Frank McCourt and the pitfalls of popularity

McCourt’s work has been dismissed all too glibly as misery memoir, commercially driven or aesthetically and politically naïve

Frank McCourt: made fun of his “Mega-Mick” status. Photograph: Getty Images

When I spoke with Frank McCourt at the 2007 American Conference for Irish Studies, he was astonished that anyone should want to write about his “miserable, Irish Catholic childhood”.

McCourt’s writing having been tainted by the “popular literature versus Literature” debate among the literary hierarchy must surely have enhanced this bewilderment. After all, it has been deemed that Literature with a capital L should be of a superior quality and have lasting merit.

The Guardian branded McCourt “the father of the misery memoir”, while the Independent declared Angela’s Ashes the “publishing phenomenon of the decade” after it attracted international public attention by winning the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks. In 1999, Sir Alan Parker’s adapted film gained further popular attention for Angela’s Ashes, and McCourt published the sequel ’Tis, to recollect his immigrant life in New York. Teacher Man followed in 2005 as a memoir of McCourt’s teaching career.

The sheer volume of sales substantiates that readers respond powerfully to memoirs. McCourt’s work has been dismissed all too glibly as misery memoir, and deemed to be commercially driven or aesthetically and politically naïve by his detractors. Meanwhile, his supporters have responded to the emotional impact of the texts rather than discussing the complex set of diverse materials upon which McCourt has formed his narrative: namely Ireland itself, the status of the memoir genre, and Irish-American identity.


Yet, until now there has been no published book that is dedicated solely to a discussion of McCourt’s writing. As the first in-depth study of McCourt’s work, Frank Confessions rebuffs the seemingly universal truth that because McCourt’s work is popular, it is undeserving of serious academic engagement. McCourt’s address to an audience of eminent academics on that April evening in New York was the “light bulb” moment that shaped the trajectory of this book.

Before me was an example of the conscious actorly performance that had become central to McCourt’s public identity as an international celebrity. His Irish accent assured that he was being understood readily as Irish, yet it was also strikingly performative. McCourt was aware of how self-fashioning produces supposedly cliched Irishness, and made fun of his “Mega-Mick” status. When he talked to me about the “ingredients” of his writing, I realised that his stylistic devices, too, are identifiably performative in origin and effect. I had found my argument and the birth of Frank Confessions took place under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The five distinct chapters of Frank Confessions exemplify how McCourt reworks and revitalises experiences that he purports to have lived from a wide range of geographical and cultural reservoirs. His writing abounds with recurrent cliches and stereotypical characters formed from a medley of literary, theatrical, cinematic and musical performance traditions, which provide a framework by which McCourt’s experiences are organised and given meaning for an international audience to understand.

McCourt’s sources range from the Irish language tradition, storytelling, nationalistic songs, the popular music of New York City, the films of Hollywood, other memoirs, stage and screen melodrama and theatre. By utilising performance, McCourt is able to emulate elements of writing and corresponding themes that had been offered previously by Dion Boucicault, James Joyce and Sean O’Casey, thereby forging a link with Irish tradition.

In the same way, my analysis of two specific reworkings of McCourt’s best-known text, the memoir Angela’s Ashes, are not only examples of an alternative aesthetic, but also elucidate further how the radical aspects of the performative principles in McCourt’s original text have emerged in my own readings of his writing. It is unsurprising that performance practitioners should recognise the hidden perspective for dramatic performance that resides in McCourt’s texts and transpose his words into the mouths of actors.

The after-lives of Angela’s Ashes

Frank Confessions not only redresses some of the significant lack of criticism focusing on McCourt’s life-writing, but also establishes how his voice continues to resonate in a twentieth-century context. The breadth of both reader and spectator response is wide. His followers continue to consume both his memoirs and the musical and cinematic adaptations of Angela’s Ashes, undertake the tourist trail, visit the Frank McCourt Museum and experience McCourt’s writing for the stage. It is now, of course, possible to historicise the era in which McCourt’s writing brought him international fame and great popular success: a period that looks increasingly remote and alien to us.

Indeed, those of us in attendance at A Tribute to Frank McCourt, performed at the Loreto Theater, New York in June 2016 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of Angela’s Ashes, were encouraged to reflect upon how the Angela’s Ashes phenomenon has led to a Master of Arts in Creative Writing being established at the University of Limerick.

In New York, meanwhile, the opening of the Frank McCourt High School of Writing, Journalism and Literature not only keeps McCourt’s name alive but also epitomises his American Dream through the irony that a high school should be named in honour of a teacher who never went to high school. Similarly, the Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School Programme at Glucksman Ireland House, New York, offers students the opportunity to fulfil McCourt’s nine-word lesson: “Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.” Of course, the timelessness and permanent value verified by these “after lives” makes us ponder anew the popular literature versus Literature debate.

Frank Confessions demonstrates how McCourt represents remembrance as a reel of endless images, remnants of happenings, flickering moments of the past that emerge as a montage of snippets of an individual life. Through his focus on poverty, clerical dogmatism, sexual repression, domestic oppression and paucity of opportunity suffered throughout his formative years, his work sheds light on the relationship between Limerick and New York through a tale of two cities that has been translated into so many languages to stir memories and recognition for innumerable readers.

McCourt’s life-writing appeals to Everyman because it engages with debates about identity, belonging and nationhood, and if it does continue to be read and re-performed in the future, it may be at least partly because these deliberations have a continued purchase. Frank Confessions seeks to attract new readers to McCourt’s writing and other performances, while offering a new perspective on the dynamics of remembrance to those who believe they have heard it all before.

There is much to hear in this book about McCourt's ability to re-present his "miserable, Irish Catholic childhood" by means of performance. He inspired his own wave of populism. Yet, this skill has been the pitfall of his phenomenal success. Perhaps the problem for academic critics is the elevation of ostensibly "low art" into a populist culture that assumes what I believe to be McCourt's rightful place within the ranks of the so-called literary hierarchy.
Frank Confessions: Performance in the Life-Writings of Frank McCourt, by Margaret Eaton. Oxford: Peter Lang (2017, Reimagining Ireland series #78). Available from Margaret Eaton was educated at the University of Derby and the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include Irish memoir, melodrama and the representation of Irish national identity in literature and film