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If you like Frank McCourt's story, you might also like:
David Herbert Donald,
James Michener,
N. Scott Momaday,
John Sexton,
Amy Tan and
John Updike

Frank McCourt can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Frank McCourt's recommended reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finny

Frank McCourt also appears in the video:
Heroes and the American Dream

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Frank McCourt in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Poets & Poetry

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Simon & Schuster
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Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt
Profile of Frank McCourt Biography of Frank McCourt Interview with Frank McCourt Frank McCourt Photo Gallery

Frank McCourt Interview (page: 3 / 6)

Pulitzer Prize for Biography

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  Frank McCourt

As a child you almost died of typhoid.

Frank McCourt: I had typhoid. Yeah, because there was a lavatory that we all shared in this lane. All the families came and emptied their buckets. They used the bucket in the house, in the bedroom, for everything, and then emptied it into this lavatory. And it would overflow and there was waste, dirt, pee, piss, excrement everywhere. Flies, rats, everything coming to -- were attracted to this lavatory. And our door would be open and our door was catty corner with the door of this lavatory. We could hear them coming. We'd say, "Oh, God, shut the door. Shut the door. Bonnie Sexton is coming with her bucket." And she had the worst bucket in the lane. We became connoisseurs of the stink. So the flies would go in there, and they'd come in and they'd settle on the sugar bowl that we had. When we had jam, they'd be lapping at the jam, and I got typhoid fever out of it. And in those days they didn't have the medicines, or if they had them they weren't available to the likes of me. So I spent three-and-a-half months in the hospital in the summer, which nearly killed me.

If you're going to get sick, when you're a kid, you want to be sick during the school year. I was very bitter to have to spend the summer in the hospital: June, July, August, September and into the middle of October.

Did it ever occur to you that this was the makings of some epic tale?

Frank McCourt: Oh, no. Far from it. We were all ashamed of this. You didn't go out into the world announcing that you came from some slum. You don't find kids from the ghettos and the slums bragging about what they came from.

I remember reading James Baldwin talking about his mother fighting the cockroaches, trying to keep the kitchen clean, trying to keep things growing up in Harlem, and I said, "That's it. This man understands," because you read so little about poverty in American literature or any other literature. There was Dickens, I know, but Dickens -- I became suspicious of him because he had all those happy endings. I wish Oliver Twist had died of TB, or David Copperfield. That used to piss me off when they're all -- they all found out they were related to somebody in the Royal Family or some damn thing. So when I came across Baldwin and George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London and another one called The Road to Wigan Pier, they had -- he knew. He knew the details, the stink of poverty.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

So when I was growing up I wasn't particularly proud of it. None of us were when we finally left. Even around Limerick, if we wandered out of our lane, we went into other areas, more prosperous areas of Limerick,

We didn't want to look like we came from the lane, but you could spot us a mile away. The urchins from the lanes. We had that look. You see kids roaming the big cities, in New York, in America, the inner cities as they say. You see bands of kids and you know. You know where they came from. You can spot them. They're roaming around. And you look at some of them, they don't want to be there, they want to be someplace else. They want to be a part of what they're walking through, the fine streets and the broad avenues. And that's the way I felt. I didn't want to be detected as a slum kid, but there was no choice. We had no clothes. We didn't have clothes. So when I came to New York I tried to pass myself off as middle class. I even tried to affect an American accent. It didn't work. I tried some days. Even nowadays my wife falls on the floor laughing at my attempt at an American accent. So we all wanted to sound like James Cagney.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

But we didn't want to tell anybody what we came from because we were ashamed of it. And concurrent with shame is anger. When we joked around about this in New York, my brothers and I, my mother would say, "Will you stop talking about that? That's the past." Eventually we got over the shame and we started talking about it. It took me a long time and then I started writing about it in my notebooks and that led to Angela's Ashes a long time later on.

What were you thinking when you came to America at the age of 19. Out of this background, full of anger at your circumstances, at the church, at the lack of opportunity, what was in your mind when you came here? What were you looking for?

Frank McCourt Interview Photo
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.

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 I had to deal with something else that people rarely talk about. It's an ethnic story in a way.

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. People who -- 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.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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

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.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

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This page last revised on Sep 09, 2013 14:23 EST
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