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‘Angela’s Ashes’ Author Frank McCourt Dies at 78

July 20, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Angela's Ashes," died Sunday at the age of 78. Roger Rosenblatt speaks with Margaret Warner about the author's influence on the literary world.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, remembering author Frank McCourt. He was profiled and interviewed on the NewsHour when he rose to fame in the 1990s. Margaret Warner has our appreciation.

MARGARET WARNER: “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, became a publishing phenomenon. It hit the best-seller list in 1996 and remained there for 115 weeks. The book sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and made McCourt, a retired New York City schoolteacher, a wealthy man.

“Angela’s Ashes” chronicled with wit and compassion what McCourt called his “miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” abandoned by an alcoholic father, losing three siblings to disease and malnutrition, and stealing to support his mother and remaining brothers.

Our Elizabeth Farnsworth spoke with McCourt when his book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. She asked him to read an excerpt.

FRANK MCCOURT: “I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him: the one in the morning with the paper, one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.”

“I feel sad over the bad thing, but I can’t back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father. And if I were in America, I could say, ‘I love you, Dad,’ the way they do in the films. But you can’t say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You must have been very angry for quite a while after this experience, losing so many members of your family, you being humiliated over and over again. Were you angry?

FRANK MCCOURT: Well, when I arrived in America at 19, I was a time bomb, and I continued like that for a long time. I couldn’t engage in any civilized discussion of anything because, if anybody opposed me, I would simply erupt. And I was always getting into trouble over this.

It took me years — I think it was in the classroom as a high school teacher — I finally became a civilized human being that had to listen to other points of view and present mine in a reasonable way.

First impressions of a new country

MARGARET WARNER: McCourt published a new book in 1999 and spoke with the NewsHour's Terence Smith.

TERENCE SMITH: We took Frank McCourt back to the old Stuyvesant high school in New York where he taught English for 18 years to talk about his new book.

Now, "Angela's Ashes" ended as the young Frank McCourt arrived in the United States, and the last word of the book was word of the book was "'Tis."

FRANK MCCOURT: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you remember your first impressions when you came to this country?

FRANK MCCOURT: Of New York?

TERENCE SMITH: And of New York, but...

FRANK MCCOURT: Oh, God. Gold, that was the main thing, because I sailed in on an October morning, one of those glorious autumn mornings, coming in -- that's before the Verrazano Bridge was built. You sail into the harbor, and Staten Island is on your left, and then you see the Statue of Liberty.

This is what everyone in the world has dreams of when they think about New York. And I thought, "My God, I'm in heaven. I'll be dancing down Fifth Avenue like Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers." That was going to be my life.

TERENCE SMITH: How much money did you have in your pocket?

FRANK MCCOURT: Fifty dollars, less than $50. I had spent some of it.

TERENCE SMITH: And today, a mere 40 years later...

FRANK MCCOURT: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: ... it is made of gold.

FRANK MCCOURT: It is made of gold, but it took a long time. And what has happened to me is beyond the wildest imagination of any screenwriter, any novelist. It's certainly beyond my imagination, because I never expected this. I never expected to write a book about a slum in Ireland that was going to catapult me, as they say, into some kind of -- onto the best-seller list.

MARGARET WARNER: Frank McCourt died yesterday in New York. He was 78 years old.

And some further thoughts now about Frank McCourt from another writer who knew him. Author and former NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt joins me from New York.

Hello, Roger. Frank McCourt, your friend, we know and late in life was wildly successful writer. How significant a writer do you think he was in literary terms?

Original language of Irish writers

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think he was a very significant writer. He wrote probably the best memoir of recent years and established the fact that a memoir was a work of literature -- a work of high literature and thus joined other Irish writers of other eras in giving us original language and beautiful thought on the subject of poverty and suffering and things that were hard to swallow, except in the hands of a first-class writer.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he taught creative writing for decades to high school students, yet he struggled. He was unable to write his own memoir until very late in his life. Did he ever talk to you about what it was that unlocked him, that enabled him to write such a painful story in such a graceful way?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Graceful is the key word. The idea of writing about so difficult a subject, such hard times, is not to write it with any self-pity or anything self-reflective or solipsistic or narcissistic, surely, but just to say, "This happened, and that happened."

When you have the goods, you don't need to dress up what you're writing. And I think it took awhile for Frank to understand that neither anger nor self-reflection were the ways into his story. His story was good enough on its own. And then, once he told it in this beautiful, plain language, that brought you to your knees.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, and he once said he wrote it actually in the voice of a young boy and that that had also, I remember, he said, helped him. Tell us what he was like as a person.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: He was like a young boy as a person. There was nobody who would make you laugh more than Frank. When he smiled, he was like a little boy, smiling. And when he would make himself laugh, which was unprofessional to be sure in a reading, but still, he would do it, then everybody just roared, because he would just surrender himself to the helplessness of laughter, the way a child does.

At the same time, as a friend, he was a most loyal friend. And you could count on him for anything. He was hardly without discriminations, but he was somebody who, if you had a cause worth supporting, if you had an event worth appearing at, he never thought of how he would look at that event or supporting that cause. He'd do it because it was the right thing to do. He was the person you never had to look around to see where he was. He was always with you.

Traces of the impoverished child

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, when you knew him, he was by then rich and famous, but were there still traces or more than traces of this impoverished kid from Limerick?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: He never would think of himself as rich and famous. He used to make a joke of it. He said, "I'm a big shot now," he would say, thus shooting down all the big shots of history.

And as for fame, he used it in the best possible way, to meet people and make his literature go abroad, and help other lives, and ennoble other lives, and make the world more beautiful.

He was wonderful, Margaret, to watch with an audience in a reading. You could see him foreign for the words as if he'd never said them before. He had said them before. But it was a kind of innocence with which he viewed the world, which, of course, made any kind of pride or foolish reaction to his own success out of the question.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as we just heard, he talked with Elizabeth about still the anger that certainly he'd had when he arrived and that he struggled with all his life. Did you still see traces of that?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: He could get angry at the right things. He could get angry at injustice. He could get angry at just the unfairness of a situation or of a calamity or of poverty itself.

But he wouldn't put anger in the writing. If you put anger in the writing, then it's like an actor crying on stage. The audience will not cry with the actor and in some way inure itself against the emotion.

But if you just say what's happening and say, in effect, here is why one might get angry at such facts, then he gives to the audience all the emotions that he has withheld from the prose.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, before we go, his Irishness, how central to his identity as a writer and a man?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: He hated the idea of the stage Irishman, although he would make fun of it. But he really was Irish in the sense of the -- in the best sense, in terms of being a great talker, because the Irish talk English better than anyone else.

And he was in the tradition of the Irish literary revival of Yates and of Joyce and later of O'Casey, John Millington Synge, and Lady Gregory, Behan. All the great Irish writers were able to make the world more beautiful through original language, and that's what Frank did.

MARGARET WARNER: Roger, Roger Rosenblatt, thank you so much.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Pleasure.