Nationality: American. Born: Clatskanie, Oregon, 25 May 1938. Education: Chico State College, California (founding editor, Selection), 1958-59; Humboldt State University, Arcata, California, 1960-63, A.B. 1963; University of Iowa, 1963-64, M.F.A. 1966. Family: Married 1) Maryann Burk in 1957 (divorced 1982), one daughter and one son; 2) the writer Tess Gallagher in 1988. Career: Worked in various jobs, including janitor, saw mill worker, delivery man, and salesman, 1957-67; textbook editor, Science Research Associates, Palo Alto, California, 1967-70; visiting lecturer, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1970-71 and Santa Barbara, 1975; editor, Quarry, Santa Cruz, 1971; visiting professor of English, University of California, Berkeley, 1971-72; visiting writer, University of Iowa, 1972-73; visiting writer, Goddard College, Vermont, 1977-78; visiting writer, University of Texas, El Paso, 1978-79; professor of English, Syracuse University, New York, 1980-84. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, for poetry, 1971; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, for fiction, 1979; Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, 1973; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; O. Henry award, 1983; Strauss Living award, 1983. Died: 4 August 1988.
All of Us: The Collected Poems. 1996.
Put Yourself in My Shoes. 1974.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? 1976.
Furious Seasons and Other Stories. 1977.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. 1981.
The Pheasant. 1982.
The Stories. 1985.
Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories. 1988.
Short Cuts. 1993.
Carnations (produced 1962).
A Screenplay, with Tess Gallagher; published withKing Dog by Ursula K. LeGuin. 1985.
Feathers, from his own story, 1987.
Near Klamath. 1968.
Winter Insomnia. 1970.
At Night the Salmon Move. 1976.
Two Poems. 1982.
If It Please You. 1984.
Where Water Comes Together with Other Water. 1985.
This Water. 1985.
In a Marine Light: Selected Poems. 1987.
A New Path to the Waterfall. 1989.
In the Year 2020 (illustrated broadside). 1993.
Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. 1983.
My Father's Life, illustrated by Gaylord Schanilec. 1986.
Conversations with Carver, edited by Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull. 1990.
No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings, edited by William L. Stull. 1991.
Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver. 1994.
Editor, We Are Not in this Together: Stories, by William Kittredge. 1983.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, Best American Short Stories 1986. 1986.
Editor, with Tom Jenks, American Short Story Masterpieces. 1987.*
"Voyeurism, Dissociation, and the Art of Carver" by David Boxer, in Iowa Review, Summer 1979; "Carver: A Chronicler of Blue-Collar Despair" by Bruce Weber, in New York Times Magazine, 24 June 1984; "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Carver" by William L. Stull in Philological Quarterly, Winter 1985; in European Views of Contemporary American Literature edited by Marc Chénetier, 1985; Understanding Carver by Arthur M. Saltzman, 1988; Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction by Ewing Campbell, 1992; Reading Raymond Carver by Randolph Runyon, 1993; Raymond Carver by Adam Meyer, 1994; Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography by Sam Halpert, 1995; Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From: A Reflection of His Life and Art by John Magee, 1997.* * *
Raymond Carver is the most important writer in the renaissance of short fiction sparked in Callaghan literature in the 1980s. A master of what has been termed "minimalist hyperrealism," he belongs to a tradition of short story writers beginning with Anton Chekhov and continuing with Ernest Hemingway—two of his acknowledged mentors.
The stories in Carver's two early collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk about When We Talk about Love depend very little on plot, focusing instead on seemingly trivial situations of lower-middle class characters so sparsely delineated that they seem less physical reality than shadowy presences trapped in their own inarticulateness. Because reality for Carver exists only in the hard, bare outlines of an ambiguous event, these early stories often have more the sense of dream than everyday reality.
Typical of Carver's first two collections are "Neighbors" and "Why Don't You Dance?," both of which present ordinary people in ordinary situations that Carver transforms into the mysteriously extraordinary. "Neighbors" focuses on a young couple asked to watch their neighbors' apartment and water their plants. However, the husband begins to stay longer and longer in the apartment, taking trivial things and then trying on the clothes of both the vacationing man and his wife. The story comes to a climax when the husband discovers that his wife is similarly fascinated, and, against all reason, they begin to hope that maybe the neighbors won't come back. When they discover that they have locked themselves out of the apartment, they hold on to each other desperately, leaning into the door as if "against a wind."
The story offers no explanation for the fascination the apartment holds for the young couple. But the understated language makes it clear that this is not a story about sexual perversion, but rather about the fascination of visiting someone else's secret inner reality and temporarily taking on their identity. The desperation the couple feels at the conclusion suggests the impossibility of truly entering into the lives of others, except to visit and inevitably to violate.
"Why Don't You Dance?" begins with an unidentified man who has arranged all his furniture on his front lawn just as it was when it was in the house. Carver only obliquely suggests a broken marriage as the motivation for this mysterious gesture by noting that the bed has a reading lamp on "his" side of the bed and a reading lamp on "her" side of the bed—though the man's wife does not appear in the story. The minimalist drama of the story begins when a young couple stops and makes offers for some of the furnishings, all of which the man indifferently accepts. Nothing really happens; the man plays a record on the phonograph and the man and the girl dance. The story ends with a brief epilogue weeks later when the girl tells a friend about the incident: "She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying."
The story illustrates the Chekhovian tradition of embodying complex inner reality by the simple description of outer reality. By placing all his furniture on his front lawn, the man externalizes what has previously been hidden inside the house. The young couple metaphorically "replace" the older man's lost relationship by creating their own relationship on the remains of his. However, the story is not a hopeful one, for the seemingly minor conflicts between the two young people presage another doomed marriage. Indeed, as the girl senses, there is "more to it," but she cannot quite articulate the meaning of the event, can only, as storytellers must, retell it over and over again, trying to get it talked out and intuitively understood.
Carver's two later collections Cathedral and Where I'm Calling From represent a shift in his basic theme and style. Whereas his early stories are minimalist and bleak, his later stories are more discursive and optimistic. A particularly clear example of this shift can be seen in the revisions Carver made to an early story entitled "The Bath" and renamed "A Small, Good Thing" in the last two collections. Both versions of the story concern a couple whose son is hit by a car on his eighth birthday and who is hospitalized in a coma—an event made more nightmarish by the fact that they receive annoying calls from a baker from whom the wife had earlier ordered a custom-made birthday cake for the child. "The Bath" is very brief; told in Carver's early, neutralized style, it focuses less on the feelings of the couple than on the mysterious and perverse interruption of the persistent anonymous calls.
The revision, "A Small, Good Thing," is five times longer and sympathetically develops the emotional life of the couple, suggesting that their prayers for their son bind them together in a genuine human communion that they have never felt before. Much of the detail of the revision focuses on the parents as they anxiously wait for their son to regain consciousness. Whereas in the first version the child's death abruptly ends the story, in the second the couple go visit the baker after the boy's death. He shares their sorrow; they share his loneliness. The story ends in reconciliation in the warm and comfortable bakery as the couple eat bread and talk into the early morning, not wanting to leave—as if a retreat into the communal reality of the bakery marks the true nature of healing human at-oneness.
Carver's understanding of the merits of the short story form and his sensitivity to the situation of modern men and women caught in tenuous relationships and inexplicable separations has made him an articulate spokesperson for those who cannot articulate their own dilemmas. Although critics are divided over the relative merits of Carver's early bleak experimental stories and his later more conventional and morally optimistic stories, there is little disagreement that Raymond Carver is the ultimate modern master of the "much-in-little" nature of the short story form.
—Charles E. May