This week I read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. It is possible that I am actually the last person on earth to read this book, which was published to crazy acclaim in 1996 and won a Pulitzer Prize for autobiography in 1997. (Although I’d call it a memoir more than a biography. In fact, it calls ITSELF a memoir; it’s right there in the title.) (But different people have different definitions of memoir vs. autobiography, and…never mind. We’ll get to it.)
It’s beautifully, beautifully written…but so, so painful to read. As the founding entry in the miserable-childhood literature genre…it’s grim, man.
Ashes tells the story of McCourt’s poverty-stricken childhood in Depression-era Limerick, Ireland. From the first page:
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is—-hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
“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 alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”
Indeed, McCourt’s childhood seems to hit every poor Irish stereotype there is. His father can’t hold on to a job due to drinking; his mother is pregnant seven times in ten years. Both immigrants to America, they meet and marry in New York in 1930, but come back to Ireland after their fifth child, and only girl, dies at seven weeks old. Neither of them able to cope with their grief (not to mention four other kids age 4 and under), they go first to Northern Ireland to the McCourt father’s home. Unwelcome, they then venture to Limerick, where Angela McCourt, Frank’s mother, grew up. Her family doesn’t want them any more than his family did, but with nowhere else to go, they stay on.
There follows a childhood of grinding poverty, starvation, and regular physical abuse at the hands of schoolmasters; and a sure knowledge that an 8th-grade education and a role as a messenger boy is about all Frank and his friends can look forward to thanks to a class system that’s every bit as strong in Ireland as in England. I kept waiting and waiting for SOMEthing good to happen to poor Frank (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
Ashes covers Frank’s life up until he leaves Ireland at age 19. By now, everyone knows how it all turned out: Frank arrived in America with his 8th-grade education, “talked his way” into NYU, graduated with an English degree, and taught high-school English in the New York public-school system for 40 years until publishing Ashes in 1996. Irish boy made good.
(Before we go further, though, I really need to get this off my chest. Even though it’s a memoir, Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer
Prize for autobiography [the Pulitzers don’t have a category for memoir, so it’s autobiography or nothing. This is wrong]. Ben Yagoda actually wrote a book about memoirs [MEMOIR: A History], in which he uses the words “memoir” and “autobiography” interchangeably, and defines the genre as a “book understood by its author, its publisher and its readers to be
a factual account of the author’s life.” This is also wrong. In my opinion [and, I thought, everyone else’s; but maybe I’m alone in this], autobiographies are the full story of a person’s life thus far, and most often are written by someone who’s already famous [or their ghostwriter]. Memoirs can be written by famous people, but can be and often are written by “nobodies.” Memoirists write about their life, or a piece of it, through a particular lens, a certain set of experiences: they write about what is, in their view, the most significant piece of what makes them who they are. Where autobiographies deal in established facts, memoirs deal quite literally in memory. So Arthur Ashe’s book Days of Grace: A Memoir is actually an autobiography even though it calls itself a memoir; but Angela’s Ashes, though a true memoir, was honored as an autobiography. Sorry, Yagoda and the Pulitzer committee, there’s a difference. [I know I digress, but…it’s good to get that out there. It’s been bugging me.])
Autobiographies are the kind of thing we read in order to learn more about how “great” people became great. They mean to inspire, to share their road to success, to foster in the rest of us dullards a desire to achieve. Memoirs, though, are egalitarian; anyone can write one, about anything. And about 20 years ago, a lot of people started writing about miserable childhoods.
McCourt’s memoir, his first book, launched a genre: a special brand of memoir devoted to horrific childhoods that became known as “mis lit” in the UK (by detractors; publishers called it “inspirational memoir”). Some of the best-known U.K. examples published in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s include Kathy’s Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries by Kathy O’Beirne, and Damaged by Cathy Glass. Childhood experiences that many people, however wrongly, previously saw as cause for shame became things authors felt proud to have overcome, and writing a memoir about it no doubt was a way to exorcise some demons. (The standard-bearer on our side of the pond is Mary Karr, who wrote The Liars’ Club about her mother’s mental illness, her father’s alcoholism, and her own experience of sexual abuse at age 8.)
British publishers were surprised at the success of the genre; they thought the concept of mis lit was much more American in nature (hmmm…), and that Brits wouldn’t want to hear tell-all confessionals or get into the nitty-gritty of personal lives. They couldn’t have been more wrong; memoirs have become perhaps the dominant literary form of our times, and the Brits ate them up just like us pathetic Yanks.
Is it any wonder why this kind of tell-all seems more American in nature? Social media has made us used to far less privacy than we used to have, but long before that we had Jerry Springer, and more recently Dr. Phil, who’ve both made a lot of money from “regular” people baring their worst secrets to the world in a wildly popular, uniquely American format. Our culture of talk therapy and a general increase in the collective sense of victimhood all play into it as well.
By the mid-’00s, mis lit was experiencing genre fatigue. Many began to register skepticism with the accounts that were flooding the market; Kathy’s Story was found to be almost completely fiction. In addition, there’s been a subtle questioning about whether, frankly, having a crappy childhood is all that noteworthy. (I’d argue that for the survivors, it’s plenty noteworthy. If a writer needs to purge some shattering experiences and some of his/her readers feel less ashamed and stigmatized as a result; as long as the memoir is truthful to that writer’s experience, helping people feel less alone is reason enough to exist.)
But that’s the critical question: “truth” in memoirs. Yagoda describes memoirs/autobiographies as “book[s] understood by [the] author…and [the] readers to be a factual account of the author’s life,” but it’s a rare memoir that isn’t challenged by at least a few disbelievers. As far back as the Civil War era, the occasional slave memoir was found to have been invented wholesale by abolitionists anxious to convince others of the righteousness of their cause. More recently, James Frey was famously called on the carpet on television by Oprah herself, in what he claimed was an unexpected ambush, for the many significant untruths in his “memoir,” later marketed as fiction. (People, do NOT piss off Oprah.
Maybe we can’t, and shouldn’t, forgive the James Freys of the world…but I think there’s room for some leeway in most memoir. Frank McCourt has certainly been confronted about minor untruths in Ashes, and his mistakes haven’t made it a lesser book. For example, one scene describes a young friend selling peeks at his own sister through a bedroom window. It’s a humorous episode in the book, involving shinnying up a drainpipe which then peels away from the house resulting in injury and the mission’s failure. However, contemporaries of McCourt’s still living in Limerick have pointed out that that particular friend didn’t even have a sister. Likely McCourt (who admitted that particular mistake) conflated this memory with another friend, but that doesn’t mean the episode didn’t happen. He’s acknowledged that other factual mistakes could also exist; however, he was careful to also point out that “I wrote my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that’s what I experienced and what I felt.”
Isn’t this what all of us are doing, every single day? It’s the very nature of memoir; and of being human. This is what we do. A story about our miserable childhood might gloss over some good memories; we might easily forget the enjoyable trips with the Boy Scouts (as McCourt has been accused of) not because they didn’t happen, but because that’s not what this particular story is about. We all tell our stories through a lens, of one kind or another.
There’s been an interesting generational gap in how natives of Limerick view McCourt these days. Younger generations claim him as one of their own, and point with pride to the fact that a poor boy from “the lanes” of Limerick could win a Pulitzer Prize.
You can even take a “Frank McCourt” walking tour of Limerick.
On the other hand, when Ashes was published, many of McCourt’s generation were resentful about how the poor of Limerick were portrayed. A feeling of “airing dirty laundry” led some of them to disapprove of McCourt’s work; they showed up at local book-signings to complain that McCourt had exaggerated some of the worst of his experience. Only the occasional contemporary of McCourt’s admitted their support: One reader interviewed at a Limerick book-signing noted, “When he was speaking about himself I thought he might as well be speaking about me” another noted that he’d read the book three times and called the negative feedback “begrudgery:” “The only people who are against it are Limerick people because they don’t want to admit it was like that.”
The precise nature of the truth depicted in the story doesn’t have to affect its value as a book. As Ben Yagoda says, “The [memoir] boom has spawned hundreds – if not thousands – of worthwhile books. Many have shed light on an impressive variety of social, ethnic, medical, psychological, regional and personal situations. And many are just plain good. The…boom, for all its sins, has been a net plus for the cause of writing.’’
Agree? Disagree? Let me know.
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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