Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist Frank McCourt is acclaimed for turning his heartbreaking, poverty-stricken childhood into literary gold. McCourt, a luminary among contemporary Irish American writers, is a master of the classic immigrant's tale. His gift for turning a life of destitution, disease, and death into engaging, entertaining reading has much to do with the fact that he never lapses into self-pity. Instead, it is McCourt's wit, humor, eloquence, and child-like openness that mark his writing style.
Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1930 to Angela and Malachy (not to be confused with Frank's brother, also named Malachy) McCourt. When Frank was four years old, the McCourts returned to their Irish homeland for the same reason they left it: to seek a better life. Because Malachy, a real-life stereotype of an Irish alcoholic, drank away his paychecks, his family often went cold and hungry. Angela was left to raise her children on meager welfare checks and handouts. Even though Frank was recognized as a gifted student, he dropped out of school at the age of fourteen. He worked a series of menial jobs until, at the age of nineteen, he had enough money to make the journey back to New York. After a stint with the U.S. Army, McCourt began attending New York University, studying English during the day and working at night. After college, he embarked on a teaching career that lasted twenty-seven years. He was recognized as a particularly gifted English and creative writing teacher and worked for many years at Manhattan's prestigious Peter Stuyvesant High School. He retired from teaching in 1987 and, in 1994, began putting together his first book. The result, Angela's Ashes, spent 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. Due to the overwhelming success of his first memoir, he decided to write a second volume. 'Tis picks up where Angela's Ashes leaves off, with McCourt having just arrived in New York as a nineteen-year-old. 'Tis was published in 1999, the same year the film version of Angela's Ashes opened to wide acclaim. This second memoir sold over 1.5 million copies during the six months it spent as a bestseller. In 2005, McCourt published a third memoir, Teacher Man, which details the years he spent teaching.
Published in 1996, Frank McCourt's first book Angela's Ashes was a runaway success. The English and creative writing teacher had never seriously entertained the idea of writing about his life because he did not think anyone would find it interesting. After sharing his background with his students, he was convinced otherwise. The New York teens were surprisingly enthralled with his stories of childhood misery. This motivated him to begin writing sketches of memories, but it was not until 1994 that he focused his attention on creating the book that would be Angela's Ashes. When it was completed in 1995, McCourt passed the manuscript to a writer friend who knew a literary agent who passed it on to Scribner. The memoir was released to wide praise and enthusiasm, much to McCourt's bemusement. His literary debut tells the harrowing story of his upbringing in the slums of Brooklyn, New York, and Limerick, Ireland. The McCourts were so poor that Frank, his mother, father, and siblings all had to sleep in one flea-infested bed. McCourt daughter died in infancy before the family left America. Then, in Limerick, twins Oliver and Eugene contracted pneumonia and died within six months of one another. McCourt's mother, Angela, survived a bout of pneumonia, and Frank suffered a bout of typhoid fever as a boy. To top it off, McCourt's father was an alcoholic who neglected his responsibilities. The author explains his conflicted feelings for his father this way: "I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him. The one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland." It is this kind of honesty that inspired critics to write so glowingly of Angela's Ashes and its author. Bestselling author Thomas Cahill wrote, "[Angela's Ashes] is such a marriage of pathos and humor that you never know whether to weep or roar—and find yourself doing both at once. Through each fresh horror of the narrative, you will be made happy by some of the most truly marvelous writing you will ever encounter."
'Tis, McCourt's second volume of memoir, begins with the author's return to America as a nineteen-year-old and ends in 1985, the year his parents died. In between, the reader learns how the penniless outsider with the rotten teeth, red eyes, and thick brogue becomes a celebrated creative writing teacher in a respected Manhattan high school. McCourt's third and likely final memoir, Teacher Man, details his life as that teacher. After spending much of his near-thirty-year career feeling like a fraud, insecure and unfocused, he gains strength from his life experience. He writes, "My life saved my life." 'Tis was, like his previous two memoirs, very warmly received.
Few contemporary writers enjoy consistently glowing feedback from critics and the reading public across-the-board. Frank McCourt does. His charm, wit, self-deprecating humor, eloquence, and gift for storytelling have earned him an enviable spot in the hearts and minds of his readers. His three consecutive memoirs have each garnered rave reviews, inspiring fellow memoirist, Mary Karr, to write, "Frank McCourt's lyrical Irish voice will draw comparisons to Joyce. It's that seductive, that hilarious. . . . In the annals of memoir, this name will be writ large."
His debut, Angela's Ashes, earned him the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, the national Book Critics Circle Award in Biography/Autobiography, the Boston Book Review's non-Fiction Prize, the ABBY Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Time Magazine and Newsweek granted it the distinction of being best nonfiction book of 1996. In North America alone, there are 2,325,000 copies in print.
- Angela's Ashes: A Memoir (memoir) 1996
- The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way (play) 1997
- 'Tis: A Memoir (memoir) 1999
- A Couple of Blaguards (play co-authored by Malachy McCourt) 2001
- Ireland Ever: The Photographs of Jill Freedman (nonfiction co-authored Malachy McCourt) 2003
- Teacher Man (memoir) 2005