Raymond Carver

Raymond Clevie Carver Jr. was an American short story writer and poet. He is considered to be amongst America's greatest writers.

Early life, 1938 - 1958

Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, a mill town on the Columbia River, and grew up in Yakima, Washington, the son of Ella Beatrice 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 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. Carver supported the family by working as a delivery man, janitor, library assistant, and sawmill laborer, while Maryann supported the family as administrative assistant and high school English teacher, salesperson, and waitress.

Writing career

Carver moved to Paradise, California with his family to be close to his mother-in-law. He became interested in writing while attending Chico State College, and enrolled in a creative writing course taught by the novelist John Gardner, then a recent doctoral graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who became a mentor and had a major influence on Carver's life and career. In 1961, Carver's first published story, "The Furious Seasons", appeared. 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 part of the collection, No Heroics, Please and Call If You Need Me.
Carver continued his studies under the short story writer Richard Cortez Day at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California. He chose not to take the foreign language courses required by the English program and received a B.A. in general studies in 1963. During this period he was first published and served as editor for Toyon, the college'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 acclimatize 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 program director Paul Engle awarded him a fellowship for a second year of study 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 University of Iowa at the end of the semester. According to biographer Carol Sklenicka, Carver falsely claimed to have received an M.F.A. from Iowa in 1966 on later curricula vitae. 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. After completing graduate work at Stanford, she briefly enrolled in the University of California, Santa Barbara's English doctoral program when Carver taught at the institution as a visiting lecturer in 1974.
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 through the rest of his shift. 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.
1967 was a landmark year for Carver 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. 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, 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. During this period, he established vital literary connections with Gordon Lish, who worked across the street from Carver as director of linguistic research at Behavioral Research Laboratories, and the poet/publisher George Hitchcock.
After the publication of "Neighbors" in the June 1971 issue of Esquire at the instigation of Lish, 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.
Having endured a succession of failed applications to the Stegner Fellowship, Carver was admitted to the prestigious non-degree Stanford University graduate creative writing program for 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 $4,000 stipend enabled the Carvers to buy a house in Cupertino, California. He also 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 precipitated by his initiation 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 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 Berkeley and maintain his lectureship at Santa Cruz; after missing all but a handful of classes due to the inherent logistical hurdles of this arrangement and 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 another 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.

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's and Raymond's marriage.
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.

Second marriage

In November 1977 Carver met the poet Tess Gallagher at a writers' conference in Dallas, Texas. Gallagher later remembered feeling “as if my life until then had simply been a rehearsal for meeting him.” 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, he and his first wife, Maryann, were divorced.
In 1988, six weeks prior to his death, Carver and Gallagher married in Reno, Nevada.


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. 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?
I did.
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.

Awards and memorials

Carver was nominated for the National Book Award for his first major-press collection, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please" in 1977 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his third major-press collection, Cathedral, the volume generally perceived as his best. Included in the latter 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 perceived Cathedral as a watershed in his career for its shift toward a more optimistic and confidently poetic style amid the diminution of Lish's literary influence.
Carver won five O. Henry Awards with "Are These Actual Miles" , "Put Yourself in My Shoes", "Are You A Doctor?", "A Small, Good Thing", and "Errand".
In Carver's birth town of Clatskanie, Oregon, a memorial park and statue are at the corner of Lillich and Nehalem Streets, across from the library. A block away is the building where Carver was born.

Legacy and posthumous publications

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."
Chuck Kinder's Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale is 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.
In 2009, The New York Times Book Review and San Francisco Chronicle named Carol Sklenicka's unauthorized biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, 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 Sklenicka.
His final collection of seven stories, titled Elephant in Britain 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 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. On October 1, 2009 the book, entitled Beginners, was released in hardback in Great Britain, followed by its publication in the Library of America edition which collected all of Carver's short fiction in a single volume.

Literary characteristics

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". Another stated reason for his brevity was "that the story 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 his 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 with both of 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.
In his essay "On Influence", Carver states that, while he was an admirer of Ernest Hemingway's fiction, he never saw him as an influence, citing instead the work of Lawrence Durrell.