Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fare thee well, Frank McCourt

A modern day literary legend left us over the weekend;memoirist Frank McCourt died this past Sunday at the age of 78. Most of his life was not in the limelight,but he did reach out and touch many lives even before his books made bestseller lists worldwide. He was a high school English teacher for over 30 years,first at Ralph R. McKee Vocational School on Staten Island and then later at Stuyvesant High in Manhattan.

Part of his success as a teacher was due to his storytelling skills,which not only encourage his students to express themselves more creatively but eventually lead to McCourt writing about his own struggles in life.

His first book,Angela's Ashes,was a major success,staying strong on bestseller lists for over two years and being so popular in hardcover that the paperback release was delayed for quite awhile.

The tales of his hardscrabble childhood during the 1930s in Limerick,Ireland,where his family returned to live after finding little opportunity in America(mainly due to McCourt's father alcoholism)earned him a National Book Critics Circle Award as well as a Pulitzer Prize.

Angela's Ashes eventually became a major motion picture,with Emily Watson playing Frank's mother,the Angela of the title. The movie received mixed reviews but I thought it showcased the harsh realities of the book very well. While the film didn't get as many accolades as the memoir did,it still makes for a remarkable visual companion to the McCourt story:

His follow-up to Angela's Ashes was Tis,which went into his life as a young man going back to America and setting up a home in New York. I was still a new employee at the indie bookstore where I once worked when Tis came out and it was the first major book event that I participated in.

The shop had done a signing for Angela's Ashes,which was before my time there,making it easier for them to get a booking for Tis. People were excited at the thought of a new book by McCourt and even as they were heading for their seats in the auditorium we were using for his talk,copies of the books were selling like hotcakes fresh off the griddle.

He gave a wonderful talk,and generously signed many copies,including my own. When I went up on line with everyone else,my boss mentioned to him that I was one of the booksellers that night. He replied,"Ah,yes,she must be the salt of the earth." The good humor behind that comment charmed me and while my encounter with him was brief,it was one of the truly memorable moments of my literary life.

While Tis and his later book,Teacher Man,didn't have the same pop culture impact as Angela's Ashes did,both of those titles did help to round out McCourt's life story and bring forth his bold,warts and all approach to discussing both personal and public matters of concern.

McCourt was given a lot of criticism over the years,by folks who either doubted his word or wanted him to join lockstep in their overview on things. He,however,stuck to his guns and spoke from his heart. McCourt was a man who always seem to keep true to himself,not an easy thing to do for anyone in any social sphere:

McCourt also made the Irish experience come alive for many like me who are Americans of Irish descent but never really considered it to be anything unique or special. While Angela's Ashes was certainly not a rosy picture of a typical Irish childhood or cast the same reflection for everyone,it did open up interest for younger generations as well as encourage those who went before us to share their memories and history.

He helped to re-instill pride in teaching,a profession that doesn't always get the respect that it deserves. McCourt had to leave school at an early age,yet he had a fierce love of learning that drew him back to pursue a formal education. His passion for words and language served him well as a teacher and set a fine example for others to follow:

So,it is with a heavy heart that we say our goodbyes to Frank McCourt and send our heartfelt condolences to his loved ones. Mr. McCourt was an amazing individual,even if he had never put pen to paper about the details of his extraordinary time on this earth,and his influences on literature and life will be long remembered and cherished. Thank you,sir,for sharing your stories with us:

1 comment:

Ladytink_534 said...

I had the pleasure of reading Angela's Ashes while I was in high school I believe and parts of it still stick with me. I've always meant to read something else by him but never managed to. I may just have to re-read the book and sequels before I see the movie. Wonderful tribute post.