Raymond Carver Biography
Raymond Carver was a man of few words. Often characterized by an economy that bordered on austerity, Carver’s stories were short and plainly written, and his terse prose lent itself perfectly to his favorite subject: working-class America. Aside from poetry, which was written in the same no-frills style, Carver devoted himself exclusively to short stories. What really set Carver apart from other authors, however, was his exploration of the dark side of Americana. In the simple lives of small town folk, Carver uncovered the violence, rage, and loneliness lurking just beneath the surface. Like many writers, his posthumous reputation has grown exponentially, and it is impossible to imagine any serious study of the short story that does not include the extraordinary work of Raymond Carver.
Facts and Trivia
- The alcoholism that figured prominently in Carver’s work was a sad reflection of his own battles with the disease.
- Among Carver’s many influences was the author Anton Chekhov. One of Carver’s last stories, “Errand,” took place during the final hours of the Russian writer’s life.
- The economy of Carver’s writing was not a purely aesthetic choice. He often worked day jobs and thus had less time to devote to his writing.
- Carver’s low-key approach and focus on everyday life is evident in one of his most famous stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which depicts a simple conversation between two couples.
- Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” has been adapted to film twice: first as one of many interlocking Carver tales in Robert Altman’s mosaic Short Cuts, and then as the 2006 film Jindabyne.
- He was famously married to writer Tess Gallagher.
Raymond Carver was born on May 25, 1938, in the small town of Clatskanie in northwestern Oregon. Before he started school, his family moved to Yakima, Washington, where his father worked as a logger. Carver went to elementary school and high school there and spent his leisure time fishing and hunting. He once said that growing up in the rugged and rural Pacific Northwest made him want to be a “writer from the West.” He also once declared that the most important, although in many ways the most negative, influence on his early hopes to become a writer was the fact that he married and became a father before he was twenty. The pressures of supporting his young family made it almost impossible to find time to write.
Carver has said that he could not remember when he did not want to be a writer; he even took a correspondence course in writing when he was a teenager. He was never really interested in writing a novel but rather liked short stories—a form which he said best suited the circumstances of his life, for they could be finished in a few sittings. As a young man, his reading tastes were relatively unformed and undisciplined. He read Zane Grey Westerns, the science-fiction works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and such men’s magazines as True, Argosy, Sports Afield, and Outdoor Life—a masculine reading list which may partially account for the laconic, no-frills style of his short stories.
Carver moved his wife and two children to Northern California in 1958, where he registered as a student at Chico State College (now California State University, Chico). An important positive influence on his career while at Chico was his enrollment in a creative writing class taught by John Gardner, who was soon to make a name for himself as a writer. Carver was lavish in his praise for the help Gardner gave him, comparing him to the great maestros of the past who nurtured their apprentices. Because of Gardner, Carver began to think of writing as a high calling, something to be taken very seriously.
Carver transferred to California’s northern coastal college, Humboldt State, where he studied under short-story writer Richard Day and received his B.A. in 1963. Soon after, he left for the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a small graduate grant of five hundred dollars. Unable to support his family and write, however, he went back to California before the end of the academic year. After returning, Carver held a number of minor jobs in Sacramento as a mill hand and a delivery boy, but perhaps his most fortunate job was a two-year stint as a night watchman at a hospital, where he was able to squeeze in some time writing. In 1967, Carver got a job as a textbook editor for Science Research Associates in Palo Alto, California. In 1968, the English Club at Sacramento State College, where he had taken a poetry-writing course, published twenty-six of his poems in a collection titled Near Klamath.
Although Carver was busy writing during the 1960’s and was publishing his poetry and fiction in various small magazines, his big break did not come until 1970, when he was fired from his Science Research Associates job and when he received a National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Award for Poetry. With the money from the grant (plus his unemployment benefits and severance pay), he found the time to revise many of the stories that appeared in his first important book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976). He was soon publishing in...
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reputable journals and better-paying slick magazines such asEsquire and Harper’s Bazaar and gaining recognition by having his stories chosen to appear in the O. Henry Award collections.
In 1971 and 1972, Carver had a lectureship at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and in the fall of 1972 he held a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University. During the fall semester, 1973, he also had a visiting writer’s appointment at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. By this time, however, he was plagued with the disease of alcoholism. He has said that he and his colleague, well-known writer John Cheever, were drinking so heavily during their tenures at Iowa that they never took the covers off their typewriters.
In 1977, when Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was nominated for the National Book Award, Carver had to be hospitalized several times. He has said that June 2, 1977, was the date he stopped drinking for good. Carver’s professional career began to blossom in the late 1970’s and 1980’s: He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, published a highly praised collection of stories titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981, and another significant collection titled Cathedral in 1983.
Moreover, his personal life improved significantly. Following his divorce from his first wife in the late 1970’s, Carver met and began living with writer Tess Gallagher. Also in 1983, he was awarded the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award, a five-year grant of $35,000 a year. His works have been translated into more than twenty languages. In 1987, after he had put together still another collection of both old and new stories, Carver, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed as having lung cancer. He underwent surgery in the fall, then radiation treatments. His disease had already progressed too far, however; he died in Port Angeles, Washington, on August 2, 1988. His final collection, Where I’m Calling From, was published that year.