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||Raymond Carver (1938-1988) - in full Raymond Clevie Carver|
American short-story writer and poet, a major force in the revitalization of the short story in the 1980s. Raymond Carver's reputation continued to grow after his death at the age of fifty. Robert Altman's much praised film Short Cuts (1993) was based on several of Carver's stories. His short fiction is often placed in the realistic tradition of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway and its post-modern version, called minimalism. Carver himself did not like the label, because it "smacks of smallness of vision and execution."
"I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact – so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration - that the story can be written and read in one sitting. (Like poems!) (from foreword in Where I'm Calling From, 1998)
Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, a mill town on the Columbia River in Oregon. His father, Clevie Carter, a sawmill worker, was an alcoholic. At home he used to tell him stories about his own hunting and fishing exploits, and about his grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War, for both sides. In 'Elephant', one of Carver's best stories, the narrator recalls his father nostalgically. On the other hand, 'Nobody Said Anything' tells about a young boy, who becomes the target of his father's frustration. Carver's mother, Ella Beatrice, worked as a waitress or as a retail clerk or else stayed home.
Carver was educated at a local school in Yakima, Washington. On his spare time read mostly Mickey Spillane's novels, or Sports Afield and Outdoor Life. After graduating in 1956, he married his high-school girlfriend, the sixteen-year-old Maryann Burk. She was pregnant and just graduated from an Episcopalian private school for girls. When her second child was born, she was eighteen. After graduating from Davis High school, Carver supported his family by working as a janitor, laborer at a sawmill and salesman. During their marriage, Maryann worked as a waitress, salesperson, and administrative assistant and teacher. Usually she earned more than he did. Their children had a rough childhood but eventually both become college graduates.
Carver became interested in writing in California, where he
had moved with his family – his wife's parents had a home in Paradise.
Carver attended a creative-writing course, and was taught by John
Gardner. Later he said that all his writing life "he had felt Gardner
looking over his shoulder when he wrote, approving or disapproving of
certain words, phrases and strategies." (Carver's
former student Jay McInerney in The New York
Times, August 6, 1989) Carver
continued his studies first at Humboldt State College in California,
receiving his B.A. in 1963, and at the University of Iowa.
Humboldt he attended Chico State University; later Chicoans started to
arrange a Raymond Carver festival. At Palo Alto at Science Research
Associates he worked as a textbook editor until he was fired in 1970.
In the 1970s Carver taught for several years at universities throughout
the United States. At one point Maryann stopped her heavy drinking, and
AA helped her stay sober. Carver was declared in 1973 bankruptcy for
the second time.
In Humboldt, Carver published 'Pastoral,' a story of an old man on a fishing trip, in the Western Humanites Review, and his first
poem, 'The Brass Ring,' in Targets, which also had a poem by
Charles Bukowski, one of Carver's heroes. As a payment he got free copies of the magazines.
During these years of working in different jobs,
rearing kids, and trying to write, Carver started to drink. "Alcohol
became a problem. I more or less gave up, threw in the towel, and took
to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit." (Writers at Work., ed. by
George Plimpton, 1986, p. 309) In 1967 his story
'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?' was selected for the anthology Best
American Short Stories, edited by Martha Foley. In the fall
semester of 1973, Carver was a teacher in the Iowa's Writers' Workshop
with John Cheever, but later he said that they did nothing but drink.
Not too long after leaving Iowa City, Cheever went to a treatment
center, but Carver continued drinking for some years. His father had
been a heavy, sporadic drinker, but Carver thought that his own problem
was largely caused by circumstance. "I never so much as wrote a line
worth a nickel when I was under the influence of alcohol," Carver once
said. (Writing under the Influence: Alcohol and the Works of 13 American Authors by Aubrey Malone, 2018, pp. 193-194)
Alcohol was a
subject in several of Carver's stories, in such as 'Chef's House,' 'A
Serious Talk,' 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,' in which
an elderly couple drinks in their kitchen, 'Vitamins,' about a man who
do not realize that he has a drinking problem, and 'Where I'm Calling
From,' in which the narrator has ended up in an alcohol rehabilitation
While teaching at the University of California, in Santa Cruz, Carver invited Bukowski to read his poems there. The drank all night and parth of the next day. It turned out that Bukowski had a higher tolerance for alcohol. From 1980 to 1983 Carver was a professor of English at Syracuse University.
Carver's first collection of short stories, Put Yourself in My Shoes, came out in 1974. It was followed by Will Yoy Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) which established his reputation and introduced his central themes. "Most prevalent among these constants is the issue of love," Kirk Nesset wrote in The Stories of Raymond Carver (1995), "or, more precisely, the issue of love and its absence, and the bearing of love's absence on marriage and individual identity." (Ibid., p. 9) The title story of the book was nominated for a National Book Award. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) contained seventeen stories. "[Carver] has done what many of the most gifted writers fail to do," said Michael Wood. "He has invented a country of his own, like no other except that very world, as Wordsworth said, which is the world to all of us." (The New York Times Books Review, April 26, 1981)
In his prose Carver mixed the simple clarity of Chekhov with the ominous tones of Franz Kafka. "It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That's the kind of writing that most interests me." (Carver in The New York Times, February 15, 1981) Gordon Lish, an editor at Esquire and then at Alfred A. Knopf, later told that he had a crucial role in the creation of these early works, but Carver never acknowledged in public his debt to Lish. However, in Writers at Work (1986) Carver praises Lish's skills: "... he is remarkably smart and sensitive to the needs of a manuscript. He' s a good editor. Maybe he's a great editor. All I know for sure it that he's my editor and my friend, and I'm glad on both counts." (Ibid., p. 323) Among these stories, which Lish edited, constantly cutting out talks about feelings, were 'Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,' 'Fat,' and 'Tell the Women We're Going.'
Carver's works appeared in a number of the volumes of the Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. On June 2, 1977 Carver stopped drinking with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. His doctor had warned, that he would die if he did not change his life. His last drink Carver took at a bar in Arcata.
After this "line of demarcation" Carver's stories became increasingly more expansive. In 1982 Carver divorced Maryann. From 1979 Carver had lived with the poet Tess Gallagher (b.1943), whom he had met at a writers' conference in Dallas. They married in 1988. The wedding took place in Reno. Two months later, on August 2, 1988, the author died of lung cancer. Selection of his short fiction, Where I'm Calling From, appeared posthumously in 1988. Carver had learned that he had cancer after writing its last story, 'Errand,' about Chekhov's death'.
Carver received several awards, among them The National Endowment for the Arts award in fiction (1980) and Guggenheim fellowship (1979-80). In 1983 he was recipient of the "Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings", which was conferred by a special panel of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Much of what Carver wrote about was based on his own experiences in the Pacific Northwest. "... everything we write is, in some way, autobiographical," he has said. Carver depicted the quiet desperation of the white- and blue-collar workers, salesmen, waitresses, and their sense of betrayal and unableness to express themselves. Things are frequently left unspoken and conflicts unresolved, and the meaning of the story is only revealed through implications.
Rejecting the more
experimental fiction of the 60s and 70s, Carver became one of the
leading figure among so-called "dirty realists" – for their gritty
depictions of everyday life – with Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ann
Beattie, and Jayne Anne Philips. When David Foster Wallace studied in
the MFA program at the University of Arizona in the mid-1980s, Carver
was there the most imitated writer.
Although Carver's prose is often muted, even anticlimactic, the atmosphere is tense, reminding the mood of Kafka or Harold Pinter. In 'Neighbors,' from Where I'm Calling From, the Millers, who take care of their neighbors' apartment while the couple is away, find the apartment more attractive than their own, although it don't differ much from it. 'Why Don't You Dance?' tells of a man whose marriage has failed, and who sells his furniture at the front yard. A young couple shows some interest in them and dance together in the driveway at the man's suggestion. The surfaces of Carver's stories look calm and banal, but especially his portrayals of marriage problems are full of emotional tension, hidden memories, wounds, longing, hate, anxiety, and melancholy.
Carver's poetry was written in the vernacular lyric-narrative mode of William Carlos Williams and Charles Bukowski. He once confessed that he is not a "born" poet, and when he had to make a choice, he came down on the side of fiction. However, in 1984 Carver returned to Pacific Northwest and published two collections of poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985) and Ultramarine (1986). He shared the 1985 Levinson Prize for these books.