Frank McCourt

After writing my last post, I began thinking about the ways in which the people of a certain nation are exposed to the characteristics of people of different cultures and nationalities than their own (whether within that nation or throughout the world). Specifically, I was interested in how various kinds of media (and especially more “historical” accounts of certain peoples) can greatly influence cultural understandings or perceptions of them within a nation. I also thought it important to note the reliability and potential agendas of the source producing that media, and whether even the most “personal” of accounts carry more weight than they originally set out to. In essence, I came to wonder at how we choose which sources to give more weight to in shaping our understandings of various cultures, how we deal with subjectivity, how we attempt to bridge the gap between cultures, and if we can even do the latter.

To this day, my father contends that Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt is “the greatest book ever written in the English language.” My father is not Irish (as was McCourt), but he is an immigrant and is also familiar with Irish history. Still, I believe that his love for the book stems from the way in which McCourt describes the struggles that he and his family faced upon moving to New York in the 1930s. I have only read part of the memoir, but there is something of the universal experience of the (impoverished) immigrant traveling to the U.S. and struggling to assimilate and thrive which is quite apparent and quite compelling within even the first few chapters. Angela’s Ashes also deals with his family’s interactions with the Irish community within New York.

Thus, I thought that Frank McCourt would be a good candidate for an important transnational figure. McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 to two Irish immigrant parents: Malachy and Angela Sheehan McCourt. From McCourt’s youth, his father squandered much of the family’s money on drinking; the family thus struggled with poverty. After one of McCourt’s siblings died, the family moved back to Limerick, Ireland, wherein their quality of life worsened. Angela’s Ashes describes the desperate circumstances under which McCourt’s family had to survive in Ireland while navigating through its poor economic conditions and its entrenched cultural, social, and religious expectations. It is only by the time McCourt is nineteen that he finally earns enough money to travel back to the United States to endeavor, as did his family, once again for a better life. McCourt passed away in 2009.

On one hand, with recountings like McCourt’s, a nation might come to understand the unique contexts (and especially struggles) that people of other nationalities face. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that McCourt was writing from his personal experience and perhaps did not intend for his memoir to become the account of the Irish immigrant experience that it did. What makes such an account so compelling?

Could it be, perhaps, that its portrayal of the hardship of immigration is actually transnational in nature? That Frank McCourt is a figure for the transnational experience within a person (pitting the Irish experience against the American one)?

Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996.


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