Frank McCourt: A Responsibility To Write

Frank mccourt on the phone

hide captionThe late Irish memoirist Frank McCourt turned a leaden, impoverished childhood into literary gold.

Ed Nessen/AP

Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis and Teacher Man, died Sunday. He was 78.

In this 1996 Fresh Air interview, McCourt tells Terry Gross that his works emerged from a sense of duty to the people who had shaped his life.

"For some reason, I had a responsibility to my family and the people who lived around me," he says. "I felt that I had to convey their dignity — the way they dealt with adversity and poverty — and their good humor."

McCourt was born in Brooklyn, but moved to Limerick with his Irish parents when he was four years old. The family lived in crushing poverty, and McCourt suffered the deaths of two of his infant brothers. He later contracted tyhpoid and almost perished.

These experiences form the basis for Angela's Ashes, a memoir that avoids sentimentality by mixing these chilling recollections with a clear-eyed sense of gallows humor. Growing up, McCourt and his brothers were familiar with death enough to laugh at it.

[My brother] Malachy and I used to go to funerals all the time," McCourt jokes. "We belonged to the 'Death of the Month Club!'"

"A funeral was a great form of entertainment. A wake was a great form of entertainment," he adds.

When they wanted free food, Frank and Malachy would wander the town looking for houses in mourning. Tradition had it that souls prayed for by children were guaranteed entrance to heaven. The McCourt brothers would pray for the deceased, and the bereaved family would reward them with food and, occasionally, Guinness.

McCourt escaped Ireland at 19, immigrating to the United States and getting a job at the Biltmore, a hotel made famous in the works of John Updike, John Cheever and J.D. Salinger. During the Korean War, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany to train attack dogs. When he returned to the U.S., he started attending New York University on the G.I. Bill — requiring him to convince the admissions office that he was qualified, even though he lacked a high school diploma.

McCourt spent his career as a writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He only achieved fame for his writing after he retired.

McCourt said that writing Angela's Ashes helped him reach a certain catharsis with respect to his childhood: "I've gone back [to Ireland] a number of times, but always with a chip on my shoulder, a sense of anger I got a lot of the stuff out of my system by writing the book, and I feel much more comfortable. As a matter of fact, Ireland, once you live there, you're seduced by it."

This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 24, 1996.

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