Raymond Carver, whose tightly controlled, compelling style gripped readers and inspired writers, provided the main impetus for the revitalization of the short story in English during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Resisting critical categorizing, he rose from humble beginnings to national acclaim and international fame.
Carver was born May 25, 1938 of working-class parents in the lumber mill town of Clatskanie, Oregon and grew up in Yakima, Washington. Married and with a family as a teenager, he persistently produced stories and poems throughout the loving but conflictive relationship. He was locked into a series of low-paying jobs which delayed his formal education but provided subject matter for his stories, many of which deal with what one critic calls “hardscrabble domesticity” (Nesset 1995, 11). At Chico (California) State College in 1959, Carver found a conscientious writing mentor in novelist John Gardner, also a model for Carver's subsequent teaching. Carver graduated from Humboldt State College in 1963 and spent the next year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop with a small stipend. A style-forming period with first publications in little magazines was followed by association with amputative editor Gordon Lish and broader-circulation exposure.
Carver's first major-publisher story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (McGraw-Hill, 1976), received a National Book Award nomination. His next book established his reputation: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Knopf, 1981). The stories had been harshly slashed by Lish, but Carver did some restoration in subsequent versions. Cathedral (Knopf, 1983) revealed work of a more expansive style and a less abject life view. Finally came Where I'm Calling From (1988). The latter two collections were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Among Carver's other honors were a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Brandeis University Creative Arts Award. Carver taught at a number of US universities, including the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Texas at El Paso; and Syracuse University.
A long-time smoker and drinker, Carver barely survived an onslaught of acute alcoholism and quit drinking in 1977. He was separated from his first wife in 1978 and spent his last 10 years with poet Tess Gallagher. In May 1988, Carver was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In June, he and Gallagher married, and he succumbed to lung cancer in August.
Carver acknowledged literary debts to such forebears as Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway, but he most identified with Anton Chekhov. Carver's last story, “Errand,” which shows a new direction for his writing, puts the death of Chekhov in a moving fictional frame.
Critics have invoked or invented many appellations to try to characterize Carver's subjects and style: “blue collar” or “dirty” realism, or “Kmart fiction,” for example. More than most writers, he has suffered the indignity of being pushed into ill-defined pigeonholes. Some labels border on the silly: “post-postmodern modernist,” “miniaturist,” etc. Only one “ism” comfortably embraces Carver's fiction. He was a realist, disdaining gimmicks or the experimentation of the mid-twentieth century.
Generalities about his characters have been overly harsh: “fringe figures,” “marginal lives of hardship and squalor,” “unhappily estranged … disillusioned … battered … alienated,” “self-destructive … life's losers.” Part of this misperception stems from Poe's dictum, which Carver knew and followed, that a story or poem should concentrate on a single emotion or effect. Since conflict is what drives most stories, Carver's people are usually presented in moments of stress or confusion, without contrastive pleasure or satisfaction. Carver said in a magazine profile, “I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad off. Know what I mean? The waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotel keeper. God, the country is filled with these people. They're good people. People doing the best they could” (quoted in Weber 1990 , 92).
Carver's typical setting is domestic: 34 of 67 stories center on the household, while another 22 have domestic backgrounds like recent divorce. In 14, husband–wife conflict is the principal plot focus, but in 20 a couple is facing a problem together. As for money or its lack, Carver's early poverty (two bankruptcies) does not show up in his stories as much as is commonly thought. In only three are the principals desperately poor. Most are middle-class or in an irrelevant economic situation.
The Carver protagonist often finds himself (or herself) in an encounter with someone or something unusual. But critics who see the plots as bizarre ignore the fact that they are mundane situations that could arise in anyone's life–dealing with earwax build-up or talking to a fat man – things which can be life-altering or even life-threatening in a Carver story but well within the creative purview of realism. His focus is on the emotion which the situation evokes.
Carver's fiction has been translated into more than 20 languages. His growing popularity with academics and non-academics alike is evidence of skillfully depicted slices of life, presented with a full array of tools available to the accomplished literary artist.
SEE ALSO: Gardner, John (AF); Hemingway, Ernest (AF); Minimalist/Maximalist Fiction (AF); O'Connor, Flannery (AF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF)
- Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver. New York: Scribner's. ; (1990).
- Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne. (1992).
- What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. New York: St. Martin's. (2006).
- Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York: McGraw-Hill. (1976).
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Knopf. (1981).
- Cathedral: Stories. New York: Knopf. (1983).
- Where Water Comes Together with Other Water. New York: Random House. (1985).
- Where I'm Calling From. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. (1988).
- All of Us: The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage. (1996).
- Call if You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose. New York: Vintage. (2001).
- Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. (1995).
- Raymond Carver. New York: Twayne. (1995).
- The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio University Press. (1995).
- Stull, W. L.; Carroll, M. P. (eds.) (1993). Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra.
- Raymond Carver: A Chronicler of Blue-Collar Despair . In Gentry, M. B. ; Stull, W. L. (eds.), Conversations With Raymond Carver. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp. 84-97. (1990).
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