of the citations correctly, so I am attaching a screenshot of a correctly formatted version.

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