This article looks at how cultural and national subject positions are constructed and negotiated in Frank McCourt’s award-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996). The memoir has enjoyed tremendous commercial and critical success, especially in America, where it not only won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the category of autobiography, but also managed to stay on the New York Times bestseller list for more two years, and three years after its first publication it had sold over two million copies in the US alone. However, critical voices were also raised against the memoir, especially from Irish readers who resented the way in which the expatriate McCourt commercializes their past misery.
The memoir thus clearly has the power either to make the reader feel secure and confident in his or her own cultural identity, or to cause him or her to react very strongly to the identity positions that it constructs. But which are these subject positions that are constructed and negotiated in the memoir? Where, how, and by whom are they constructed? This article will show how the memoir is built around a number of binary oppositions between what is constructed as “Irish” and “American” subject positions. Whereas the “Irish” position is characterized by religious intolerance, social determinism, selfish pride and personal guilt, the “American” position is characterized by religious pluralism, social mobility, communal solidarity and personal fulfilment. Other binary oppositions that the memoir constructs between the “Irish” and the “American” positions are wet vs. dry, cold vs. warm, tradition vs. popular culture, past suffering vs. future opportunities, sexual inhibition vs. sexual freedom, narrowness vs. openness, authority vs. liberty, failure vs. success, and so on.
The construction of these opposite subject positions will be analysed by looking at the different “truth regimes” that the protagonist is exposed to during his childhood and adolescence. Drawing on Foucault’s claim that a subject can only recognize itself, and others, within a specific regime of truth, the article will show how McCourt’s memoir operates on two narrative levels simultaneously. At the story level the protagonist has to abandon his “Irish” subject positions in order to recognize himself as an “American”. At the discourse level it is the reader who has to make the same identification with the “American” position and to accept the “American” regime of truth as constructed by McCourt the author in order to appreciate the memoir. The analysis will be further guided by Judith Butler’s claim that “telling the truth about oneself comes at a price, and the price of that telling is the suspension of a critical relation to the truth regime in which one lives” (Giving an Account of Oneself pp. 121-122). The article will thus argue that the enormous success that the memoir has enjoyed in the United States is, to a large extent, dependent on its uncritical acceptance of an “American” regime of truth.
Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing Group, 2015. 69-91 p.
subject positions, Irish and American identity, Frank McCourt, regimes of truth, literary awards