English 6923: Working- Class Literature
I think they (characters) are trying. But trying and succeeding are two different matters. In some lives, people don’t succeed at what they are trying to do. These lives are, of course, valid to write about, the lives of the people who don’t succeed. Most of my own experience has to do with the latter situation. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They’d like to set things right, but they can’t. And usually they do know it, I think, and after that they just do the best they can.
-- Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver is considered to be one of the most important American short story writers and poets of our time. His work reflects two distinct periods in his life. His early work is mainly about people in desparate and uncontrollable situations, often depicting his own experiences with poverty, alcohol, and divorce. His later work demonstrates what he often called his "second life," which began when he took his last drink. As a result, his productivity rose and was given a second chance at love. Carver experienced many hardships during his lifetime and his literary work reflects the stages of his life, like the markings on a timeline.
Raymond Carver was born on May 25, 1938 in the small town of Clatskanie, Oregon, a mill town on the Columbia River. Born into a working-class family, his father, an alcoholic, worked at the local sawmill as a saw-filer. His mother took various jobs working as a waitress, retail clerk, and homemaker. In 1941, his family moved to Yakima, Washington, where he spent a portion of his youth. Moving frequently, young Carver found solace and a passion for literature while reading Mickey Spillane mystery novels along with Field and Stream publications. After graduation, Carver worked briefly at the sawmill with his father. Quitting his job at the mill, he married pregnant sixteen-year-old Maryann Burk when he was just 18. By Carver’s twentieth birthday, he had two children, was attending night classes at Humboldt State College, and working various blue-collar “crap jobs” during the day.
After receiving his degree in 1963, the family moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where Carver received a five hundred-dollar grant to complete a year’s graduate study at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While still at Humboldt, Carver published his first story, "Pastoral," and his first poem, "The Brass Ring." Revised and republished, the story "The Furious Seasons" was listed in The Best American Short Stories in 1964. From 1964 to 1967, Carver worked as a janitor at Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, filed for bankruptcy, and lost his father. Carver moved to Palo Alto, CA, where he was hired as a textbook editor at Science Research Associates and met his future editor, Martha Foley. She included “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” in The Best American Short Stories in 1967.
During the years of working different jobs, raising children, and trying to write, Carver began drinking: “We were in a state of penury, we had a bankruptcy behind us, and years of hard work with nothing to show for it except an old car, a rented house, and new creditors on our backs. It was depressing and I felt spiritually obliterated. Alcohol became a problem" (Gentry & Stull 37).
In 1968, Carver’s first collected book of poems, Near Klamath, was published. He moved to Israel and then back to California within a year. Carver sold movie theatre programs in 1968 and was hired in 1969 by SRA as Advertising Director. In the 70’s, Carver taught for several universities throughout the United States. He continued drinking but managed to publish several of his poems and short stories including, "Winter Insomnia," "Neighbors," "Fat," "A Night Out,"and "What Is It?" While he was appointed as the "visiting lecturer"at UC Santa Barbara in 1974-75, alcoholism and domestic problems forced him to resign and he filed for his second bankruptcy.
His first collection of short stories, Put Yourself In My Shoes was published in 1974, followed by Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976. Nominated for the National Book Award, the latter established his reputation as a writer with a unique voice and style and introduced one of his central themes regarding the issues of love and loss. But between 1976-1977, Carver was hospitalized several times for a severe drinking problem that almost killed him and his marriage fell apart. This part of his life would become the basis of his early poems and short stories, which focused on “troubled people on the outs-out of work, out of love, out of touch” (Gentry & Stull 99).
In 1977, Carver managed to quit drinking. This new stage of sobriety, together with meeting his second wife, Tess Gallagher, is often marked as the turning point for his "second life." His next collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was published in 1981. The stories in his next book, Cathedral (1982), show a change in Carver's style. As he explained in an interview, they were "very different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before. I suppose it reflects a change in my life as much as it does in my way of writing … I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone" (Gentry 44).
Raymond Carver is the author of five collections of short stories, two chapbooks, and three volumes of poetry. He and his second wife, Tess Gallagher, also collaborated on a screenplay, Dostoevsky. In 1983, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters selected Carver for one of its first Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings. Cathedral was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and received the 1985 Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine. On June 2nd, 1988, Raymond Carver lost his battle with lung cancer.
During his twenty-five year writing career, Carver has been both honored and criticized for his careful, sparely written, usually bleak stories about working-class life that often resemble and parallel his own. Carver’s writing style and themes reflect his life changing from alcoholism and despair to sobriety and hope. Often compared to the work of Ernest Hemingway, his stories are described as “humanist realism” (Brown 125), "minimalist masterpieces” (Nesset 29), and “Post-Alcoholic Blue-Collar Minimalist Hyperrealism” (Runyon). But it is the tracing of changes in Carver’s short story style that is the most persistent topic of Carver criticism. However argued, his writing remains postmodern, a distinction as apparent as it is challenging to describe. In Carver’s fiction, things are simply not as they appear. Or rather, things are more than they appear to be. In Carver’s early stories, characters are often inarticulate and bewildered about the turn their lives have taken; their seemingly bland conversations are typically given unspoken intensity and meaning. In his later work, particularly in Cathedral, the characters “are not destitute or trapped or beaten up by circumstances” (Nesset 56). For example, In "Preservation," the husband loses his job as a "roofer" at the beginning of the story. He and his wife are thrown into a financial and emotional struggle as a result of this job loss. After the expense of a broken refrigerator and spoiled food create additional worries, the burden appears overwhelming. But in Cathedral, unlike in Carver's earlier work, the characters now present a sense of will and hope to go on, despite the bleak realities and struggles of working-class life. By the end of the story, the characters are planning cost effective alternatives for replacing the refrigerator.
In Carver's work, the self-evident is never demonstrated. For Carver, “it’s the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth, but sometimes broken and unsettled, surface of things” (Carver 25). Regardless of his controversial style and aesthetics, Carver manages to capture the often wordless yearnings of the working poor.
Cathedral. New York: Knopf, 1983.
This book is the third collection of fiction including twelve of Raymond Carver’s short stories. It includes: “Feathers,” “A Small, Good Thing,” and “Cathedral.”
Fires. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1989.
Raymond Carver’s collection of essays on his writing influences. This is personal and informative.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Knopf, 1981.
This book is the second collection of fiction including seventeen of Raymond Carver’s short stories. It includes: “Why Don’t You Dance?” “Gazebo,” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. New York: Atlantic MP, 1988.
A collection of Raymond Carver’s most recent stories, as well as a selection of his best stories from earlier collections. These stories are chronologically arranged and some have been revised and edited for this edition. Includes: “Nobody Said Anything,” Fat,” and “Put Yourself in My Shoes.”
Brown, Arthur A. "Raymond Carver and Postmodern Humanism." Critique Winter 32 (1990): 125+.
This essay examines Raymond Carver's writings and their contribution to Postmodern Realist fiction. It addresses Carver's accomplishments in his writings including "Cathedral" and "The Pheasant."
Gentry, Stull, et al., eds. Conversations with Raymond Carver. London: Mississippi UP, 1993.
A collection of twenty-five interviews with Raymond Carver. Spans the years of Carver’s “second life” and includes craft interviews, biographical portraits, self-analysis, and literary reflections.
Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: OU Press, 1995.
A detailed, critical exploration of Carver’s fiction ranging from his earliest short stories to his last.
Runyon, Randolph P. Reading Raymond Carver. NewYork: Syracuse UP, 1999.
An analytical composite of three major Carver collections, Will you Please Be Quiet, Please?, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Cathedral. Introduces the purposeful arrangement in Carver’s short story collections, metaphorical connections, and structural overlaps overlooked in other criticisms.
Raymond Carver (1938-1988)
This site examines classroom issues and strategies for teaching Raymond Carver along with other material suggestions. Also briefly addresses major themes, perspectives, and personal issues. Looks at his artistic form, style, audience, comparisons, and connections.
Echoes of Our Own Lives
This site includes an interview with Raymond Carver in 1978 by David Koehne.
This site is an excellent overview of Raymond Carver’s work as it related to his life.He discusses the experiences of his life and its impact on the thematic literary transition of alcoholism and despair to love and hope.
Prose as Architecture: Two Interviews with Raymond Carver
This site contains two published interviews translated into English by William L. Stull. The first interview, “Stories don’t Come Out of Thin Air” by French literary journalist, Claude Grimal, that exposes Carver’s autobiographical style and other pertinent writing issues. The second interview, “I’m Sort of Their Father” by Silva Del Pozzo, is a brief discussion with Carver’s responses to “minimalism” and his influence on young writers.
This site offers a brief biography of Raymond Carver including links to selected poems.