An Evening of Memoir
Who could have predicted that the impoverished urchin of Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996) would scale the publishing world’s literary heights to become a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of a book whose print run is over three million copies? “I’m a late bloomer,” McCourt quiped. The three million copies are, he says, “surreal. It’s like the U.S. deficit. I don’t comprehend those kind of numbers. The first printing of 27,500 sounded like a lot. Now, it’s gone beyond me.”
McCourt’s beginnings, as he recounts, were anything but promising. He was born in 1930 in Depression-era Brooklyn to two hapless parents, who took the family back to Ireland after the death of their baby daughter Margaret. In the sodden slums of Limerick, where two more toddlers died, they eked out a meager existence. McCourt’s father drank the few wages he earned, and his defeated mother, Angela, wept by the fire and was ultimately reduced to beggary after his father deserted the family. Yet out of Angela’s ashes, Phoenix-like, McCourt has created a remarkable testimony to endurance and resilience. Whether describing the pig’s head for Christmas dinner, the feasting of fleas on his flesh, the reek of the public lavatory next to his home, or his drunken father’s rousting of the children from bed to recite a vow to die for Ireland, McCourt holds his readers in awe of all he has withstood.
The memoir was long in its making. For 27 years, McCourt taught high school English, first at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island, then at Peter Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Decades ago, he tried following the advice he gave his students in his creative writing classes—write what you know, write about your family. But his initial effort with the working title “If you Live in a Lane” (lane is synonymous with slum) was serious and self-righteous. McCourt set it aside. (In the wake of his huge success, he keeps the manuscript so he’ll stay humble.)
Though he temporarily put down his pen, McCourt continued warming up. Rehearsing his stories, he became a well-known raconteur in New York City’s Irish bar scene, and in 1984, he and his brother, Malachy, mounted a two-man cabaret show, “A Couple of Blackguards,” wherein they traded anecdotes about life in Limerick. (Malachy has his own version of the story titled A Monk Swimming). Only after he had retired from teaching was McCourt able to set himself seriously to the task: “All along, I wanted to do this book badly,” he says. “I would have to do it or I would have died howling.”
McCourt found his voice for the book when babysitting his four-year-old granddaughter. He noticed her spare, straightforward language: “It was just when I was beginning the book, and I had this extraordinary illumination, or epiphany. Children are almost deadly in their detachment from the world. They want to survive, they need food, they need drink, and they need to learn. But they’re not emotional. They are absolutely pragmatic, and they tell the truth, and somehow that lodged in my subconscious when I started writing the book.” He didn’t want charming and lyrical—clichéd notions of Irish storytelling; he wanted lice-ridden and real.
Few influences are more pervasive than growing up devoutly Catholic. Born in 1948, Mary Gordon was the only child of a father all the more resolutely Catholic for being a convert from Judaism and a mother, half Irish and half Italian, whose Irish strain, in Gordon’s words, “drowned out” the Italian. “I grew up in a world dominated by a very insular, working-class Irish Catholicism,” says Gordon of the neighborhood just southeast of Queens where she was raised. She was schooled by nuns for 12 years; she attended mass daily with her mother, a secretary; and upon the death of her father (an intellectual of sorts who nourished her love for learning) when she was seven, she found herself in a pious household of a mother and an aunt, both afflicted by polio, and an elderly grandmother.
On schedule with adolescence, Gordon became, as she puts it, “properly irreligious,” moving from a fascination with sainthood and an immortal soul to an absorption in art and literature (Good Boys and Dead Girls, 1991). Hoping to rub elbows with Jewish intellectuals like those she’d come to know through J. D. Salinger’s fiction, Gordon accepted a scholarship to Barnard College. “I simply wanted to meet Seymour Glass. My instincts, I believe, were completely right.” After Barnard (B.A., 1971), Gordon pursued graduate studies in literature at Syracuse University and also started writing short stories, many of which were published. While working on a dissertation on Virginia Woolf, she began a novel. Married by this time to an Englishman, Gordon was researching Woolf at the British Museum when she was seized by an impulse to write a letter describing her day to novelist Margaret Drabble. Drabble phoned her, invited her to dinner, read her manuscript, and introduced her to her agent, who signed Gordon up. That manuscript became the novel Final Payments (1978), and at age 29, Gordon had a bestseller.
Understandably, Gordon bristles at the label “Catholic novelist.” She has, however, been known to quote Flannery O’Connor, who said you learn everything important you need to write by the age of six. Asked what she imbibed from Catholicism, Gordon replied, “I think I learned the importance of story. I think I learned the pleasure-bearing aspect of language. I think I had experiences of real formal beauty in Catholic liturgy. I think I knew about secrets and lies, although I didn’t know that I knew it. And I think I didn’t expect that human life was about happiness.” (Ploughshares).
Gordon’s novels eschew the perfect and the ideal to expose the raggedness of human life—our secrets and lies, quarrels and complicities, messy relationships, and moral conundrums. She has published novels, short stories, essays, and memoir. Her fourth novel, The Other Side(1989), is her fullest account of the complications of family. Gordon assembles five generations of an Irish immigrant family, revealing the indelible influences of family members on one another.
In The Shadow Man (1996), Gordon sifts through the layers of her father’s lies and her own adoration to discover the painful actuality of David Gordon. There was no Harvard, no Paris, as he’d claimed, but a job as a clerk for the B&O Railroad; even more unsettling, his views were stridently anti-Semitic and right-wing, and the “humor” magazine he’d published was banal soft porn.
Excerpt taken from Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996)
Mam comes back up to Italy and sits by the fire wondering where in God’s name she’ll get the money for a week’s rent never mind the arrears. She’d love a cup of tea but there’s no way of boiling the water till Malachy pulls a loose board off the wall between the two upstairs rooms. Mam says, Well, ’tis off now and we might as well chop it up for the fire. We boil the water and use the rest of the wood for the morning tea but what about tonight and tomorrow and ever after? Mam says, One more board from that wall, one more and not another one. She says that for two weeks till there’s nothing left but the beam frame. She warns us we are not to touch the beams for they hold up the ceiling and the house itself.
Oh, we’d never touch the beams.
She goes to see Grandma and it’s so cold in the house I take the hatchet to one of the beams. Malachy cheers me on and Michael claps his hands with excitement. I pull the beam, the ceiling groans and down on Mam’s bed there’s a shower of plaster, slates, rain. Malachy says, Oh God, we’ll all be killed, and Michael dances around singing, Frankie broke the house, Frankie broke the house.
We run through the rain to tell Mam the news. She looks puzzled with Michael chanting, Frankie broke the house, till I explain there’s a hole in the house and it’s falling down. She says, Jesus, and runs through the streets with Grandma trying to keep up.
Excerpt from Mary Gordon’s The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father (1996)
I have lunch at an overlarge diner in a shopping mall where half the stores are vacant. The woman in the booth across from me has a black eye. Her hair is stringy; I think she’s younger than I, but she’s so haggard it’s hard to tell: she could be anything from twenty to fifty. The man she’s with, who has a greasy ponytail and is wearing a leather jacket, is saying, quite loudly, “You understand why I have to do it? You understand, right?” And she is nodding and nodding and telling him to be quiet, but not too firmly, and finally she stops and lets him go on.
“I just need to know that you understand.”
I want to say the same thing to my father. I want to ask him for the same kind of understanding, the same forgiveness. I order a Swiss burger, something I don’t even like. I can’t finish it, and the coffee is very bad. I go out again to the unbearable weather, back to the library. I make a few notes in my notebook, but they aren’t really necessary: what I saw is burned into my skull. I go back to the hotel; I’m about to be interviewed.
“I had to do it, I had to do it,” I say to my father, whose eyes stare at me from the picture I brought….”I’m sorry,” I tell the face, the face that is my origin and my source, my placement and safety. “Above all, I’m sorry to be talking about you to strangers. To a newspaper. But I’m trying to find something out.” I can’t even use the words “the truth” to my father. What I can say is only this: “I am trying to dig up the bones you buried.”
Selected WorkFrank McCourtTis’ (1998)Angela’s Ashes (1996)Mary GordonSpending (1998)The Shadow Man (1996)The Rest of Life (1993)Good Boys and Dead Girls (1991)The Other Side (1989)The Company of Women (1980)Final Payments (1978)
LinksPBS interview with McCourtReading group guide to McCourt’s Angela’s AshesThe Atlantic Monthly interview with GordonReading group guide to Gordon’s The Shadow Man