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Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver’s (1938-1988) plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads:

“Why don’t you kids dance?” he decided to say, and then he said it. “Why don’t you dance?” “I don’t think so,” the boy said. “Go ahead,” the man said. “It’s my yard. You can dance if you want to.”

It is an excerpt from the story “Why Don’t You Dance?” written before 1977, but published in the 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In a little known interviewtaken a few hours before Carver’s reading in the English Lounge on the night of April 15, 1978 by David Koehne, a Writers’ Workshop resident at the time, the writer admits: “A year ago I thought I’d never write another poem. I don’t know exactly what it is, but since I’ve been in Iowa City I’ve written an entire book.” Until that time, Carver had published three collections of poems and only two collections of short stories, and people knew him more as a poet rather than as a fiction writer.

The story he read that April 1978 night to a large audience in the University’s English Lounge gives him away as a master of fiction. It possesses all the qualities of his landmark “minimalist” prose: sympathy for his characters, frugality of words that disclose only the most relevant detail, and likeability of all his stories without the readers’ knowing exactly why they are so likeable. As a matter of fact, Carver didn’t appreciate the minimalist label; he preferred to think of himself as “precisionist.”[1]

Raymond Carver as Storyteller


Cathedral

More than 20 years after his death, the dispute about his editor Gordon Lish’s formative influence on his style still lingers. Carver was a person who always acknowledged help, and, he acknowledged in public his debt to Lish. However, in private, he was baffled by the radical interventions of his editor, which in some cases amounted to real kidnapping of the original story. At some point he said, with characteristic irony, that Lish “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 is that he’s my editor and my friend, and I’m glad on both counts.”[2] A great editor Lish may have been, but not a great writer. Reaching the heights of the masterpieces What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral can only be done by an individual who has the conceptual power of telling a story that is both gripping and impeccable plot-wise.

“Even when I’m writing a poem”, Carver once said, “I’m still trying to tell a story”. He was self-conscious about the intensity of his stories’ undercurrent: “It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue,” he said in an interview with The New York Times,[3] ”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.” This “kind of writing” was uniquely married to the kind of characters Carver chose to create: people on the margins, struggling to make ends meet, barely aware of their troubling emotions but fundamentally able to give and accept love. It is most likely that the association between a style relying on “the chill along the reader’s spine” and characters who are “on the margins” in any sense of the word is what explains the universal likeability of Carver’s short stories.

The Struggles of Carver


Carver

In 1978, Carver lives a healthy, alcohol-free life. He receives a Guggenheim fellowship and comes to teach in Iowa City from March through June, still with his first wife Maryann. Donald Justice, a poet professor at the workshop, and 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, remembers that during that stay Carver and Maryann house-sat for them while Justice and his wife were away for more than a month.[5] In August, Carver goes to El Paso, Texas expecting to be joined by his wife. But Maryann decides to pass: that is how they split up after 20 years of marriage. In El Paso, Carver finds his companion-to-be, the poet Tess Gallagher (who had been a Workshop resident in 1974, the first time Carver was hired to teach in Iowa City. At that time the two didn’t notice each other: their relationship sparked in November 1977 when they met in El Paso, Texas at a writer’s conference.)

Everybody who has ever had some interest in Raymond Carver’s writing knows that his creative life was split in two parts: drinking and sober. The date where the first ends and the second begins is well known: June 2, 1977. On that day, called by Carver “the line of demarcation,” he had his last alcoholic drink. From the moment he goes dry until the time he is able to write in full speed again, there pass more than two years. On January 1, 1979, he moved in with the poet Tess Gallagher in El Paso. This proved to be quite inspirational for him as he was establishing himself domestically and internationally as one of the greatest American short story writers.

Here is how Donald Justice explained it, elaborating over his own claim that Ray Carver is an American Chekhov, but he cannot think of an English Chekhov: “In Ray’s stories you can see the way they come directly from experience, but at the same time you don’t feel the same way as you often do when the writing is more or less autobiographical as in, say, D. H. Lawrence’sSons and Lovers. You don’t feel the same kind of terrible egoism. Carver was able to use himself and his own experience, but in a more objective way. He was in his stories, but he also saw [them], and from a distance…”[6]

There is hardly any other significant American writer (Hemingway comes to mind as a possible exception—but again, he was using alcohol in extraordinary quantities) whose drinking problems have been made so legendary and as if, in some sense, determining his work. In the memories of his friends, including his drinking buddies, Carver appears like an open book. But was he? And why was his drinking so overblown to the extent that in the monumental Carver Country it bears almost the same weight as his poetry and fiction—except, tellingly, in the biographical writing of his second wife Tess Gallagher? Regardless of the colossal amount of studies, narratives, interviews, memoirs, reviews, and critical essays tackling the connection between Ray’s drinking and his writing, three important questions have not been adequately addressed. What was the connection between Carver’s marital life and his drinking? Was there a difference in how he wrote while under the curse of alcoholism and how he wrote after he cured himself of it? And, finally, what was the effect of his multiple Iowa City visits on his entire work?

The American Chekov


(We gratefully acknowledge the permission granted by Ms. Tess Gallagher to reprint selections from her Introduction toCarver Country: The World of Raymond Carver.)

A great number of people beyond Justice, both among those who knew him intimately and those who only evaluated him by his writing, made claims that Carver was the “American Chekhov.” The writer himself supported these claims not just with his statements, fiction, and the sympathy he demonstrated for his characters, but with his story “Errand” published in the June 1, 1987 issue of The New Yorker. “Errand,” whose main character is Anton Chekhov himself, turned out to be the last of his works Carver saw in print: this bold tribute to Chekhov also won him the 1988 O’Henry Award, which he accepted just months before he died. Yet, regardless of the bulk of similarities between the two short-story masters, both in life and in style but chiefly in style, one is conspicuously missing. Born and living in Russia, a country famous for its drunkards, Chekhov never abused alcohol. So, while Chekhov’s biography and literary accomplishment has nothing to do with drinking, Carver’s relationship with alcohol has too often been used to explain his life’s trajectory, and even some of his fictional choices.

It is worth carefully examining what Tess Gallagher had to say on the subject of similarities in her tribute to her fellow writer and life partner, titled Carver Country: “I remember encountering a description of something which had been said of Chekhov to the effect that in his presence people felt they had the ease in which to be themselves, and that even in their weaknesses they would not be judged. All pretense and falsity, all pettiness fell away in his company. This seems an uncannily accurate rendering of the effect Ray had on people as well. His passage through the near-death corridors of alcoholism had left him full of compassion and an ability to love. This somehow communicated itself immediately on sight in his slightly hunched posture and in the shy but attentive way he entered into conversation. He had seen it all and lived to tell it. He never underestimated anyone’s pain or struggle. At the same time he never heaped credit upon himself for having overcome his illness. He knew it was a matter of grace, of having put his trust in [ … ] ‘a higher power,’ …”[7] If you looked at the famous picture of Chekhov’s that Carver kept hung on the wall of his study in Syracuse, you would see the same slightly hunched posture of a shy, soft, all-forgiving individual exuding love.

In Russia, people speak openly and often about love. And the soul. In America, such topics are more often than not kept under the rug. So, while Chekhov’s characters are famously known for their melancholic dolce far niente and his prose as a study of the middle-class people’s tormented souls, Carver’s characters are “a quasi-inarticulate group of people on the margins who mattered not because of what they said, or even how they said it, but because of what befell them.”[8] His prose is a study of people with tormented lives. Only once, in a poem written during his second life, in 1985 (“Late Fragment”), gave Carver a clue to what may have been the real reason for his tormented life and, hence, his drowning it in alcohol:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

It is no coincidence that Tess Gallagher withdrew her interview from Sam Halpert’s Raymond Carver, An Oral Biography. And that she shifted the balance of her portrait of Carver toward his ten post-alcoholic years. The real Carver was there: when he achieved a match between the man and the writer. In the funny, gossipy, insightful collection of interviews with people who crossed path with Raymond Carver, his drinking is largely presented as artistic, manly, almost heroic. In truth, it was destructive.

Raymond Carver in Iowa City


Carver

Most of Carver’s Iowa visits (except the last one) happened during this first, destructive yet creative period of his life. The first time, he came to Iowa City as a student in the poetry workshop in the fall of 1963, but stayed only until the end of that school year. Paul Engle didn’t renew his scholarship. Next, he was appointed lecturer in the Workshop in the fall of 1974. Due to financial troubles at the time, Carver kept his previous position at University of California Santa Barbara and commuted by air between the two places. In Iowa City, he lived in the Iowa House at the Iowa Memorial Union: his room was two floors above John Cheever’s room, and both used to spend days and nights talking and drinking.

Carver’s time in Iowa and the circumstances associated with his stay here are best told inDonald Justice and John Leggett’s interviews, published in Raymond Carver: Oral Biography. (Reprinted with permission from the University of Iowa Press, 1995)

Justice: [Carver] was a student in the poetry workshop I was teaching, and about all I recall from that time is that he was dissatisfied and restless. He felt the workshop atmosphere was wrong for him, and it probably was … Years later he told me that his memory of the place wasn’t all that bad, In the early seventies […] he came back to teach fiction here. I’d see him around the offices quite a bit. Our paths crossed mostly in socializing, at parties. I remember a poker game in his room on the Iowa House one Sunday evening in which I lost heavily. Ray bluffed me out of a couple of hands. I remember consulting with him on some of the application manuscripts. […] Marvin Bell and I asked him if he would help out a little on the poetry applications, which he very kindly did. […] We liked Ray and thought it was great that he was here, but nothing of any particular significance happened that I saw or knew about. I think Cheever was here at the same time and I’m sure they became friendly. As it happened I didn’t meet Cheever at that time. I met him later, but he was around. He was the famous storywriter and Ray was scarcely known. I suppose he was as well known here in Iowa City as he was anywhere. It would be some years more in fact before Ray would be generally recognized as a writer.

Leggett: Carver first entered my life in 1971, I believe. I had been the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a couple of years, and one of the things that we had just begun was the Iowa short fiction contest. It was started by John Simmons, who was then director of the University of Iowa Press, and Vance Bourjaily, who was the reason I went to Iowa originally.[…] We received a lot of manuscripts --- several hundred. So that there’d be no favoritism, we would select and pay distinguished off-campus authors to make the final decision of ten manuscripts. I think the major readers were Joyce Carol Oats in ’72 and Jack Hawkes in ’73. [For me] it was just one more pile of manuscripts I had to haul, but I remember coming across a collection [Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?] by a man named Raymond Carver of whom I’d never heard before and I was arrested. I was so astonished by the manuscript that I called my friend Simmons and said, “We’ve got it, John, this is terrific”. So, off it went to the judge. … [And] I was stunned when I found the judge [Oats] had awarded the prize to a writer I dare say you may have never heard of. […] Years later after Ray was a successful Mercedes-driving author with money coming out of his ears, I remember asking him who were those two judges that turned you down. I’ll bet they’re really smarting. Of course he knew perfectly well, but he said, I don’t have any grudges and I don’t want you to have any either. I thought, “There’s a really Christian man glowing with human kindness now that he’s so rich.”

So, a year came by, I was sitting in the same chair out in my house on Summit Street in Iowa City reading another pile of manuscripts. And there it was again! The Carver stories. I thought, “God, a second chance. Isn’t this marvelous? We lost this wonderful long fish and here he is swimming right back in our net.” I immediately called Simmons and said, “This time I know the guy is going to win.” That year the off-campus judge was Jack Hawkes and he awarded the prize to another writer whose name may not ring loudly in your ears. I was so furious at this choice that I felt I had to do something about it this time. […] I called [Carver], and I think he was at Santa Cruz then. I got him on the line and said, “It’s a terrible thing. It’s twice you’ve struck out, and I think we’re really wrong here, but there isn’t too much I can do about it. […] But would you want to come here and teach?” He said, “Yeah, right, when do we go and how much do you pay?”

I was a little apprehensive when I first set eyes on him. He seemed to be this big sort of lumbering cow-pokey kind of guy. A total contrast to Cheever, urbane in his Brooks Brothers clothes, while Ray was tousled and frazzled, kind of bleary-eyed. I think he always wore these western shirts, plaid shirts with a drawstring around the collar, but you couldn’t help liking him. He was so friendly. [.,..] He was kind and generous and gentle. A huge gentleman.

The fall semester was under way when somebody in Ray’s section said that Ray isn’t here. I said, “what do you mean he isn’t here?” He said, “Ray has gone back to Santa Cruz.” I said, “Do you mean for the weekend.” “No,” he said, “he’s gone back to teaching there.” I said, “How could he be there teaching when he’s supposed to be here teaching for us?” […] His students were very loyal to him, but it came out that he taught two or three weeks for us, but he hadn’t quit the job at Santa Cruz. […] I have no idea how this was resolved, but I do know that we were happy that he hung around enough not only for the fall but also into the following spring. Everybody had a great time, and bit by bit he developed a tremendous following among the students. He and Cheever got along beautifully. We all enjoyed them. […] After he had become successful he came back to Iowa several times. I always had great affection for him and was so pleased to see that he had gone off the booze and had developed a lasting relationship with Tess Gallagher, who had been a poet at the workshop, though he didn’t meet her here. She seemed to me to be a good woman, and they were devoted to one another so far as I know. I remember him telling me about his success with modesty and a slight chuckle. It was wonderful to talk about this with someone who had been in such need and living on the ragged edge of survival. He’d tripped the latch of foundation grants and money was no longer a problem. He no longer needed Iowa as a solace or a place to pick up a little reading money.”

Raymond Carver, The Fiction Master


Carver

Here again is Donald Justice, in an interview with Sam Halpert:[10]


How do you view his work?

I’ve read all of his poems, and I believe all of his stories. He’s a real artist, which I very much appreciate, and he has a very strong sense of humanity. He has great human sympathy, which I don’t believe all writers have, and I am of the opinion all writers should have it. He has it automatically, just generously from the spirit. Those are the two aspects of his artistry in particular I admire, especially as they go together.

His stories are conscientiously and idiosyncratically put together. They have a form to them, and he has a style of his own too that is as far as I can tell without pretension. It also possesses all sorts of virtues I appreciate. It is quite clear, direct, and fairly subtle. He seems to be concerned with the truth. All this may seem obvious, but it can’t be said of most writers. The classical virtues exist in his best work.

But he wrote for years without recognition despite the virtues of this clear idiosyncratic style.

I have perhaps peculiar ideas on this matter that may relate to my views of poetry too. I think it is easier to spot real or even false originality in an experimental style than in a classical style. I see Ray’s work in the classical style. It’s not flashy or pretentious. I think a great deal of the work that has gained immediate attention in America since the Second World War has been flashy and pretentious. So Ray’s work would somehow have been out of it in that way. It’s astonishing that the beauty of his work did become appreciated because he didn’t make compromises with the prevailing trends.

What do you think of his poetry?

I believe he was more a storywriter. Almost everyone would agree to that, but I enjoy reading his poems, almost for the same reasons I like his fiction, but for me there is not so much sense of a form being achieved or an individual style being found. I did a blurb for one of his collections, At Night the Salmon Move. My favorite in that book was a really funny poem about Bukowski. It is a masterpiece of comedy. […]

Then overall, do you find his poetry too similar to his fiction?

The poems are of a piece with the rest of his work. Let’s just say he is more finished artist in his fiction. He has more room to get people with one another, which is one of his strengths. I was reading one of his earlier stories last night, “The Student’s Wife.” I particularly like those earlier stories. They strike me as having a true Chekhovian shape and form along with sympathy for characters that you wouldn’t’ expect to be sympathetic with.

And here is another poignant recognition of Raymond Carver’s genius by Tobias Wolff in his account of his first reading of “Cathedral”:[11]

“I was fighting the story. But after a few pages it disarmed me and I surrendered to it, and as I read I felt myself drawn up by it. I felt as if I were levitating there above the couch. I was weightless, filled with a sense of profound, inexplicable joy. Blessed, and conscious of it, I understood that I was in the presence of a masterpiece.”

All Carver readers would identify with what Wolff experienced: reading Carver is always difficult at the beginning but elevating at the end. Just like his life. Here is how the poet Carver gave credit to the elevated second half of his own life, only a few months before he passed away:


Gravy


No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Raymond Carver: Collected Stories


Collected

In 2009, The Library of America's published Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, edited by William Stull and Maureen Carroll. The book gathers all of Carver's stories, including early sketches and posthumously discovered works, thus providing a comprehensive overview of Carver's fiction. Among other things, the collection prompts a fresh consideration of Carver by presenting the manuscript of What We Talk About When We Talk About Lovethat Carver submitted to Gordon Lish under the title Beginners. For the first time, readers can compare the manuscript and published versions of the collection that established Carver as a major American writer.

References



[1] Adelman, Bob & Gallagher, Tess. Carver Country. New York, Scribner’s and Sons, 1990. 
[2] Writers at Work: Seventh Series (Paris Review Interviews), edited by George Plimpton, introduction by John Updike. New York, Viking 1986. 
[3] The New York Times, February 15, 1981. 
[4] Henry, Patrick, Introduction. Philosophy and Literature, 1998,22:2,413-416. 
[56] Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver. An Oral Biography. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1995 
[7] Adelman, Bob & Gallagher, Tess. Carver Country. New York, Scribner’s and Sons, 1990 
[8] Henry, Patrick, Introduction. Philosophy and Literature, 1998,22:2,413-416. 
[91011] Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver. An Oral Biography. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1995

Text by: Zlatko Anguelov

United States