New York Frank McCourt, the beloved raconteur and former public school teacher who enjoyed post-retirement fame as the author of “Angela’s Ashes,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “epic of woe” about his impoverished Irish childhood, died Sunday of cancer.
McCourt, who was 78, had been gravely ill with meningitis and recently was treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer and the cause of his death, said his publisher, Scribner. He died at a Manhattan hospice, his brother Malachy McCourt said.
Until his mid-60s, Frank McCourt was known primarily around New York as a creative writing teacher and as a local character — the kind who might turn up in a New York novel — singing songs and telling stories with his younger brother Malachy and otherwise joining the crowds at the White Horse Tavern and other literary hangouts.
But there was always a book or two being formed in his mind, and the world would learn his name, and story, in 1996, after a friend helped him get an agent and his then-unfinished manuscript was quickly signed by Scribner. With a first printing of just 25,000, “Angela’s Ashes” was an instant favorite with critics and readers and perhaps the ultimate case of the non-celebrity memoir, the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I’ve proven him wrong,” McCourt later explained. “And all because I refused to settle for a one-act existence, the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”
The book has been published in 25 languages and 30 countries.
McCourt, a native of New York, was good company in the classroom and at the bar, but few had such a burden to unload. His parents were so poor that they returned to their native Ireland when he was little and settled in the slums of Limerick. Simply surviving his childhood was a tale; McCourt’s father was an alcoholic who drank up the little money his family had. Three of McCourt’s seven siblings died, and he nearly perished from typhoid fever.
“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” was McCourt’s unforgettable opening. “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty, the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.”
The book was a long Irish wake, “an epic of woe,” McCourt called it, finding laughter and lyricism in life’s very worst.