Gone too soon.
July 19, 2009 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Author and educator Frank McCourt, dead at 78.
posted by blaneyphoto (62 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
posted by brujita at 4:42 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by Donnie VandenBos at 4:44 PM on July 19, 2009

Mod note: Please take the complaints to the open and relevant obit-etiquette metatalk thread and refrain from willfully shitting in the blue, thanks.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:52 PM on July 19, 2009

Another link.

I just listened to himself reading this on audio book. Amazing storyteller, RIP.
posted by rainbaby at 4:56 PM on July 19, 2009

Full disclosure: I hadn't really heard of him before I clicked that link. Someone suggested to read the book in passing, but I didn't get around to it. Now I am tempted to purchase one of his books ASAP. His story seems interesting. Sadly, it seems to have drawn to a close.

posted by Askiba at 4:57 PM on July 19, 2009

I suppose I didn't notice at the time, but Angela's Ashes was one of the first grown-up books I ever read.

posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 4:58 PM on July 19, 2009

It was hilarious, by the way (in spite of all the misery, etc).
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 5:00 PM on July 19, 2009

Oh, fuck.

posted by shakespeherian at 5:02 PM on July 19, 2009

Rest in peace, Mr McCourt. Thanks for somehow, someway, explaining teenage days to the confused teenager I was, by describing your own. I didn't like how James Joyce wrote, and then I read you. You made it seem like a perfectly normal way of writing. Thanks for Angela's Ashes, and thanks for writing Teacher Man just as my father was going back into teaching. I haven't read Teacher Man yet, but I gave it to my father anyway, and he liked it. (He loved Angela's Ashes, too.)

I'll drink a pint for you tonight.

posted by Xere at 5:04 PM on July 19, 2009

A loss to the Stuy community.
posted by 1adam12 at 5:04 PM on July 19, 2009

I interviewed him for an hour or so about two years ago. He was not sweet or grandfatherly or playing up his old country Irish roots -- he was a driven, determined man who talked at length about how power corrupts, how authority, especially religious authority, can twist and ruin people's lives, and how you have to find joy through decency, justice and a fiery commitment to telling the truth. I liked him immensely and reread all of his work with more attention. I realized that for all their humor, his books are intense and pointed efforts to redress the wrongs of the past and save people in the present from their desire to be told what to do.

posted by matthewstopheles at 5:06 PM on July 19, 2009 [8 favorites]

Met him, liked him, sad to see him go. I'm pouring myself a shot of Power's.

posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:07 PM on July 19, 2009

Angela's Ashes is one of my favorite books of all time, and one that I reread on a regular basis. It's one of those rare gems that devastates me and uplifts me at the same time. (If any of you are thinking about reading it, don't see the movie because it pales in comparison). I've also read the sequels; they don't have the same power as the first, although they're worth reading in their own right.

RIP Frank.
posted by amyms at 5:08 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by candyland at 5:10 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by EatTheWeek at 5:11 PM on July 19, 2009

I enjoyed Teacher Man as you really got a sense of his life's work, which happened well before he became a best selling author.

Thanks Frank - the world is a better place having had you in it.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 5:13 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by Halloween Jack at 5:19 PM on July 19, 2009

I don't know that I like Angela's Ashes as much as a lot of people do. But when I was teaching high school, I really felt validated by Teacher Man, McCourt's struggles were so much like my own as a naturally shy, intellectual but tougher-than-I-looked teacher faced with a roomful of urban teenagers and nobody really on my side. The conventional wisdom is to be stern, swagger, be a hardass, but that's not my style, and it wasn't his either, and he basically affirmed that that's ok. "Leave them alone and they'll come home," he said. I don't know if that's true, honestly, but it's such a radical sentiment when applied to teenagers or even just other human beings that I want to embrace it.
posted by molybdenumblue at 5:24 PM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

'Tis gone.

posted by jonp72 at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by Ike_Arumba at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2009

May you be in Heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you're dead, Frank. RIP.
posted by deadmessenger at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Video links to McCourt discussing Teacher Man and Angela and the Baby Jesus. He also co-created the two man play, A Couple of Blaguards, with his brother Malachy McCourt, himself a writer and actor.

Also, Dave Barry and Frank McCourt on education in America.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:32 PM on July 19, 2009

A fine writer.

posted by languagehat at 5:33 PM on July 19, 2009

Ah tis a shame.

My husband and I both love to quote from Angela's Ashes particularly the part about Jesus not "sporting" shoes on the cross. A bittersweet, hilarious book about the cruelty of poverty and the shameful attitudes of the Catholic church. Truly one of the greatest memoirs ever written. I'm so glad that he got out of Ireland and returned to America where he had the chance to become a teacher and write his books.

Much love and respect, Frank.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:48 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by contessa at 5:53 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by kjh at 6:02 PM on July 19, 2009

you have to find joy through decency, justice and a fiery commitment to telling the truth.

That made me widen my eyes a bit. Frank McCourt was a wonderful writer and Angela's Ashes is an excellent, excellent book. But there was so much in it that wasn't factually true. And sadly, McCourt seems to have been an embittered man as well as an extremely talented one. This isn't to take away from his accomplishments, of course, which were considerable. He gave us so much. And so...

posted by orange swan at 6:19 PM on July 19, 2009

Ah, shit.

posted by Opposite George at 6:28 PM on July 19, 2009

Rest in Peace, Teacher Man. The hunger, fish and chips nadir in Angela's Ashes will stand in my mind until I die. Thank you.
posted by effluvia at 6:32 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A bittersweet, hilarious book about the cruelty of poverty and the shameful attitudes of the Catholic church.

For the less sweet side, see the Irish Commission on Inquiry into Child Abuse. It documents horrific treatment of children at the hands of Irish priests and nuns.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:37 PM on July 19, 2009

seven years ago, i picked up "Angela's Ashes" at a used bookstore. i was in a reading rut at the time, and put the book i was reading on hold to start my new purchase. Frank McCourt's writing style brought me out of my rut immediately - i stayed up all night to finish the book. it was joyful and devastating at the same time - a great read. though it wasn't as popular, i liked "'Tis" a great deal too. "Teacher Man" was awesome to read as a student doing practice teaching and volunteer placements.

in my second year of university, McCourt spoke at U of T. because of a heavy workload at school and inconvenient bus schedules from St. Catharines to Toronto, i decided not to attend. i realized about a year ago that not going is one of my biggest regrets..and i don't have many. now i'm really kicking myself.

rest in peace, Mr. McCourt. you taught many people great things, and i am happy to count myself among them.
posted by gursky at 6:38 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by brandz at 6:49 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by Schlimmbesserung at 6:50 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:53 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by ameliajayne at 7:06 PM on July 19, 2009

Here's to you, Frank McCourt. I didn't realize it at the time, clueless teen that I was, but you were definitely one of the best teachers I ever had.

posted by PsychoKick at 7:39 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by Phlogiston at 7:41 PM on July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes accomplished many things. Not only was it brilliantly written, but for many Irish, or of Irish heritage (more than 12% of the American population), it was a cultural truth telling of an old lifestyle, that of the alcoholic father, the martyred mother with many children living in grueling poverty, manipulated by the whole Catholic Church thing. By owning his past, he was able to take away a lot of the power of shame to silence and marginalize. I think, to some degree, his book had a significant, cathartic effect, not just for those of Irish ancestry but many who had an alcoholic parent.

An old friend, Fred Poole, created and runs Authetic Writing Workshops. He founded The Woodstock Memoir Festival and just this February Malachy, Frank and Alphie McCourt participated in the festival together.

Frank was a brave truth teller, passionate about cutting through the bs with determination and care, about being human, allowing others to be free and real, about being true. What an honorable life.

My condolences to his brothers, wife, daughter and extended family. May he rest in peace.
posted by nickyskye at 7:50 PM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

...well he had to go sometime I guess. A sad day all the same.

posted by marvin at 8:37 PM on July 19, 2009

From the NYT obit:

“I think there’s something about the Irish experience — that we had to have a sense of humor or die,” Mr. McCourt once told an interviewer. “That’s what kept us going — a sense of absurdity, rather than humor.

“And it did help because sometimes you’d get desperate,” he continued. “And I developed this habit of saying to myself, ‘Oh, well.’ I might be in the midst of some misery, and I’d say to myself, ‘Well, someday you’ll think it’s funny.’ And the other part of my head will say: ‘No, you won’t — you’ll never think this is funny. This is the most miserable experience you’ve ever had.’ But later on you look back and you say, ‘That was funny, that was absurd.’ ”
posted by TomSophieIvy at 8:46 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Shit. Angela's Ashes was incredibly moving when 16-year-old me read it for high school English.

posted by spitefulcrow at 8:47 PM on July 19, 2009

so then there I was at the pearly gates and christ if it wasn't saint peter himself and there he had this book with everything about my life and he asked me how I could throw up the body of christ and why I interfered with myself so much and I was thinking I'm never gonna get in but then jesus himself shows up and says he liked reading my books and how 'bout a pint and then I figured well maybe I'll get into this heaven place after all...
posted by Doohickie at 8:48 PM on July 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

posted by joannemerriam at 8:49 PM on July 19, 2009


posted by saturnine at 9:31 PM on July 19, 2009

I got the embittered and sarcastic vibe from him too, as well as being very impressed with his writing and respecting him as a wonderful raconteur. There was a definitely a hard edge to him along with the humor and smiling Irish eyes (which somehow also gave off a deep sadness) but given the hell that was his youth, he still did well not to let it take over and rule his life.
posted by Devils Slide at 9:31 PM on July 19, 2009

I learned from him to put mustard on my cheese sandwiches. Every time I have a cheese sandwich with mustard on it, I think of him and his story.
posted by tellurian at 9:34 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by exlotuseater at 9:52 PM on July 19, 2009

I was a little late to read Angela's Ashes. I didn't have to read it for school, I didn't know it had won the Pulitzer Prize, I knew almost nothing about it. I just knew the name had always turned me off for some unknown reason, my mind somehow putting it in the same category of titles as "Lorenzo's Oil" (also something I've never seen), things that sounded like staid uninspired dramas that I had no urge to read or watch (silly, I know). Since I didn't know anything about it besides the title, which didn't appeal to me, I never really sought out more information about it.

Then I found out what it was actually about. Then I heard it was good from my sister, whose recommendations I have always trusted. Most of all, I have an affinity for Ireland and Irish things, and a recent trip to Ireland at the time made me decide to read it.

I couldn't put it down. It ended up being one of my favorite books, and it caused me to go find 'Tis and read that as soon as I could, and then to seek out his brother Malachy's book and read that as well. I also finally read Teacher Man last year after meaning to do so for some time, which I found inspiring and gave me things to think about both as a student and someone who is considering teaching in the future. I am glad that Frank McCourt decided to share his voice, his ideas, and his experiences with the world. They have been a gift to many, including myself. Thank you, Mr. McCourt, for your words, for your example.
posted by wander at 10:30 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A fine writer, a fine teacher, and a good man.

posted by OolooKitty at 11:25 PM on July 19, 2009

posted by ruelle at 12:49 AM on July 20, 2009

posted by brevator at 4:21 AM on July 20, 2009


posted by jock@law at 7:29 AM on July 20, 2009

posted by jquinby at 7:46 AM on July 20, 2009

orange swan, I'm curious, can you link to something about the factual untruths in Angela's Ashes? I did some quick Googling but all I could come up with was that citizens of Limerick didn't like the way he characterized the city, and I don't really think that can be called a factual untruth -- more like getting one's nose out of joint.
posted by palomar at 9:25 AM on July 20, 2009

> But there was so much in it that wasn't factually true.

I too would like some backup on this.
posted by languagehat at 9:28 AM on July 20, 2009

As with most Irish success stories he had his detractors back home. Famous footage of him being challenged on the accuracy of Angelas Ashes on prime time Irish chatshow the Late Late Show by local Limerick crank Gerry Hannon.
posted by therubettes at 12:47 PM on July 20, 2009

Here's an interview with a radio broadcaster, Gerard Hannan, who talks about how when he discussed Angela's Ashes on his show he was overwhelmed with calls from Limerick's senior citizens, complaining about the inaccuracies.

A quote from the article:

LIMERICK.COM: You once told the media that you could pinpoint 117 inaccuracies in ANGELA'S ASHES what were the main ones?

HANNAN: Well the top three would be the story about Willie Harold masturbating at the sight of his own sisters undressing. Harold had no sisters. The story about Frank's mother having sexual relations as rent payment with her first cousin Laman Griffin. She never actually lived with him. The story about Treasa Carmody having oral sex with Frank on her deathbed; she died a long time before Frank says she did. There are others, I don't believe Malachy Snr was actually Frank's father, the McCourt's were not as poor as Frank claimed, the list goes on and on. The book was vindictive towards Limerick and it's people. There were plenty of scurrilous lies about innocent people and a lot of facts about the McCourt family were conveniently omitted. It's a fairy tale disguised as fact.

This obituary-style article in the Telegraph discusses the controversy over the inaccuracies in Angela's Ashes.
posted by orange swan at 12:56 PM on July 20, 2009

Dear God, I just watched a small part of the video therubettes posted — I couldn't watch more than the first few minutes. Gerard Hannon is an asshole. Doesn't make him wrong (or right) about the inaccuracies in Frank McCourt's work, but damn, he is someone I never, ever want to know.
posted by orange swan at 8:53 AM on July 21, 2009

posted by bone machine at 10:23 AM on July 21, 2009

At some point during the weekend's 1oth Anniversary debauchery this sobering news pierced the haze and made me sit at attention and I've been wondering what to say ever since...

I met the man briefly at Hunter College in Spring of 2008. He looked so much thinner than I expected from photos, his hair was snow white, and he was wearing a velvety type jacket that gave him a dandy-ish elegance, but make no mistake, this was a no bones about it tough tough strong determined and gifted man. The students and faculty assembled loved his reading. And there was no doubt about his toughness when I went up after and asked him to sign my copy of AA. There was an undercurrent of something irritable to his tone, and I attributed to perhaps his age and fatigue, but I also think that he'd already been diagnosed with something at that point. He had that fragile spectral quality older men sometimes get when they're ill.

But I think you have to understand this is a man who gave his whole life to putting together that one book that established him as the preeminent Irish-American writer of the last quarter century or so, and that doesn't happen without huge reserves of will and focus, but I'm sure he had so much more in him and like all talented and determined writers, I'm sure he felt, and wished that he'd been able to write and publish a whole lot more, even if he did deliver a bazillion copy selling contemporary classic.

Which brings me to Angela's Ashes. The thing most folks don't get is that memoir, as a genre is NOT AUTOBIOGRAPHY. It is art. It is storytelling. It is a writer's creative interpretation of the past and it is an act of imagination, it is the very same facility that allows someone the act of imagination that allows him or her to survive. In fact I think the two faculties are deeply related. Imagination is an act of survival and it is an act of creative understanding that allows one to go on, even in the face of the most horrible life circumstances, as Frank McCourt plainly went through, and emerge somehow still whole and still able to tell a story and laugh and own it and make other people laugh. It's an act of fantastic faith and courage. In short it is an act of heroism and its inspiration. We can in fact transcend even the worst life has to offer and make it something if not good, then at least better: A story, a something or other that is life-giving and not soul-killing.

As for this Hannon asswipe. It's just incredible people like him with such small, small, ignorant, fearful, pathetic lives, filled with death and despair and envy ready at a moments notice to shame and to try and bring down anyone who's dared to transcend their given misery and transform themselves, define themselves and altogether refuse point blank to let their past and the place they came from, limit them to the same cycle of despair. He's a familiar figure this Hannon fellow, because you see him all through Angela's Ashes in various guises, those ready to shame and drag down and judge and hurt. Hypocrites, with no compassion and no spiritual generosity determined to see to it no one is allowed to escape the misery, they're too stupid and unimaginative to transform into an act of love. You can only pity them and move on before they try and suck the life energy out of you like the psychic vampires they are. They are their own worst enemies and they don't even know it.

It's a first generation immigrant thing, but that mentality is what I believe, is a big factor in why so many poor came to this nation. To get away from that parasitic old-world mentality. To have some sort of self-actualization, away from that wallowing in those cycles of despair. So I guess you could say it's ironic that McCourt would still have to deal with that, but the fact that he got so under the skin of someone like Hannon, to me only means that McCourt touched on a much greater and deeper truth than as to simple day to day journalistic style re-telling. And that's the greatest feat of all.

There won't soon be another like him. But let's hope we don't have to wait too long. As we desperately need more Frank McCourts in the world.

posted by Skygazer at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

orange swan, thanks for the links you posted... I agree with you that Gerry Hannon is a righteous flaming dillhole, and I really can't decide if he's right or wrong about McCourt. My gut says maybe there was some exaggeration on McCourt's part (just like with pretty much all memoir writers), but that Hannon's very clearly got an axe to grind.
posted by palomar at 2:17 PM on July 21, 2009

I saw him read in Pasadena when Tis came out and someone asked him to sing one of the songs his father sang when he came home drunk...he seemed rather annoyed, but complied with "Kevin Barry". When Teacher Man came out, someone made the same request, but he refused.

I have a friend who had him as a teacher at Stuyvesant and I asked if he had the excuse note assignment; he said no, but the time he said "bullshit" in class, McCourt made him write an essay on the history of the toilet.
posted by brujita at 8:13 PM on July 21, 2009

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