Biography Raymond Clevie Carver

Raymond Clevie Carver

photo of Raymond Clevie Carver
  • Time Period1938 - 1988
  • PlaceOregon
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

American short-story writer and poet, a major force in the revitalization of the short story in the 1980s. Carver's reputation continued to grow after his death at the age of fifty. Robert Altman's much praised film Short Cuts (1993) was based on several of Carver's stories. His short fiction is often placed in the realistic tradition of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway and its post-modern version called minimalism. Carver himself did not like the label, because it "smacks of smallness of vision and execution.."

"I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact - so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration - that the story can be written and read in one sitting. (Like poems!)

Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, a mill town on the Columbia River in Oregon. His father was a sawmill worker, a violent alcoholic, and mother worked as a waitress or as a retail clerk or else stayed home. His family moved a lot in his childhood. Carver was educated at a local school in Yakima, Washington. At home his father used to tell him stories about his grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War, for both sides. Carver read mostly Mickey Spillane's novels, or Sports Afield and Outdoor Life. In 1957, at the age of 19, he married his high-school girlfriend, the sixteen-year-old Maryann Burk, who was pregnant and just graduated from an Episcopalian private school for girls. She was eighteen when her second child was born. After finishing high school Carver supported his family by working as a janitor, gas-station attendant, and deliveryman. Maryann worked for the telephone company.

In 1959 he moved from Oregon to Paradise, California, where he became interested in writing. He attended a creative-writing course, and was taught by John Gardner. Later he said that all his writing life "he had felt Gardner looking over his shoulder when he wrote, approving or disapproving of certain words, phrases and strategies."

Carver continued his studies first at Humboldt State College in California, receiving his B.A. in 1963, and at the University of Iowa, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1966. Carver taught for several years in universities throughout the United States from the 1970s. From 1980 to 1983 he was a professor of English at Syracuse University.

While still at Humboldt Carver published his first story, 'Pastoral,' in the Western Humanites Review, and his first poem, 'The Brass Ring,' in Targets, which also had a poem by Charles Bukowski. During these years of working crap jobs, rising kids, and trying to write, Carver started to drink. "Alcohol became a problem. I more or less gave up, threw in the towel, and took to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit."

In 1967 his story 'Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?' was selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories, edited by Martha Foley. He was a teacher in the Iowa's Writers' Workshop in the fall semester of 1973 with John Cheever, but according to Carver they did nothing but drink. Not too long after leaving Iowa City, Cheever went to a treatment center, but Carver contined drinking for some years. His first collection of short stories, PUT YOURSELF IN MY SHOES, appeared in 1974. It was followed by WILL YOU PLEASE BE QUIET, PLEASE? (1976) which established his reputation. The title story was was nominated for a National Book Award.

In his prose Carver mixed the simple clarity of Chekhov with the ominous tones of Franz Kafka. "It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine - the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That's the kind of writing that most interests me."

Gordon Lish, an editor at Esquire and then at Alfred A. Knopf, later told that he had a crucial role in the creation of these early works, but Carver never acknowledged in public his debt to Lish. However, in Writers at Work (1986) Carver praises Lish's skills: "... he is remarkably smart and sensitive to the needs of a manuscript. He's a good editor. Maybe he's a great editor. All I know for sure it that he's my editor and my friend, and I'm glad on both counts." Among these stories, which Lish edited, constantly cutting out talks about feelings, were 'Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,' 'Fat,' and 'Tell the Women We're Going.' 'The Bath' was published in original version under the title 'A Small, Good Thing' in a magazine and it won a 1983 O. Henry Award.

In 1981 appeared WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, which was marked by deeper humanism and more complex psychological characterization. In these seventeen elliptical stories Carver explored failure, the gap between expression and feeling, alcoholism, infidelity. His works appeared in a number of the volumes of the Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

On June 2, 1977 Carver stopped drinking with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. After this 'line of demarcation' his stories became increasingly more expansive. His first marriage ended in 1977 and Carver married his long-term partner, the poet Tess Gallagher (b.1943), whom he had met ten years earlier at a writers' conference in Dallas. The wedding took place in Reno and two months later, on August 2, 1988, the author died of lung cancer.

Selection of his short fiction, WHERE I'M CALLING FROM, appeared posthumously in 1989. After writing its last story, 'Errand,' about Chekhov's death, Carver learned that he had cancer.

Carver received several awards, among them The National Endowment for the Arts award in fiction (1980) and Guggenheim fellowship (1979-80). In 1983 he was recipient of the "Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings", which was conferred by a special panel of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.