The bestseller status of Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis (1999) is definitely attributable to the enormous success of Angela’s Ashes, the memoir that transformed its teacher-turned-author into an overnight celebrity and Pulitzer Prize winner. Marketed as a sequel to McCourt’s first memoir, and promoted in numerous interviews and by a book tour, it is not surprising that ‘Tis was an instant bestseller. However, even though it made the annual bestseller list, the fate of ‘Tis does not resemble that of Angela’s Ashes. Still humorous, but darker in tone than its predecessor, ‘Tis fails to strike the same emotional chord with American audiences. For this reason, ‘Tis was met with mixed reviews and, consequently, has not garnered much critical or popular attention since its release.
Nonetheless, despite the memoir’s ability to easily fit into the category of bestsellers that succeed solely based upon their author’s name and the success of his or her preceding work(s), ‘Tis possesses numerous parallels with other twentieth century bestsellers. In ‘Tis, McCourt spotlights the difficulty for an Irish immigrant to arrive penniless in America and, even with hard work and determination, turn himself into a successful, self-made man. As the young McCourt struggles to shed his Irish identity, the memoir, via pointed, though humorous, observations of the persistent ethnic and class barriers in America, touches upon the idea of what it means to be an American. Though a work of nonfiction, ‘Tis reads like many popular American fictions, and taps into many of the themes that run through numerous twentieth century bestsellers. Therefore, ‘Tis can be placed into a category with other bestsellers that have an outsider protagonist who critiques the accepted social norms of society through his struggle to assimilate into.
Although the memoir was published in 1999, the story begins in 1949 when a nineteen-year-old Frank McCourt arrives via boat in New York. The narrative continues until the year 1985, following McCourt through his personal and professional ups and downs as an Irish-American living in New York City. From working odd jobs to serving in the military to putting himself through college to becoming an American high school English teacher, McCourt’s adventures reveal the ethnic, religious, cultural, professional, educational, and class divisions that exist in the United States.
Using the perspective of a newly arrived outsider, and then a disillusioned insider, ‘Tis’ tone grows with its developing protagonist. Though not a traditional Bildungsroman, ‘Tis is still a story of growth and development. The McCourt of ‘Tis must not only grow into a man, though; he must also develop into an American. Although the United States is a mixing pot of cultures and ethnicities, McCourt’s memoir illuminates the difficulty for mid-twentieth century immigrants in New York City to achieve the elusive American Dream.
When Frank sets sail for America from Ireland, he envisions New York City as the “city of my dreams where I’d have the golden tan, the dazzling white teeth” (15). However, he quickly realizes that it is not as easy to make himself over into an American—let alone achieve the dashing good looks of an American movie star—as he had initially presumed: “New York was the city of my dreams but now I’m here the dreams are gone and it’s not what I expected at all” (49). Moving from the boarding house of one frustrated immigrant to another, and forced to take jobs he can never tell anyone at home about—“They’d never believe me. They’d say, Go away ower that, and they’d laugh because all you have to do is look at the films to see how well off Americans are”—the America McCourt encounters is nothing like the one he anticipated (50).
What McCourt identifies as being the main obstacle prohibiting him from assimilation is the very thing he believed moving to America would erase: his status as an Irishman. McCourt quickly becomes aware of the impossibility of escaping his Irishness in America: “Why is it the minute I open my mouth the whole world is telling me they’re Irish and we should all have a drink?” (91); “If I didn’t have red eyes and an Irish accent I could be purely American” (180). Unable to cure his infected eyes or get rid of his brogue, McCourt is constantly labeled as Irish and foreign. Everyone he meets is either at least part Irish or has an opinion about the Irish, especially their fondness for alcohol: “All you people do is drink” (23); “What did you people ever do for the world besides drink?” (57); “I’m Italian an’ Greek an’ we have our problems but my advice to a young Irishman is this, Stay away from the booze” (277). Since Americans are predisposed to view him as a drunk, McCourt finds that being Irish in America means he has to dig himself out of a hole that he is not entirely responsible for.
Being Irish, however, does enable McCourt to find some sort of solidarity within a pocket of people in the United States. Although the drinking stereotype is something for which he is constantly berated (sometimes deservedly, sometimes not), he finds comfort in the Irish community created in and around the various Irish pubs in New York City: “When you’re Irish and you don’t know a soul in New York and you’re walking along Third Avenue with trains rattling along on the El above there’s great comfort in discovering there’s hardly a block without an Irish bar” (27). Amidst the confusion and loneliness of the city, Irish bars provide McCourt with a reassuring sense of familiarity and a type of home-away-from-home.
However, McCourt is not satisfied with being constantly labeled as Irish, a fact that seems to prohibit him from achieving the American Dream. He notes that it is “not enough to be American. You always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you’d wonder how they’d get along if someone hadn’t invented the hyphen” (91). He is forced to accept that he can never be simply American; he will always be Irish, always a foreigner. Similar to Leslie in Edna Ferber’s bestseller Giant (1952), McCourt will never be fully accepted as a local—within the country or the city—no matter how long he lives in the United States. Whether he is in the army in Germany, working the docks in the city, in class at New York University, or teaching on Staten Island, whenever “an Irish writer is mentioned, or anything Irish, everyone turns to me as if I’m the authority…. it’s the same with Catholicism…. I’d like to stand up…and announce…that I’m too busy to be Irish or Catholic” (179-180). He resents his outsider status, which only seems to call unwarranted and undesired attention to him, forever prohibiting him from being considered a “typical” American. Forced to work multiple jobs in order to put himself through school, pay rent, and provide for his family back in Limerick, McCourt has no time to read up on every Irish author and historical event in order to prove his worth as the expert on all things Irish.
It is precisely this outsider status, though, that enables McCourt to critique aspects of American society that go unnoticed by locals. This puts ‘Tis in conversation with other twentieth century bestsellers, such as, but not limited to, Giant, The Jungle (1906), White Oleander (1999), and even Pollyanna (1913). In Giant, Ferber uses the character of Leslie, a Maryland native turned Texan bride, to paint an image of Texas as a foreign land, while simultaneously calling attention to the deplorable treatment of Mexicans by wealthy, white Texans. The character of Jurgis in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposes the difficulty (if not the impossibility) for immigrant workers to build a sustainable life while working in the meat industry in Chicago. Janet Finch’s White Oleander focuses on Astrid, a young girl turned orphan when her mother is sent to jail, to explore America’s problematic foster care system. And in Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter uses the poor, orphan Pollyanna’s outsider status to highlight the importance for wealthy Americans to act charitably towards the less fortunate members of their own communities.
Although every one of these novels takes place in the United States, they have little in common in terms of plot, tone, structure, or even geographic location. However, each uses an outsider character to critique facets of American society. The central character of each exhibits a desire to fit in within his or her new community, yet also has the capacity to point out and challenge certain social norms and actions of the community in which he or she now resides. It is this ability to be immersed but, at the same time, distanced that enables the protagonists to highlight societal flaws. So although ‘Tis seems different from these other bestsellers, it shares the formal feature of having an outsider protagonist who opens readers’ eyes to local injustices.
‘Tis also fits into a tradition of “middle-class realistic novels,” novels that “mean to please and instruct middle-class America in all its diversity of social marking, economic position, political standing” (Hutner 1). Though an autobiographical work, McCourt taps into a strain of middle class realism popular in American fiction, spicing up his status as an undistinguishable Irish immigrant with humorous remarks and anecdotes. Whereas Porter uses Pollyanna’s naiveté to critique society, McCourt wields humor to access and animate the “reality” of his first decades in the United States. The humor makes both McCourt’s outsider status and his critiques of American life entertaining, rather than disparaging, which is why the book was not met with a storm of criticism.
Nonetheless, it was critiqued for not recreating the tone of Angela’s Ashes. Though funny, the mood produced by ‘Tis is not as light as that of the first memoir. McCourt’s employs a humorous, though at times frustrated and biting, tone that spares no one—including the author and his own family members—from its laughter. Using humor to deal with the trials that accompany adolescence, familial issues, immigration, and life in the United States, McCourt’s nonfiction work deals with many of the issues found in popular American fiction. It does not make class and ethnic divides as grim as The Jungle, but they are still obvious. Whereas the humor of Angela’s Ashes makes the experience of growing up in an impoverished family in Ireland more palatable, the humor of ‘Tis, because of McCourt’s outsider status, is more critical. Here, it does not merely serve to make a bleak subject matter easy to digest, but it also critiques flaws in American society.
For instance, McCourt is often bitter about the extra obstacles he faced as a foreigner in order to live in the United States. He states, for example, that if “I didn’t have to work in banks, docks, warehouses, I’d have time to be a proper college student and moan over the emptiness” (207). Due to the additional financial pressures on him he cannot idly chat about Camus and existentialism with the other NYU students.
However, his desire to be a part of the student body, to be just like everyone else, is consistent with the theme of achieving the American Dream in American bestsellers. He too values the university system; he too wants to have a Buick and a house in the suburbs. And though he wishes his “father and mother had lived respectable lives and sent me to college so that I could spend my time in bars and cafeterias telling everyone how I admired Camus for his daily invitation to suicide,” he knows that he must work harder to turn the American Dream into a reality for himself (207). Unlike Pollyanna, who is an orphan but has familial connections to support her, McCourt, an immigrant, cannot climb the socio-economic ladder through relationships alone. Similar to Jurgis, McCourt is part of a community of immigrants that struggles to survive, making it difficult to save up for and attain George Babbitt-like status within the middle class. He may be in America and inside of an American classroom, but he is still an outsider.
This is where the bitterness of tone that many critics have cited as their reason for not liking ‘Tis as much as Angela’s Ashes stems from. McCourt is still humorous, but his humor becomes more provocative when it is critical of his time in America. Describing a class he was in at NYU, McCourt recalls how the professor said the “Pilgrims left England to escape religious persecution and that puzzles me because the Pilgrims were English themselves and the English were always the ones who persecuted everyone else, especially the Irish” (148). However, McCourt feels inadequate to question the professor on this point: “I’d like to raise my hand and tell the professor how the Irish suffered for centuries under English rule but I’m sure everyone in this class has a high school diploma and if I open my mouth they’ll know I’m not one of them” (148).
Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis offers a different lens through which Americans can look at their country. For those born in the United States, it calls attention to what it is like to be an immigrant; to the small, daily struggles, and to the impossibility of losing the hyphenated identity. For immigrants, those who feel the burden of the hyphen in their daily lives, it may provide moments of familiarity. Either way, it provides a realistic glimpse at the way in which someone else thinks. The memoir reminds its audiences that the United States was founded upon the American Dream. This desire to be socially mobile, to work for and achieve a better life has not disappeared; immigrants are still coming to America with the hope of building a more comfortable life. Yet, the struggle for livelihood and the permanent branding of outsiderness makes it difficult to fully assimilate. While McCourt may have been able to use a lighter sense of humor to depict his Irish childhood, he does not deem it appropriate for realistically capturing the adolescent angst of a frustrated immigrant.
Thus, the view of Frank McCourt as an author is complicated by ‘Tis. However, regardless of how it diverges from the tone of Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis explores many of the same themes as other twentieth century bestsellers. The use of an outsider character to critique and explore American life, and the permeation of the American Dream within the memoir—“I’d like to be part of an American family…. I might have pimples and bad teeth and fire alarm eyes but, underneath, I’m just like them, a well-scrubbed soul dreaming of a house in a suburb with a tidy lawn where our child, little Frank, pushes his tricycle”— places the book within the group of other middle class realist American bestsellers (82). McCourt is a foreigner, but inside, he is like any other American. And underneath the dark humor and pointed critiques of the United States, his memoir proves it is in the same vein as other American bestsellers. The book may have made it to the bestseller list because of Frank McCourt’s celebrity, but it does not strike one as an outsider on the list.
Hutner, Gordon. "Introduction," What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel 1920-1960. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 1-36.
McCourt, Frank. 'Tis: A Memoir. New York, NY: Scribner, 1999. Print.