In his relatively short career as a professional author, Raymond Carver established a critical reputation as the most powerful and innovative short-story writer of his generation. He was born in a small town in northwestern Oregon, but by the time he started school his family had moved to Yakima, Washington, where his father worked as a logger. Carver once declared that the most important, although in many ways the most negative, influence on his early hopes to become a writer was the fact that he married and became a father before he was twenty. The need to support his family made the work he really wanted to do impossible.
Carver moved his wife and two children to California in 1958, where he enrolled at Chico State College, then a small school in the California state college system. There he attended a creative writing class taught by John Gardner, soon thereafter to become better known as a writer, who encouraged Carver in his writing efforts. After transferring to Humboldt State College, a northern coastal school, Carver received his degree in 1963.
During the 1960’s Carver wrote and published his poetry and fiction in various small magazines. His career took a decisive turn in 1970, when he was honored with a National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Award for Poetry. That award enabled him to spend time revising some of his stories, which appeared in his first important book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Carver was soon publishing in major journals and gaining recognition, but he had by this time succumbed to alcoholism. In 1977, when Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was nominated for the National Book Award, he was hospitalized several times. Carver’s resolution that on June 2, 1977, he would stop drinking forever had a significant effect on his writing style and career.
Carver’s professional career began to blossom in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s: In 1979 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1981 he published a highly praised collection of stories titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and two years later he published the collection Cathedral. His personal life improved significantly after he and his wife were divorced in the late 1970’s, and he entered into a relationship with the writer Tess Gallagher. In 1987 Carver, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed as having lung cancer, and he died in Port Angeles, Washington, on August 2, 1988.
Raymond Carver’s first two collections of short stories shocked readers with their violence and puzzled them with their laconic, Chekhovian style. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? contains twenty-two stories with stark images of lives lived in quiet desperation. In many of the stories in this collection the characters are thrown out of their everyday routines and caught in situations where they feel helpless and estranged.
The stories in Carver’s first important collection are relatively drained of imagery and recall the style of Ernest Hemingway. The stories in his second major collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are even more radically spare in their language; indeed, they are so minimal that they seem mere dehumanized patterns with no life in them at all. What themes they may have are embodied in the bare outlines of sometimes shocking, sometimes trivial events and in the spare and reticent dialogue of the characters who seem utterly unable to articulate the nature of their isolation. The most basic theme of Carver’s stories is the tenuous union between men and women and the mysterious separations that always seem imminent.
The stories that appear in two of Carver’s later collections, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, are more hopeful than the earlier stories, perhaps because they were written after Carver had recovered from alcoholism and met Gallagher. The style is also more voluble and detailed, exhibiting Carver’s increasing willingness to discuss, explain, and explore the emotions and situations that give rise to the stories. Instead of separation, Carver’s later stories move toward union or reunion.
Raymond Carver is, in the opinion of many critics, the most important figure in the renaissance of short fiction that was sparked in American literature in the 1980’s. He belongs in a line of short-story writers that begins with Anton Chekhov and progresses through such masters of the form as Sherwood Anderson, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, and Bernard Malamud. On the basis of a small output of stories, Carver will remain a significant figure in the history of twentieth century American literature.