The invitation provoked incredulity and irony in equal measure.
“Me?” inquired Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis. The first word of his letter was set off as a paragraph unto itself.
The second line, and paragraph, continued his mock questioning: “To deliver the Red Smith Lecture in Journalism in the 20th year of the series?”
Confessing “I know as much about journalism as I do about growing yams,” McCourt had one final question: “Are you lowering your standards or do you want an evening of innocence?”
For a lecture series that since 1983 has sought to recognize — and applaud — stylish writing of the kind Red Smith, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1927, exemplified as a sportswriter for over half a century, the choice of Frank McCourt in 2003 was (in the baseball vernacular) a change of pace. His work in journalism might have been limited to the occasional freelance article for a magazine or newspaper, but his literary abilities — much heralded by reviewers of Angela’s Ashes (1996) and ’Tis (1999) — would help focus on the wit and wordplay for which Smith received many honors, including an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame in 1968.
Warming to the possibility of a campus visit, McCourt wrote: “I grew up in Ireland assured by everyone that Notre Dame was the greatest place in America, that all the football players were Irish and if we didn’t believe it we could write to Pat O’Brien.” He concluded with a flourish: “I’d be delighted to speak at a shrine of the Irish-American dream though Notre Dame is more than that. I’ll be looking for ghosts.”
McCourt and his wife, Ellen, decided that a first trip to the University should take place during the fall, so Frank could also attend his first collegiate football game. USC was scheduled to play here on Oct. 18, 2003, and the Smith Lecture was set for the Thursday night before the game.
The Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library was filled for the lecture, which McCourt had given a didactic title — “From Copybook to Computer: What You Write On and How You Do It.” His delivery was anything but pedantic, however. He recalled his Irish youth of composing on rolls of discarded wallpaper, and his childhood desire to have something, anything to write with.
“I had no money and the world wasn’t drowning in ballpoint pens the way it is now,” he remembered. “Even today if I see a pen lying discarded on the ground I pick it up and take it home like an abandoned puppy. No pen is safe from my thievery.”
At one point, he looked back to an assignment he’d completed when he was 11 years old. The teacher wanted each student to compose a “two-page meditation on one of the wounds of Jesus on the cross.”
McCourt considered himself “lucky” to get the crown of thorns, because it offered the most promising narrative possibilities. After reading his sanguinary description, the teacher stopped him “and asked where I learned to write such gibberish.”
The fledging writer responded: “I told him I had just read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. He said Mark Twain was an American atheist who wrote like a child and I was to stop reading him right away and never write like him again.”
McCourt didn’t follow the teacher’s command, and, later in life as a teacher of writing and literature in New York City schools, he took up the practice of scribbling in notebooks. “I have 40 years’ worth of these notebooks and I keep them to remind myself of what an ass I was and my potential for continuing asshood,” he said.
Yet, after retiring from the classroom, he graduated from his notebooks to the pages that became his remarkable trilogy of memoirs: Angela’s Ashes, ’Tis and Teacher Man (2005).
During the question-and-answer session following the lecture, someone quizzed McCourt about the literal accuracy in writing about his life. He was playfully forthcoming in his response:
“Well, there are facts in there, but then you have to fill in spaces between. Somebody asked me in San Francisco one night, why didn’t you write a novel? Nobody would believe it, if I wrote a novel about what it was like growing up in Limerick and what it was like coming to New York. The main story or structure is there, but then you have to paint and put on wallpaper and things like that.”
The lecture and discussion were a triumph. For McCourt, the rest of the weekend was then devoted to “looking for ghosts.”
Leaving the Joyce Center after Friday evening’s pep rally, he confided that the “misery” of his childhood was somehow almost worth the enjoyment he experienced at the exuberance he’d just witnessed on display from the students and other fans. That the Fighting Irish lost to the Trojans the next afternoon, 45-14, was the only drawback to a memorable weekend.
But, for the literary-minded, the words McCourt wrote and delivered the previous Thursday night were themselves their own victory — of the championship variety. No standards were lowered, and innocence was certainly never on display.
Frank McCourt died July 19, 2009.
Bob Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy. He’s the editor of Making Words Dance: Perspectives on Red Smith, Journalism, and Writing, which will appear in spring 2010 from Andrews McMeel Publishing. The book collects all the Smith Lectures that have been delivered at Notre Dame since 1983.