What Defines a Memoir?

It has been repeatedly said and stated time and again. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us has experiences to share. Each of us has a voice that is raring to be heard through the hubbub that is drowning the world. We want others to be inspired by our stories, by how we survived our own debilitating circumstances. Our intentions are pure for we only want to be heard and to encourage others.

In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, Irish teacher and writer Frank McCourt details his childhood. He was born in the United States to Irish immigrants Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan McCourt. Malachy’s chronic alcoholism and inability to keep any decent job caused his young family to struggle with poverty. Despite Angela’s schemes, Malachy always ends up losing his job.

A spark of hope lit up with the birth of Margaret. Malachy dropped drinking and found a steady job only to be crushed by Margaret’s untimely passing. Angela suffered depression, forcing Frank to take care of his younger siblings. Cognizant of the family’s worsening conditions, their neighbors contacted Angela’s cousins who, in turn, contacted Angela’s family in Limerick, Ireland. With her family’s persuasion, the McCourt,s including the pregnant Angela, sailed on a ship go her hometown. What awaits them in their native Ireland? Will things look up or will they get further pushed towards the quagmires of destitution.

“He says, you have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” ~ Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

One of the most impressionable phases of our lives is our childhood. It is during our childhood that many of our perspectives of the world are developed. Most of our memories might be muddled by further experiences but it remains to be one of the most important stages in our lives. In his own way, McCourt appealed to the younger version of himself to reflect on his own childhood.

The destitution, the charitable institutions, the drunken father, the Catholicism. These words are the stereotypes of the Irish childhood, and of Irish society as portrayed in many a movie and many a literary piece. It was also in this unfavorable setting that the young writer found himself in. It is, to say the least, the most unidealistic environment to grow up in.

The young McCourt, despite the odds, tried to see the silver lining beyond his harrowing childhood. Rather than be overwhelmed by the unmistakable stench of squalor that his environment reeked of, he scrubbed off the smell and tried his best to be a young man on his own. A normal person would have been weighed down by these abhorrent conditions. However, the young McCourt has an indomitable resolve and he relied on this resolve to sail to better waters.

“There’s no use saying anything in the schoolyard because there’s always someone with an answer and there’s nothing you can do but punch them in the nose and if you were to punch everyone who has an answer you’d be punching morning noon and night.” ~ Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

McCourt’s imaginative and crafty writing painted on a blank canvass a vivid picture of Limerick that was struck by the Depression. His writing, full of verve and purpose, drew the rough contours of his mother’s hometown. But there was something behind McCourt’s language that is in need of an answer. Despite his uncanny manner of obscuring details, there was a bitterness in McCourt’s description of Limerick that is perhaps the byproduct of his own tumultuous childhood.

Despite McCourt’s illuminating story, there was something that was so disconnected between the author and the reader. The story, itself, also and the author himself feels emotionally distant. At times, he felt like a caricature. There was in the processing of complex emotions. Rather than a fully developed person looking from the inside out, McCourt came across as a spectator in his own story. If it even is a story.

McCourt’s acuity and keen observations drew up a descriptive picture of Limerick. His language was beautiful and his writing, in the long tradition of Irish authors, was simply impeccable. His writing is faultless, at least to some extent. It is easy to get lost in the memoir’s flowing words. Whilst his writing made the story flourish, it also worked against it. In the end, his lyrical description of Depression-struck Limerick obscures an undercurrent that disrupts the overall flow of the narrative.

McCourt weaved a formidable literary fort that it took sometime before its flaws began exposing themselves. The prose that used to flow suddenly turned into a verbose bile that taints Limerick and its institutions. It is a sly but palpable effort to hurl a literary attack on the city of his childhood. His flowery words laced his family’s circumstances with a veneer of superficiality. The squalor that McCourt portrayed came out as over-romanticized, over-sensationalized. With the cloak of invincibility pierced, a pack of lies surfaced and what was supposed to be a luminous memoir was reduced into a work of exaggeration.

“There’s no use asking more questions. If you ask a question they tell you it’s a mystery, you’ll understand when you grow up, be a good boy, ask your mother, ask your father, for the love o’ Jesus leave me alone, go out and play.” ~ Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

The memoir’s superfluousness made it vulnerable to attacks and heavy literary criticism, especially from Limerick locals. Despite McCourt’s writing prowess, and whatever pure intentions that he might have had, what surfaces is an apparent attempt to shroud truth with a cloak of lies. He tried to exonerate himself by saying that it was more of a creative attempt rather than a statement of real events. His literary endeavor is then wanting of the question, “What defines a memoir?”.

Reading Angela’s Ashes is a akin to watching a melodrama on a black and white screen. There was too much drama and there were too many unnecessary props. McCourt came across as a whiny young man, rather than a young man that beacons with hope despite the squalor.

Ratings:

33%

Characters (30%) – 5%
Plot (30%)
 – 5%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%

To be honest, I was in awe of the writing. It has that trademark Irish quality that is lyrical and compelling. Of the memoir’s elements, it was the one that drew me in. I had the same experience with fellow Irish author, Sally Rooney in her latest work, Normal People. It is also the beauty of the writing that made me forget what it was – a memoir. When I was reminded of this, the entire structure fell apart.

What was supposed to be a luminous and inspiring memoir was reduced to an over-romanticized and over-sensationalized picture of what poverty looks like in Ireland. The author himself basically admitted that it is not just a mere memoir. Had it been otherwise, it was still an implausible story. I don’t question McCourt’s intent to inspire but he went out of line in this one.

Book Specs

Author: Frank McCourt
Publisher:
Scribner
Publishing Date: 1996
Number of Pages: 363
Genre: Autobiography

Synopsis

So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy – exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling – does nurture in Frank an appetite for one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.

Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank’s survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors – yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness.

About the Author

Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York City on August 19, 1930 to Irish immigrants, Malachy McCourt and Angela Sheehan.

At the height of the Great Depression, his family moved back to Ireland, first to Dublin before returning to Limerick, his mother’s hometown. In Limerick, they lived in the slums as Malachy Senior was unable to keep a steady job because of his alcoholism. When he was 19-years old, McCourt left for New York City. Back in the city of his birth, he started earning, even sending back a hefty sum to his mother.

During the Korean War, he got drafted and was sent to Bavaria to initially train dogs then as a clerk. After his discharge, he used his GI Bill education benefits and managed to talk his way into New York University. After graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, he taught in various New York schools. In 1967, he earned his master’s degree at Brooklyn College.

In 1997, McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his memoir, Angela’s Ashes (1996). He also  wrote ‘Tis (1999), which is the sequel to his first work, and Teacher Man (2005), which details his experiences and challenges as a teacher.

McCourt passed away on July 19, 2009 after being diagnosed with melanoma.