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Raymond Carver, American Storyteller

by Legacy Staff

Influential writer Raymond Carver was born on this day in 1938. On what would have been his 73rd birthday, we look back on his life and new revelations about his work…

Influential writer Raymond Carver was born on this day in 1938. On what would have been his 73rd birthday, we look back on his life and new revelations about his work.

Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, Carver grew up in a solidly blue-collar family. His father, a dustbowl migrant from Arkansas worked in a sawmill while his mother held part-time positions as a waitress and store clerk. When Carver was 3, the family moved to Yakima, Washington. Like many boys his age in the interior Northwest, he liked to spend his time fishing and hunting. He also liked reading, favoring the pared down, tough guy language of Mickey Spillane.


Soon after becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school, he married Maryann Burk, who was then only 16. Not long after, they had two children and the couple struggled to make ends meet as they bounced around various small cities in Northern California, with Carver working in sawmills, as a janitor in a hospital, and as a flower deliveryman.

Despite the economic realities confronting them, the couple was determined to pursue their goals. Maryann wanted to be a teacher, and Carver wanted to be a writer. He managed to squeeze in classes, including attending a creative writing course taught by novelist John Gardner (Grendel, October Light) and was first published in 1963. Maryann, meanwhile, finally got her teaching degree in 1970.

But all was not smooth sailing. Carver was an alcoholic and could be abusive. Determined as he was to become a writer, he often shrugged off his parental responsibilities, and for long periods Maryann supported him and their children, working as a waitress, encyclopedia sales person and fruit packer.

For nearly a decade, Carver’s work appeared only in academic literary quarterlies, but in 1971 it came to the attention of Esquire editor Gordon Lish, whose publication of “Neighbors” brought Carver into the mainstream.

Lish’s editorial relationship with Carver has proven a fertile ground for exploration in recent years, with the 2009 publication of Carver’s original short story manuscripts betraying a more expansive and conventional storytelling style than what, under Lish’s red pen, Carver became famous for. Spare, emotionally gut-wrenching and often focused on those living on the margins in the Northwest, his early style became known as “dirty realism” or “minimalism” (labels Carver would come to resent). While Lish’s heavy editing may have gone against the author’s intent, there can be little doubt that his influence was key in winning Carver an audience.

Short stories written during this period were collected in 1976’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, a book that sold few copies but was shortlisted for the National Book Award (the day after its publication, Carver was in court on fraud charges related to cashing unemployment checks). In 1973 Carver also landed a teaching job at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop but by this time had become a full-blown alcoholic, spending little time writing or teaching and instead whiling away hours drinking with fellow writer and imbiber John Cheever.

Carver left Iowa in 1974 hoping, as he often did, that a change in geography would inspire sobriety. Instead, he drank heavily for the next few years, despite arrests, hospitalizations and stints in detox.

In 1977 at age 39, he finally gave up alcohol for good. The last decade of his life would be incredibly productive as he tried to make up for lost time, but it would also see him leave the wife who had supported him for nearly 25 years of struggle. He instead moved in with poet Tess Gallagher, whom he’d met at a literary conference.

During the publication of his second collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver finally soured on his collaboration with Gordon Lish. His later work, as exemplified in 1982’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Cathedral moved stylistically beyond stark, spare prose, but also showed a warmth and optimism largely absent from much of his previous work.

By the time Carver died of lung cancer at the age of 50 (he’d been a heavy smoker since age 14), he’d become the most imitated American short story writer of his era. Today, nearly 23 years after his death, audiences are still discovering his stories, many through cinematic adaptations like Robert Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts, which links nine Carver stories and one poem, or 2006’s Jindabyne, based on Carver’s story So Much Water So Close To Home. Just two weeks ago, a new Carver adaptation appeared, Everything Must Go, starring Will Ferrell and based on the 1977 story Why Don’t You Dance.

What we talk about when we talk about Raymond Carver may still be evolving, but it’s a safe bet his work will be with us for some time.

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