Long live Frank McCourt
The death of Frank McCourt yesterday comes as a shock, even though he was 78 and, we now know, in poor health lately. His old friend Gay Talese, who saw McCourt at a party last month, told the Associated Press that the beloved memoirist “didn’t look at all like he was going to disappear from the Earth in a month. He was very jovial, as usual.”
McCourt, of course, became famous in 1996 for Angela’s Ashes, his memoir of growing up in dire poverty in Ireland. Written in a strong and distinctive voice, the book mixed humor and hardship with a lyric melancholy tone that bespoke lasting damage despite the triumphs of his adult life as a schoolteacher in New York City.
Along with Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, McCourt’s book helped establish the memoir as a modern publishing and literary phenomenon, replacing the autobiographical first novel as the preferred genre for emerging writers. The memoir continues to reign supreme, with each year bringing forth sensational books, some of them excellent (Night of the Gun, by David Carr; Jeannette Walls‘ The Glass Castle), some not (James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and countless others).
As a teacher of English and creative writing for three decades at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, McCourt often talked of writing books, but did not get around to actually doing it until after his retirement. Following the enormous success of Angela’s Ashes, he wrote two additional memoirs: Tis, about moving to America; and Teacher Man, about his career as an educator. Both are at least as good as his first book, though the huge success of Angeles Ashes could not be repeated. Some 10 million copies of his works have been sold in the U.S. alone.
I had the opportunity to meet McCourt a number of times at the Miami Book Fair International, the Key West Literary Seminar and other events in South Florida. He was always friendly, usually hilarious, with a nimble mind evident behind sad eyes and a still-strong Irish brogue. Occasionally a strain of permanent grief rose to the surface. On one occasion, what started as a charming, funny speech devolved into a bitter, almost manic diatribe against the Catholic Church in “priest-ridden Ireland.”
McCourt leaves not only a lasting literary heritage, living on in the hearts of countless fond readers. He also remains an example of what can happen to people, even late in life, if they do not give up on their dreams.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives,” McCourt once told an interviewer. “I think I’ve proven him wrong. And all because I refused to settle for a one-act existence, the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”