All achievers

Frank McCourt

Pulitzer Prize for Biography

You have to, above all, find the voice, and it took me all those years, not until I retired. But I had the material. That's the main thing. The material was circling around my head and lying there in my notebooks waiting to be tapped.

Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents. Unable to find work in the depths of the Depression, the McCourts returned to Ireland, where they sunk deeper into the poverty McCourt describes so movingly in his memoir, Angela’s Ashes.

"Angela's Ashes: A Memoir," the 1996 memoir by Irish author Frank McCourt. The memoir details McCourt's very early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes McCourt's struggles with poverty and his father's alcoholism. The book was published in 1996, and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. The sequel, "'Tis," was published in 1999, followed by "Teacher Man" in 2005.
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, the 1996 memoir by Irish author Frank McCourt. The memoir details McCourt’s very early childhood in Brooklyn, New York, but focuses primarily on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes McCourt’s struggles with poverty and his father’s alcoholism. The book was published in 1996, and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. The sequel, ‘Tis, was published in 1999, followed by Teacher Man in 2005.

McCourt’s father, an alcoholic, was often without work. He drank up what little money he earned and eventually abandoned the family altogether. Three of the seven children died of diseases aggravated by malnutrition and the squalor of their surroundings. Frank McCourt himself nearly died of typhoid fever when he was ten. McCourt’s memoir describes an entire block of houses sharing a single outhouse, ground floor dwellings flooded by constant rain, a home infested with rats and vermin. Despite the horrors of McCourt’s childhood, he told his story with humor, brilliant description, and deep compassion for his family, even for the shiftless father who instilled in him a love of language and storytelling.

At the beginning of the Korean War, Frank McCourt was drafted, at age 19.
At the beginning of the Korean War, Frank McCourt was drafted, at age 19.

After quitting school at 13, Frank McCourt alternated between odd jobs and petty crime in an effort to feed himself, his mother, and three surviving brothers. At 19, he returned to the United States and worked at odd jobs until he was drafted into the United States Army at the onset of the Korean War. McCourt spent the war stationed in Germany and on his return to civilian life was able to pursue a college education on the G.I. Bill. He had never attended high school, but he was able to persuade the admissions office of New York University to accept him as a student. Although his childhood interest in language and storytelling were fed by creative writing classes and his own constant reading, he did not feel ready to pursue a career as a professional writer. On graduation, he went to work for the New York City Public School system, where he taught for the next 27 years.

1983: Frank McCourt at Stuyvesant High School. McCourt "spent three decades as a teacher of English and creative writing in New York City’s public schools." (John Sotomayor/The New York Times)
1983: Frank McCourt at Stuyvesant High School. McCourt “spent three decades as a teacher of English and creative writing in New York City’s public schools.” (John Sotomayor/The New York Times)

“I taught what they call ‘Creative Writing,’ though you and I know how hard it is to teach anyone anything,” McCourt says. “Instead of teaching writing I ‘conducted’ writing classes. I tried to show my students the significance of their own lives, which they sometimes thought insignificant. I hoped they’d realize the value of their own lives, that they were good enough to write about. So they took the plunge, and they wrote, and some were willing to read to the class, and I think they were glad they did. Then they’d say to me, ‘Why don’t you write something and read it to the class?’ And I did — more and more.”

Ellen and Frank McCourt.
In 1997, the University of Limerick recognized Dr. Frank McCourt’s extraordinary contribution to literature by conferring to him the Honorary Doctorate of Literature. Pictured here with his wife, Ellen, Frank McCourt was a “cultural treasure of Limerick City.” McCourt was a regular visitor who lectured there on a number of occasions.

Although McCourt spent his summers working on a novel drawing on his youth in Ireland, he was unable to find his own voice until he retired from teaching. After years of teaching creative writing to young people, McCourt determined to write his own life story. Angela’s Ashes sold over 4 million copies, has been published in 27 countries and has been translated into 17 languages. It won McCourt the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the ABBY Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

"Teacher Man" is Frank McCourt's 2005 memoir, which describes and reflects on his teaching experiences in New York high schools and colleges.
Teacher Man is Frank McCourt’s 2005 memoir, which describes and reflects on his teaching experiences in New York high schools and colleges.

His second book, ‘Tis, picked up the story of his life where Angela’s Ashes left off, with his arrival in America at age 19. It shot to the top of the bestseller lists as soon as it was published. His 2005 memoir, Teacher Man, chronicled his 27-year career in the New York City school system. Like its predecessor, it was an instant bestseller. Frank McCourt died in New York City at the age of 78.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1999

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I’ve proved 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.”

Frank McCourt was already retired when he published his first book at age 66. Angela’s Ashes, a memoir of his impoverished boyhood in Limerick, Ireland, shot to the top of the bestseller lists and remained there for over a year. Angela’s Ashes won McCourt the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It was still topping the paperback lists when McCourt’s second book, ‘Tis, hit the bookstores, and the bestseller lists. A third bestseller, Teacher Man, recounted his years teaching in the New York City public schools.

“After retiring from teaching I wanted a second act, not a rocker in Florida,” McCourt said. After a lifetime of helping young people find their own voices, Frank McCourt had found his own, and millions of readers found a friend to treasure.

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What were you thinking when you came to America at the age of 19? You had grown up in dire poverty in Ireland. What were you looking for?

Frank McCourt: When I arrived here my condition was very poor, emotionally, psychologically, even physically. I had no self-esteem because of what I came from. No education. Everybody was saying, “Oh, you have to have a high school diploma in this country.” I couldn’t say I only went to primary school in Limerick.

The minute I opened my mouth they’d say, “What you should do is join the cops.” I didn’t want to join the cops. So I didn’t know what to do with myself since I had no self-esteem. I was very angry over having no education. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to find the door into America. Here I was. I didn’t know anybody. So I was mostly alone and floundering.

I had to deal with something else that people rarely talk about. It’s an ethnic story in a way. Other people come from Italy and Czechoslovakia and places like that, and they have to grapple with America, and they have to grapple with trying to master the English language as well. At least I had the language; that made it more convenient for me. But…

Frank McCourt with his younger brother, Malachy McCourt.
Frank McCourt with his younger brother, Malachy McCourt.
Keys to success — Perseverance

The minute I opened my mouth then they’d say, “Oh, you’re Irish.” Suddenly I’m labeled. I wasn’t a human being. In Ireland I was just a low-class type, but here I’m a low-class Irish type, an Irish low-class type. So I didn’t know. Somehow I had to deal with that. “Oh, you’re Irish.” And at that time, that was 1949, there was still some kind of a lingering residue of prejudice against the Irish. People used to tell me, all the people, up and down New England (I’m in New York) there would be signs saying, “No Irish need apply.” And even the Irish-Americans would listen to me and they’d patronize me. I was a bit simple as if I had just come off a farm. And I knew better than that. I knew I was better than that. Irish-Americans who were running elevators and working as porters, they were looking down on me, and I knew then that I was again at the bottom of the heap.

I was confused most of the time. I never had anything but the dream of getting out of this.

Keys to success — The American Dream

I wanted to be something else but I didn’t know what. There was no clear-cut dream. I thought I’d like to have a job, a decent job in an office. I’d like to be in an office sitting behind a desk, pushing papers around, making little decisions about pushing papers, get out at 5:00 o’clock, meet this gorgeous girl and we’d probably get married and have two-and-a-half kids and live out in Long Island or someplace like that, and I’d go to mass every Sunday morning, be nice and warm and clean, and I’d be accepted, and I’d lose my Irish accent, and I’d sound like James Cagney. I didn’t know what to do. I read a lot. I discovered the 42nd Street Library. That’s what I did. I read and read and read voraciously and widely. Then I was liberated from this menial job I had in a hotel. I was the man with the dust pan and the broom in the lobby. I was liberated by the Chinese, who attacked Korea, and America drafted me and sent me to Germany for two years. I don’t know what I would have done if the Chinese hadn’t attacked Korea. I’m a victim of history in Ireland and I’m a beneficiary of history in America.

Academy member Frank McCourt chats with the Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern before the Academy of Achievement's 2002 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in Dublin, Ireland. (© Academy of Achievement)
Academy member Frank McCourt chats with the Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern before the Academy of Achievement’s 2002 Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in Dublin, Ireland. (© Academy of Achievement)

When did you first know what you wanted to do with your life?

Frank McCourt: Well, I always wanted to write but I didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t have the courage of certain people that you hear about. I read something about Shelby Foote recently who wrote a story for the Saturday Evening Post when he was 19 and that was it. He was on his way. Or other people like Scott Fitzgerald. He had a college education and so on, but I didn’t know where to begin and I didn’t know what to write. I certainly was not going to write about my experiences growing up in this slum in Ireland. Then something happened when I finally went to NYU.

Keys to success — Vision

We were asked to write about a single thing, an object in our childhood. And the object that meant most to me that was so significant was the bed I slept in with my brothers, all four of us. This half acre of a bed with a disaster of a mattress, which collapsed in the middle. Everybody peed in the bed, so the spring was gone, and we tried to keep it together with bits of string, but after a while the acid from our bodies rotted the string. We’d get into bed and we’d roll into the middle, the four of us, and fight, “Get out of my way.” Meanwhile the fleas were feasting on us. And if you had to go to the john, you went to a bucket and so on and came back. And we were — we’d light a candle to get at the — and we’d hold the candle and we’d go slapping at each other’s legs and bodies killing the fleas. That was probably the most concrete image I brought away from my childhood and I wrote about that. The professor gave me an “A+.” And I said, “Jesus, this is very strange.” And then he says, “Please read this to the class.” And I said, “No.” “Would you?” “No.” “Would you please?” I said, “No, I’d be ashamed.” And he read it. He said, “Do you mind if I read it?” So he read it to the class, and I think they sensed that I was the one who wrote it, and good-looking girls started looking at me in an interested way, but I thought they’d be — I thought they’d be disgusted. But I found myself being stalked leaving the class that day. “Is that how you grew up?” And it seemed — I seemed to suddenly have become kind of an exotic in the class. So that stuck in my head. I still wasn’t convinced that this was the material of my writing but I kept going with notebooks, and making lists of people I grew up with, the streets in Limerick, the shops, the priests and everything else. That was a turning point.

The encouragement of that one teacher?

Frank McCourt: That one teacher. The one in Ireland, Mr. O’Halloran, who told me I was a literary genius and this man at NYU. One little thing can change the course of your life, or can change your emotional landscape.

2005: Frank McCourt in a classroom at Stuyvesant High School in New York. McCourt taught in the city’s school system for nearly 30 years. (Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)
2005: Frank McCourt in a classroom at Stuyvesant High School in New York. McCourt taught in the city’s school system for nearly 30 years. (Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)

You taught in the New York schools for 27 years. How did you get from there to writing Angela’s Ashes?

Frank McCourt: Angela’s Ashes was germinating all the time, ever since that bed composition. I tried in the ’60s, around 1967, ’68. I tried to write a novel called If You Live in the Lane. I was talking to the kids about writing, but even though I was 38, 39 years old, I really didn’t trust myself. So I was trying to imitate. I was going through a James Joyce phase, a Portrait of the Artist phase, which was a little late considering he wrote Portrait of the Artist when he was 22.

So here I am, at age 38 or 39, imitating Joyce, and it didn’t work. I put it away. I was teaching at Stuyvesant High School at the time.

Keys to success — Preparation

Kids were asking me about my life, and I would dole out a few anecdotes, and they kept saying, “Oh, you should write a book. You should write a book.” And I thought I should write a book, and I was trying. And every summer I would try to write the book, and you need — you can’t do it. It’s like running a marathon. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m going to run the marathon.” You have to, nine months in advance at least, start training. And it’s the same thing with writing. You have to get the rhythms, and you have to, above all, find the voice, and it took me all those years, not until I retired. But I had the material. That’s the main thing. The material was circling around my head and lying there in my notebooks waiting to be tapped.

Poet W. S. Merwin and memoirist Frank McCourt at the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Hawaii. (© Academy of Achievement)
Poet W.S. Merwin and memoirist Frank McCourt at the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Hawaii.

How do you find your own unique, distinctive voice?

Frank McCourt: In the case of Angela’s Ashes it was almost an accident.

Keys to success — Preparation

I wish I could say again that I was like James Joyce, who worked things out, or Hemingway, who just sculpted those sentences. For me, it was my method of writing that led me to it. Sitting with a notebook and a pen writing on the right-hand page whatever story I wanted to tell, and making notes on the left-hand page about ideas coming to me for future reference. And I wrote 19 or 20 pages of Angela’s Ashes, which is in the past tense, describing my mother and father coming to New York. And on the left page I wrote one day — I knew the next day I wanted to get to my earliest memories and start my story. My story. And I wrote, “I’m in a playground on Claussen Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother Malachy. He’s two. I’m three. We’re on the seesaw. He goes up. I go down. He goes up. I go down. I get off. Malachy comes down, crashes, bites his tongue and there’s blood.” That was my earliest memory. And the next day I picked that up in the present tense with the perspective of the three-year-old, me, and it felt comfortable and I continued that way. I just — it was a glove that I put on.

Frank McCourt and his wife, Ellen, chatting with an Academy student delegate during the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (© Academy of Achievement)
Frank McCourt and his wife, Ellen, chatting with an Academy student delegate during the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (© Academy of Achievement)

How do you handle success?

Frank McCourt: Success! I’m almost somebody on an assembly line now.

Keys to success — Vision

I didn’t know Angela’s Ashes would be successful, and if it hadn’t sold the way it did, it hadn’t brought me all these prizes and so on, I would have gone back to teaching. But the book would have been written. It would be on the bookshelves. It would be — it would have its Library of Congress catalogue number and I would have been satisfied. I would have been profoundly satisfied, and I would have gone back to teaching, and that would have given me such satisfaction, too. I’d stay there till I died. I’d be in front of the class some day talking about dangling participles, and I’d get an aneurysm and keel over, and they’d take me out feet first. A warrior, a pedagogical warrior!

But that didn’t happen. It sold more than the 27,000 copies, and it sold, and sold, and sold, and I got the prizes. And then…

Keys to success — Vision

I realized that I hadn’t finished my story. I had brought it up to the age of 19, but what I wanted to show was, I think, the effects of that childhood, the poverty and the religion, and everything else on a young man coming to New York. What it does to your self-esteem, how I was damaged and also how I benefited from it. Because no matter what I say about the poverty, there was a richness. No matter what I said about the church, there was a richness in that religious experience. If we hadn’t had the church, the architecture, which was Neo-Gothic or Neo-Byzantine — I don’t know what the hell it was. But there was the liturgy, the Latin, the ceremonial, the sense of mystery, the sense of awe, the sense of wonder, and the power, the art, the duplicated paintings of the stations of the cross, all of that.

So I realized when I finished Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt's 1999 memoir, "'Tis," begins where McCourt ended "Angela's Ashes," his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his impoverished childhood in Ireland and his return to America.
Frank McCourt’s 1999 memoir, ‘Tis, begins where McCourt ended Angela’s Ashes, his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of his impoverished childhood in Ireland and his return to America.
Keys to success — The American Dream

I had to show what happened to this young man, me, who I hope would be a prototype for all immigrants. What happened to me. How I made my way through New York, which is a fearful place to get through, and how accidentally certain things happened, and how I made certain things happen. That’s kind of a balance. Some things happen to you. I made certain decisions. I made a decision that I wasn’t going to be a cop, that I wasn’t going to be a bartender. That I wasn’t going to stay in some menial job for the rest of my — because of my anger. I’m better than this. And most people know they’re better than that. So I had to go to college. I was saved, as I said, by the Chinese attacking Korea and then getting the GI Bill when I got out of the Army. This story, how all of these things happened to me, is the story of the next book, which is called ‘Tis.