In style and subject matter, Raymond Carver’s short-story collections reflect his life experiences. The son of working-class parents, he grew up knowing the financial and spiritual hardships of trying to earn a living in the logging districts of Yakima, Washington. The first in his family ever to graduate from high school, by the age of twenty he was married and the father of two children. Parenting, he later said, was a responsibility for which he was totally unprepared.
In 1958, Carver moved his family to Northern California, where he attended Chico State College and was encouraged by the novelist John Gardner. The next two decades were marred by a series of “crap jobs,” marital turmoil, bankruptcy, and alcoholism. Carver had to steal time from other obligations in order to write and thus felt his best calling was being sacrificed to exigencies. During these years, however, he settled on his defining literary topics: the seemingly futile struggles of the working class and the relations between men and women. Delivered in a spare prose style that had been “cut to the marrow,” his first two books are about people who inhabit the edges of the American Dream. Frustrated and deprived of opportunities, his characters do not recognize themselves in the lives they are living.
On June 2, 1977, Carver stopped drinking. Within a year, he met poet Tess Gallagher and began sharing with her a new “second life,” for which he was always grateful. As if mirroring the positive changes in his personal life, Cathedral marked a dramatic shift in style and tone from his previous work. His stories became more generous, more hopeful. In the title piece, for example, a blind man entices the story’s cynical narrator to close his eyes and draw with him a cathedral being described on a late night television documentary. The collaborative effort frees Robert to admit that “it’s really something” to share one’s imaginative vision with another person.
Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From secured Carver’s literary reputation. Although he never expected to be famous, a few months before his death he said that he could not think of anything he would rather be called than a writer. His career marked by innovation, authenticity, and compassion for the disfranchised, Carver died of lung cancer at the age of fifty.