Raymond Clevie Carver, Jr. (May 25, 1938– August 2, 1988) was an American short-story writer and poet. Carver contributed to the revitalization of the American short story in literature during the 1980s.
Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, a mill town on the Columbia River, and grew up in Yakima, Washington, the son of Ella Beatrice (née Casey) and Clevie Raymond Carver. His father, a sawmill worker from Arkansas, was a fisherman and heavy drinker. Carver’s mother worked on and off as a waitress and a retail clerk. His one brother, James Franklin Carver, was born in 1943.
Carver was educated at local schools in Yakima, Washington. In his spare time, he read mostly novels by Mickey Spillane or publications such as Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, and hunted and fished with friends and family. After graduating from Yakima High School in 1956, Carver worked with his father at a sawmill in California. In June 1957, at age 19, he married 16-year-old Maryann Burk, who had just graduated from a private Episcopal school for girls. Their daughter, Christine La Rae, was born in December 1957. Their second child, a boy named Vance Lindsay, was born a year later. He supported his family by working as a delivery man, janitor, library assistant, and sawmill laborer. During their marriage, Maryann also supported the family by working as an administrative assistant and a high school English teacher, salesperson, and waitress.
Carver became interested in writing in Paradise, California, where he had moved with his family to be close to his mother-in-law. While attending Chico State College, he enrolled in a creative writing course taught by the novelist John Gardner, a recent doctoral graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who became a mentor and had a major influence on Carver’s life and career. Carver’s first published story, “The Furious Seasons”, appeared in 1961. More florid than his later work, the story strongly bore the influence of William Faulkner. “Furious Seasons” was later used as a title for a collection of stories published by Capra Press, and is now in the recent collection, No Heroics, Please and Call If You Need Me.
It is a common misconception that Carver was influenced by Ernest Hemingway, as both writers exhibit a similar economical and plain prose style. In his essay “On Influence”, however, Carver states clearly that, while he was an admirer of Hemingway’s fiction, he never saw him as an influence, citing instead the work of Lawrence Durrell.
Carver continued his studies under the short-story writer Richard Cortez Day (like Gardner, a recent PhD alumnus of the Iowa program) at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California. After electing not to take the foreign language courses required by the English program, he received his B.A. in general studies in 1963. During this period he was first published and served as editor for Toyon, the university’s literary magazine, in which he published several of his own pieces under his own name as well as the pseudonym John Vale.
With his B– average—exacerbated by his penchant to forsake coursework for literary endeavors—ballasted by a sterling recommendation from Day, Carver was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on a $1,000 fellowship for the 1963–1964 academic year. Homesick for California and unable to fully acclimate to the program’s upper middle class milieu, he only completed 12 credits out of the 30 required for a M.A. degree or 60 for the M.F.A. degree. Although he was awarded a fellowship for a second year of study from program director Paul Engle after Maryann Carver personally interceded and compared her husband’s plight to Tennessee Williams’ deleterious experience in the program three decades earlier, Carver decided to leave the program at the end of the semester. Maryann (who postponed completing her education to support her husband’s educational and literary endeavors) eventually graduated from San Jose State College in 1970 and taught English at Los Altos High School until 1977, when she enrolled in the University of California, Santa Barbara’s doctoral program in English.
In the mid-1960s, Carver and his family resided in Sacramento, California, where he briefly worked at a bookstore before taking a position as a night custodian at Mercy Hospital. He did all of the janitorial work in the first hour and then wrote at the hospital through the rest of the night. He audited classes at what was then Sacramento State College, including workshops with poet Dennis Schmitz. Carver and Schmitz soon became friends, and Carver wrote and published his first book of poems, Near Klamath, under Schmitz’s guidance.
With the appearance of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in Martha Foley’s annual Best American Short Stories anthology and the impending publication of Near Klamath by the English Club of Sacramento State College, 1967 was a landmark year for Carver. He briefly enrolled in the library science graduate program at the University of Iowa that summer but returned to California following the death of his father. Shortly thereafter, the Carvers relocated to Palo Alto, California, so he could take his first white-collar job at Science Research Associates (a subsidiary of IBM), where he worked intermittently as a textbook editor and public relations director through 1970. Following a 1968 sojourn to Israel, the Carvers relocated to San Jose, California; as Maryann finished her undergraduate degree, he continued his graduate studies in library science at San Jose State through the end of 1969 before failing once again to take a degree. Nevertheless, he established vital literary connections with Gordon Lish and the poet/publisher George Hitchcock during this period.
After the publication of “Neighbors” in the June 1971 issue of Esquire at the instigation of Lish (by now ensconced as the magazine’s fiction editor), Carver began to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz at the behest of provost James B. Hall (an Iowa alumnus and early mentor to Ken Kesey at the University of Oregon), commuting from his new home in Sunnyvale, California. Following a succession of failed applications, he received a $4,000 Stegner Fellowship to study in the prestigious non-degree graduate creative writing program at Stanford University during the 1972–1973 term, where he cultivated friendships with Kesey-era luminaries Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman in addition to contemporaneous fellows Chuck Kinder, Max Crawford, and William Kittredge. The fellowship enabled the Carvers to buy a house in Cupertino, California. He took on another teaching job at the University of California, Berkeley that year and briefly rented a pied-à-terre in the city; this development was largely precipitated by his instigation of an extramarital affair with Diane Cecily, a University of Montana administrator and mutual friend of Kittredge who would subsequently marry Kinder.
During his years of working at miscellaneous jobs, rearing children, and trying to write, Carver started abusing alcohol. By his own admission, he essentially gave up writing and took to full-time drinking. In the fall semester of 1973, Carver was a visiting lecturer in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with John Cheever, but Carver stated that they did less teaching than drinking and almost no writing. With the assistance of Kinder and Kittredge, he attempted to simultaneously commute to California and maintain his lectureship at Santa Cruz; after missing all but a handful of classes due to the inherent logistical hurdles of this arrangement (including various alcohol-related illnesses), Hall gently enjoined Carver to resign his position. The next year, after leaving Iowa City, Carver went to a treatment center to attempt to overcome his alcoholism, but continued drinking for three years.
His first short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976. The collection itself was shortlisted for the National Book Award, though it sold fewer than 5,000 copies that year.
After being hospitalized three times (between June 1976 and February or March 1977), Carver began his “second life” and stopped drinking on June 2, 1977, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. While he continued to regularly smoke marijuana and later experimented with cocaine at the behest of Jay McInerney during a 1980 visit to New York City, Carver believed he would have died of alcoholism at the age of 40 had he not overcome his drinking.
Carver was nominated again in 1984 for his third major-press collection, Cathedral, the volume generally perceived as his best. Included in the collection are the award-winning stories “A Small, Good Thing”, and “Where I’m Calling From”. John Updike selected the latter for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. For his part, Carver saw Cathedral as a watershed in his career, in its shift towards a more optimistic and confidently poetic style.
Personal life and death
Decline of first marriage
The following excerpt from Scott Driscoll’s review of Maryann Burk Carver’s 2006 memoir describes the decline of Maryann and Raymond’s marriage.
The fall began with Ray’s trip to Missoula, Mont., in '72 to fish with friend and literary helpmate Bill Kittredge. That summer Ray fell in love with Diane Cecily, an editor at the University of Montana, whom he met at Kittredge’s birthday party. “That’s when the serious drinking began. It broke my heart and hurt the children. It changed everything.”
“By fall of '74", writes Carver, “he was more dead than alive. I had to drop out of the Ph.D. program so I could get him cleaned up and drive him to his classes”. Over the next several years, Maryann’s husband physically abused her. Friends urged her to leave Raymond.
“But I couldn’t. I really wanted to hang in there for the long haul. I thought I could outlast the drinking. I’d do anything it took. I loved Ray, first, last and always.”
Carver describes, without a trace of rancor, what finally put her over the edge. In the fall of '78, with a new teaching position at the University of Texas at El Paso, Ray started seeing Tess Gallagher, a writer from Port Angeles, who would become his muse and wife near the end of his life. “It was like a contretemps. He tried to call me to talk about where we were. I missed the calls. He knew he was about to invite Tess to Thanksgiving.” So he wrote a letter instead.
“I thought, I’ve gone through all those years fighting to keep it all balanced. Here it was, coming at me again, the same thing. I had to get on with my own life. But I never fell out of love with him.”
Carver met the poet Tess Gallagher at a writers’ conference in Dallas, Texas, in November 1977. Beginning in January, 1979, Carver and Gallagher lived together in El Paso, Texas; in a borrowed cabin near Port Angeles, Washington; and in Tucson, Arizona. In 1980, the two moved to Syracuse, New York, where Gallagher had been appointed the coordinator of the creative writing program at Syracuse University; Carver taught as a professor in the English department. He and Gallagher jointly purchased a house in Syracuse, at 832 Maryland Avenue. In ensuing years, the house became so popular that the couple had to hang a sign outside that read “Writers At Work” in order to be left alone. In 1982, Carver and first wife, Maryann, were divorced. He married Gallagher in 1988 in Reno, Nevada. Six weeks later, on August 2, 1988, Carver died in Port Angeles, Washington, from lung cancer at the age of 50. In the same year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In December 2006, Gallagher published an essay in The Sun magazine, titled “Instead of Dying”, about alcoholism and Carver’s having maintained his sobriety. The essay is an adaptation of a talk she initially delivered at the Welsh Academy’s Academi Intoxication Conference in 2006. The first lines read: “Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live. I would meet him five months after this choice, so I never knew the Ray who drank, except by report and through the characters and actions of his stories and poems.”
On August 2, 1988, Carver died from lung cancer at the age of 50. He is buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, Washington. The inscription on his tombstone reads:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
His poem “Gravy” is also inscribed.
As Carver’s will directed, Tess Gallagher assumed the management of his literary estate.
In Carver’s birth town of Clatskanie, Oregon, a memorial park and statue were constructed in the late 2000s spearheaded by the local Friends of the Library, using mostly local donations. Tess Gallagher was present at the dedication. It is located in the old town on the corner of Lillich and Nehalem Streets, across from the library. A block away, the building where Raymond Carver was born still stands. There is a plaque of Carver in the foyer.
Legacy and posthumous publications
The novelist Chuck Kinder published Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale (2001), a roman à clef about his friendship with Carver in the 1970s. Carver’s high school sweetheart and first wife, Maryann Burk Carver, wrote a memoir of her years with Carver, What it Used to be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver (2006).
The New York Times Book Review and San Francisco Chronicle named Carol Sklenicka’s unauthorized biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life (2009), published by Scribner, one of the Best Ten Books of that year; and the San Francisco Chronicle deemed it: “exhaustively researched and definitive biography”. Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, refused to engage with Sklenica.
His final (incomplete) collection of seven stories, titled Elephant in Britain (included in “Where I’m Calling From”) was composed in the five years before his death. The nature of these stories, especially “Errand”, have led to some speculation that Carver was preparing to write a novel. Only one piece of this work has survived– the fragment “The Augustine Notebooks”, first printed in No Heroics, Please.
Tess Gallagher published five Carver stories posthumously in Call If You Need Me; one of the stories ("Kindling") won an O. Henry Award in 1999. In his lifetime Carver won five O. Henry Awards; these winning stories were “Are These Actual Miles” (originally titled “What is it?”) (1972), “Put Yourself in My Shoes” (1974), “Are You A Doctor?” (1975), “A Small, Good Thing” (1983), and “Errand” (1988).
Tess Gallagher fought with Knopf for permission to republish the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as they were originally written by Carver, as opposed to the heavily edited and altered versions that appeared in 1981 under the editorship of Gordon Lish. The book, entitled Beginners, was released in hardback on October 1, 2009 in Great Britain, followed by its U.S. publication in the Library of America edition that collected all of Carver’s short fiction in a single volume.
Carver’s career was dedicated to short stories and poetry. He described himself as “inclined toward brevity and intensity” and “hooked on writing short stories” (in the foreword of Where I’m Calling From, a collection published in 1988 and a recipient of an honorable mention in the 2006 New York Times article citing the best works of fiction of the previous 25 years). Another stated reason for his brevity was "that the story [or poem] can be written and read in one sitting." This was not simply a preference but, particularly at the beginning of his career, a practical consideration as he juggled writing with work. His subject matter was often focused on blue-collar experience, and was clearly reflective of his own life.
Characteristics of minimalism are generally seen as one of the hallmarks of Carver’s work, although, as reviewer David Wiegand notes:
Carver never thought of himself as a minimalist or in any category, for that matter.
“He rejected categories generally,” Sklenicka says. “I don’t think he had an abstract mind at all. He just wasn’t built that way, which is why he’s so good at picking the right details that will stand for many things.”
Carver’s editor at Esquire, Gordon Lish, was instrumental in shaping Carver’s prose in this direction– where his earlier tutor John Gardner had advised Carver to use fifteen words instead of twenty-five, Lish instructed Carver to use five in place of fifteen. Objecting to the “surgical amputation and transplantation” of Lish’s heavy editing, Carver eventually broke with him. During this time, Carver also submitted poetry to James Dickey, then poetry editor of Esquire.
Carver’s style has also been described as dirty realism, which connected him with a group of writers in the 1970s and 1980s that included Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff (two writers with whom Carver was closely acquainted), as well as others such as Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Jayne Anne Phillips. With the exception of Beattie, who wrote about upper-middle-class people, these were writers who focused on sadness and loss in the everyday lives of ordinary people—often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (first published 1976)
Furious Seasons and other stories (1977)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
Elephant (1988)– this title only published in Great Britain; included as a section of Where I’m Calling From: New & Selected Stories in the U.S.
Where I’m Calling From: New & Selected Stories (1988)
Short Cuts: Selected Stories (1993)– published to accompany the Robert Altman film Short Cuts
Collected Stories (2009)– complete short fiction including Beginners
Near Klamath (1968)
Winter Insomnia (1970)
At Night The Salmon Move (1976)
Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985)
A New Path To The Waterfall (1989)
Gravy (Unknown year)
In a Marine Light: Selected Poems (1988)
All of Us: The Collected Poems (1996)
Dostoevsky (1985, with Tess Gallagher)
Films and theatre adaptations
Short Cuts directed by Robert Altman (1993), based on nine Carver short stories and a poem
Everything Goes directed by Andrew Kotatko (2004), starring Hugo Weaving and Abbie Cornish, based on Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”
Whoever Was Using This Bed, also directed by Andrew Kotatko (2016), starring Jean-Marc Barr, Radha Mitchell and Jane Birkin, based on Carver’s short story of the same name
Jindabyne directed by Ray Lawrence (2006), based on Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home”
“After The Denim” directed by Gregory D. Goyins (2010) starring Tom Bower and Karen Landry, based on Carver’s short story “If It Please You”
Everything Must Go directed by Dan Rush (2010), and starring Will Ferrell, based on Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”
Carver a production directed by William Gaskill at London’s Arcola Theatre in 1995, adapted from five Carver short stories including “What’s In Alaska?” “Put Yourself in My Shoes” and “Intimacy”
Studentova žena (Croatian) directed by Goran Kovač, based on “The Student’s Wife”
Carousel (Croatian) directed by Toma Zidić, inspired by “Ashtray”
Men Who Don’t Work directed by Alexander Atkins and Andrew Franks, based on “What Do You Do in San Francisco?”
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, depicts the mounting of a Broadway production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” as its central storyline. The film’s main character, Riggan Thomson, attributes his choice of acting as a profession to a complimentary note he once received from Raymond Carver written on a cocktail napkin. The film also preludes with Carver’s poem “Late Fragment.” In February 2015, Birdman won four Oscars, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Everything’s Turning to White is a folk rock track written and performed by Paul Kelly on the album So Much Water So Close to Home (1989), which was based on Carver’s short story of the same name.