Carver, Raymond (1938-1988)

  • By Christopher Setzer
  • Posted 6/20/2022
  • Essay 22455

Raymond Carver, acclaimed author of short stories and poems, was raised in Yakima by a family of working people from Arkansas. Determined from childhood to become a writer, he studied under the novelist John Gardner in college and went on to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Carver's sharp, naturalistic fiction mined the terrain of his Pacific Northwest upbringing, his family relationships, and his marriage. With his wife Maryann Burk Carver as his stalwart financial support and first reader, he began publishing his work in small literary journals in the 1960s. Later, championed by the ascendant editor Gordon Lish, Carver's stories won a national audience in magazines like Esquire. Yet by the time he released his first story collection in 1976, he had sunk into acute alcoholism, stranding his family in a state of crisis. After a series of hospitalizations, Carver took his last drink in 1977. Separated from Maryann, he began seeing the poet Tess Gallagher, who remained his partner for the last decade of his life. His success blossomed in sobriety as he published two celebrated fiction collections and several books of poetry. Following treatment for lung cancer, Carver died in Port Angeles in 1988.

Yakima Valley

Raymond Clevie Carver was born on May 25, 1938, in Clatskanie, Oregon, a mill town on the lower Columbia River. His parents, Clevie Raymond (C. R.) Carver (1913-1967) and Ella Casey Carver (1913-1993), were young Arkansans then living in nearby Wauna, where C. R. worked for the Crossett Lumber Company. Raymond Carver's nicknames as a child included Frog, Junior, and Little Doc; when he grew up, he answered to Ray.

The Carver family had arrived in the Northwest in 1929 when Ray's uncle Fred moved to Okanogan County. Ray's father C. R., then 15 years old, was enlisted to bring the family's Model T up from Arkansas with five relatives aboard, their luggage strapped to the hull of the car. Over the next decade, the Carvers went wherever work took them. In Omak, they sorted apples and worked at the Biles-Coleman lumber mill. After joining a strike at the mill in 1936, C. R. and Fred went to help build Grand Coulee Dam, where they saw President Roosevelt speak in 1937. "He never mentioned those guys who died building that dam," C. R. told his family (Collected Stories, 720).

Following a stop in Oregon, the Carvers landed in Yakima in 1941. There, C. R. obtained skilled work as a saw filer for the Cascade mill and "kept his saws so sharp they could shave the hair off your arm" (Collected Stories, 720). Ella worked a series of jobs in canneries, stores, and cafés while caring for Ray and his brother James (b. 1943) and keeping the family fed on a diet of Arkansas country cooking. Ray grew up a shy, daydreaming boy who loved listening to his father's stories of hopping trains and "tramping around in the woods" (Simpson and Buzbee, 33). At school, he was a middling student with a "bad habit of 'giggling' at anything and everything," per his sixth grade report card (Sklenicka, 16).

"My heart lifts up when I see the Yakima Valley," Carver once told an interviewer (O'Connell, 93). Ray spent much of his youth hunting and fishing around Central Washington, and the stamp of this landscape remains evident in stories from "Sixty Acres" to "So Much Water So Close to Home." In the poem "Prosser," he recalled hunting trips with his father along the Yakima River:

In winter two kinds of fields on the hills
outside Prosser: fields of new green wheat, the slips
rising overnight out of the plowed ground,
and waiting,
and then rising again, and budding.
Geese love this green wheat.
I ate some of it once too, to see.

And wheat stubble-fields that reach to the river.
These are the fields that have lost everything.
At night they try to recall their youth,
but their breathing is slow and irregular as
their life sinks into dark furrows.
Geese love this shattered wheat also.
They will die for it.
(All of Us, 33)

Though Ray's childhood was peopled by a generous community of family and neighbors, C. R. and Ella struggled to maintain a foothold in the middle class. Money problems and C. R.'s occasional drinking spells led to scenes out of a Carver story: "I can recall what happened one night when my dad came home late to find that my mother had locked all the doors on him from the inside," Ray wrote. "When he'd managed to force open a window, she hit him between the eyes with a colander and knocked him out. We could see him down there on the grass." He added: "I tasted some of his whiskey once myself. It was terrible stuff, and I didn't see how anybody could drink it" (Collected Stories, 719-727).

Carver dreamed of becoming a writer from the time he "learned cursive lettering in the third grade" (Burk Carver, 22-23). As a boy, he read Edgar Rice Burroughs and wrote his own "little stories about monsters, ants, laboratories and mad doctors" (Phillips, 4). Later, he turned to outdoors pieces like his first magazine submission, "a longish thing about the fish that got away" that he and his mother prepared on a rented typewriter (Simpson and Buzbee, 34). At 17, he took a correspondence course on the "Essential Elements of a Short Story and How to Develop Them." He hung the completion certificate on his bedroom wall.

In the summer of 1955, Ray met 14-year-old Maryann Burk (b. 1941), a co-worker of his mother's at a Spudnut Shop in Union Gap. "I just had that immediate recognition when I saw him," remembered Maryann. "We looked at each other and smiled with delight. We knew each other" (Halpert, 56). Daughter of a schoolteacher and a logger, Maryann was a literate, ambitious girl who hoped to become a lawyer. She found in Ray "a prodigious reader with a wonderful vocabulary" (Sklenicka, 46), and it was at her suggestion that he first read Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Flaubert.

In spring 1957 the young couple learned that Maryann was pregnant. That June, days after her high school graduation, Ray and Maryann got married in Yakima. Their daughter Christine was born in December, with a son, Vance, arriving in 1958. Thus Carver plunged into the main preoccupations of his art: marriage and family life. "Most of what now strikes me as story 'material' presented itself to me after I was twenty," he later wrote. "I really don't remember much about my life before I became a parent" (Collected Stories, 738). It would fall to Maryann to "walk the tightrope between Ray's writing life and our family" (Burk Carver, 65). As she remembered, "the biggest plan in our lives was for Ray to become a first-rate, world-class writer" (Halpert, 59).

Furious Seasons

In 1959 the Carvers were living in Northern California, where Ray took classes at Chico State College while Maryann worked and cared for their young children. That fall, he enrolled in a fiction writing course taught by a 26-year-old unpublished novelist named John Gardner (1933-1982). "He said he was there to tell us which authors to read as well as teach us how to write. He was amazingly arrogant," Ray remembered (Collected Stories, 743). Gardner, later the celebrated author of Grendel and other novels, drilled into his students the need to use "common language, the language of normal discourse, the language we speak to each other in" (Collected Stories," 743). Carver never forgot that, nor Gardner's lending a key to his office so he could write there on weekends. "Whatever he had to say went right into my bloodstream," Carver recalled (O'Connell, 100).

After completing his undergraduate studies at Humboldt State College in 1963, Ray landed a spot in the master's program at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Though he left after a year, having made faint impression upon the faculty, he came away with strong new work, including two marriage stories that suggested the complexity of his later fiction: "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" and "The Student's Wife." During the same period, Carver began placing stories and poems in small literary journals like Western Humanities Review and Carolina Quarterly where, Gardner had said, "the best fiction in the country was being published" (Collected Stories," 743).

His stories depicted people not dissimilar to himself and Maryann and those they knew: people who waited tables and sold encyclopedias door to door; who lived in suburbs and snooped on their neighbors; who dodged bill collectors and tested their marriage vows with flings and petty fights. "They're my people," he said once. "They're my relatives, they're the people I grew up with. Half my family is still living like this. They still don't know how they're going to make it through the next month or two" (O'Connell, 137-138).

While Ray honed his voice, Maryann was the family's "mainstay and dynamo," working dizzying hours at restaurants and telephone switchboards to pay their bills. "I used to say that if you parachuted her blindfolded into a city where she'd never been, within twenty minutes she'd find a job doing something that would bring in money," a friend recalled (Halpert, 4). After Ray left school, they settled in Sacramento, where he cycled through a series of menial jobs but failed to stick with anything that distracted from his writing. (An exception was the night shift he worked as a hospital custodian, which let him write uninterrupted during the day.) The Carvers' financial troubles would germinate into such stories as "Are These Actual Miles?" in which a desperate couple must sell their convertible "today, tonight," before "somebody they owe might slap a lien on the car" ("Are These Actual Miles?," 96).

In 1967, fresh off a declaration of bankruptcy, Ray received good news: his story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" would appear in the next edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology. He also secured a white-collar job, his first, with a textbook publisher in Palo Alto. When he was let go by the same publisher in 1970, the severance payment and unemployment benefits enabled Carver to write full-time for a year. "Something happened during that time in the writing, to the writing," he remembered. "It went underground and then it came up again, and it was bathed in a new light for me" (Stull, 187).

His work met a national audience in 1971 when the story "Neighbors," about a married couple who cultivate a voyeuristic alternate life while house-sitting, was published in Esquire magazine. Gordon Lish (b. 1934), an erstwhile drinking partner of Carver's who had recently been named Esquire's fiction editor, was determined to revitalize American letters with new voices from the margins. Though Ray worried that the final version of "Neighbors," edited by Lish, was "too thin, too elliptical and subtle, too inhuman" (Hicks, 529), he felt grateful for the opportunity. His luck, he told a friend, "should give hope to every writer in America" (Sklenicka, 201).

"Bad Raymond"

With Lish steering his work into magazines like Esquire and Harper's Bazaar, Carver's literary star shot upward in the 1970s. He adopted the hustling lifestyle of the professional writer, subsisting on grants and academic appointments that included a prestigious Stegner Fellowship. Maryann, who had recently obtained her degree and a new job teaching high school, remained the family's financial anchor and a strong advocate for her husband's work. "All the things that my parents had worked so hard for and dreamed about were beginning to come true for them," remembered their daughter Christine (Halpert, 83).

Brought up in a time and place in which alcoholism went unremarked, Ray had been drinking since he was a teenager. His first date at age 16 ended, by one account, when he "got so drunk he vomited all over his date's dress" ("Instead of Dying"). Now he fell in with a wild crowd in the Bay Area and in Missoula, Montana, where his friend William Kittredge presided over a legendary court of alcoholic writers. During one visit to Missoula in 1972, Carver embarked on an extramarital affair that would last years. From there, said his daughter, "his drinking escalated and it began undermining every aspect of family and work structure he had" (Halpert, 83).

Accounts of what Carver called his "Bad Raymond" days are as voluminous as they are shabby; one friend described him as akin to "a low-rent criminal" (Sklenicka, 241). Ray wrote bad checks, had assignations in multiple time zones, and drove drunk constantly, keeping a bottle under the seat of his bombed-out Mercury Comet. In 1973 he taught at Iowa alongside one of his heroes, the short story master John Cheever. But, as Ray recalled, "I don't think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters. We made trips to a liquor store twice a week in my car" (Simpson and Buzbee, 40).

In 1974, Gordon Lish offered to publish Carver's first story collection under his new imprint at the publisher McGraw-Hill. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, containing 22 stories edited by Lish, was released in March 1976 to critical acclaim. "His prose, for all its simplicity, carries his mark everywhere," wrote Geoffrey Wolff in a perceptive review for The New York Times (Wolff). The day after the book's release, Ray would stand trial in San Jose for unemployment-insurance fraud. Though found guilty, he received a suspended sentence and was ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

By now his drinking had disintegrated him. Several times he attacked and injured Maryann in an intoxicated rage, once nearly killing her when he bludgeoned her with a bottle of vodka and severed an artery. Ray underwent four hospitalizations in the years 1975-1977 as he tried to gain control of his addiction. If he continued to drink, he was told, he would be dead in six months. "We all thought he would keep on drinking until it killed him," said a family member. "And he thought so too" (Halpert, 90).

Chef's House

Carver greeted New Year's Day 1977 at Duffy's, a treatment center in the Napa Valley. His story "Where I'm Calling From," whose narrator reports from a lightly fictionalized "drying-out facility," is suggestive of Ray's frailty during this period. Weak and desperate, stalked by withdrawal seizures, the narrator sits smoking on the facility's porch, listening to stories to pass the time. "I didn't know if they could help me or not," says the narrator. "Part of me wanted help. But there was another part" (Collected Stories, 452-466).

At Duffy's, Carver learned to taper off his drinking with periodic doses of cheap bourbon called "hummers." Staying with his in-laws in San Francisco after he checked out, Ray "kept us on a schedule," his brother-in-law remembered. "Day after day, and night after night, we'd pour his hummers. I believe these days and nights were the lowest of the low he'd ever felt in his life. Sitting alone in our living room, sometimes in the dark, his marriage was gone, fearing he'd never write again, and that he had nothing" (Halpert, 92). Carver kept his things in the basement of a nearby church, where they were once inadvertently put out for sale by parishioners.

Fearing relapse if he socialized with his Bay Area circle, Ray moved alone to Humboldt County, renting a cottage behind a restaurant in McKinleyville. His health remained delicate: a friend recalled that Carver kept all the doors and windows open to the cold coastal air, saying "if he got comfortable he'd want to drink" (Sklenicka, 684). In late May, he visited San Francisco for a booksellers' convention and resumed imbibing vodka "as if it were cream soda" at a party (Burk Carver, 305). Despite Ray's condition, that weekend his publisher offered him a $5,000 advance on a proposed novel.

Lifeline in hand, he returned to McKinleyville and "stayed drunk for a couple more days." On June 2 he went drinking in Arcata. "And then I woke up, feeling terrible, but I didn't drink anything that morning ... Then I just kept not drinking. Gradually I began to put a little distance between myself and the booze. A week. Two weeks. Suddenly it was a month." It was his last drink, though he did not know it. He was thirty-nine years old. "I'm prouder of that," he said later, "that I've quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life. I'll always be an alcoholic, but I'm no longer a practicing alcoholic" (Simpson and Buzbee, 38-39).

At Ray's pleading, Maryann took leave from her teaching job and went up to join him in McKinleyville. There, like the couple depicted in the Carver story "Chef's House," they committed to restoring their marriage. But it didn't last, and in 1978 they drifted apart for good. He took a teaching post in El Paso; she remained on the West Coast. Ray and Maryann would divorce in 1982 but stayed in contact until Ray's death. She did not mount a claim to the Carver literary estate in their divorce negotiations, instead accepting Ray's offer of voluntary support. As Maryann told a biographer, she worried that a more assertive approach "would kill him if he reacted by a return to drinking" (Sklenicka, 386).

She had been the indispensable first audience for the stories of Raymond Carver. Maryann was "strong, forthright, even a little fierce," remembered the writer Leonard Michaels, who added: "Ray was lucky to have her reading his work" (Halpert, 23). She would remain proud of her part in the making of a major American writer. "I'm the 'Maryann' you find in Ray's poetry," she wrote in a 2006 memoir. "I'm also in some of the women in his short stories. ... I was the sounding board who knew his friends, his whole family, and the brilliance of the man long before he was anybody's notable author" (Burk Carver, 288).


In Carver's story "Why Don't You Dance?," a young couple visits a yard sale in front of a man's home. The owner is perhaps recently separated; on his lawn is a bedroom set and linens that look "much the way they had in the bedroom," amid other relics of a previous life: kitchenware, coffee table, sofa and TV. He haggles with the young couple over the TV, and the three of them play records and get drunk on the sofa. Later the owner slow-dances with the young woman in his driveway. They hold each other close. "You must be desperate or something," she tells him (Collected Stories, 223-227).

The story was typical of those Carver wrote in the early years of his sobriety. As the writer Douglas Unger, Ray's brother-in-law, remembered, these stories were "just an echo of events in the past which have destroyed the people before the story even begins. The dark death of love, and hope, and faith, and youth" (Halpert, 118). A student of Carver's, Dan Domench, likened his work to the bitterly elegant war tales of Isaac Babel: "Ray took the techniques of [Babel's] Red Cavalry stories, the exacting descriptions and the blunt endings, and he pointed them at the working poor and working-class suburbia" (Sklenicka, 261).

A fragile Carver was buoyed in this phase by steady teaching positions at the University of Texas at El Paso and, beginning in 1980, at Syracuse University. He also had a new partner at his side. The poet Tess Gallagher (b. 1943) shared Ray's Washington heritage, having grown up as a logger's daughter in Port Angeles before studying with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington. When she and Carver got together in El Paso in 1978, she recalled, he hugged her "like a man sinking, like he had come to a raft and pulled up onto it for a breath of air" (Sklenicka, 336). Ray and Tess summered in Port Angeles and resided in Syracuse during academic terms, keeping a "No Visitors" sign on their front door to discourage interruptions to their writing.

In 1980 Gordon Lish, now an editor at Knopf, arranged with Carver to publish a new collection of 17 stories under the title What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The book sold well and attracted positive notices when issued in April 1981, although some reviewers criticized the "slickness" of the new material by contrast to Carver's earlier work (Wood). The ghostly compression and implied menace of stories like "The Bath" and "Tell the Women We're Going" would fix Carver in the public mind as a literary minimalist.

Unknown to readers was Lish's role in engineering the strange, potent object that was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. During the editing process, Ray had been shocked by the extent of Lish's changes to his manuscript: The story "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit" was cut by 70 percent, while Lish slashed whole pages from the humanistic "A Small, Good Thing" in remaking it as the cold, tense "The Bath." Under Lish's editing pen, the stories were rendered thinner, crueler, and more abstract, often resembling the clipped dialogues of the writer James Purdy.

Carver begged Lish to reconsider his edits: "if the book were to be published as it is in its present form," he wrote, "I may never write another story, that's how close, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being" (Sklenicka, 358). But Lish refused, and Ray acquiesced. It was to Lish, and Lish's often brilliant editing, that he owed his career. Yet even as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love cemented Carver's reputation as a writer, according to Gallagher he never felt the book represented "his true pulse and instinct" ("A Nightshine beyond Memory," 240).

The Current

In May 1983 Carver received the Strauss Living Award, a five-year, tax-free $35,000 annual stipend that enabled him to resign from teaching and take up writing full time. His growing stature was evident in the editorial control he took over his next collection, Cathedral, published that September. "This one can't go that way and we both know it," he told Lish (Sklenicka, 391). Readers detected in Cathedral the voice of a more versatile and expansive writer: "He was leaping off the page, away from his normal mode," recalled a friend (Halpert, 145). The stories that followed Cathedral, such as "Blackbird Pie" and "Errand," continued to experiment with the boundaries of Carver's idiom.

He had always considered himself both a poet and a fiction writer, and had published two collections of poetry earlier in his career. Now poems flowed through Carver with a "wonderful rush of energy," filling three new volumes in the 1980s (McCaffery and Gregory, 104). Many poems, like "Lemonade," approximated short stories in their own right; others were intimately autobiographical. Ray's poetry "was not something he wrote between stories," wrote Gallagher. "Rather, it was the spiritual current out of which he moved to write the short stories" (All of Us, xxiii).

Carver had once likened himself to "a cigaret with a body attached to it" (Phillips, 4). In fall 1987, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had two thirds of his left lung removed. Despite a course of radiation therapy, the cancer continued to spread in his lungs and brain. In his last months, Ray worked on forthcoming books, read before packed houses in Seattle and New York City, and received honors from a number of literary organizations and universities. He entertained close friends and enjoyed visits with his children, grandchildren, and Maryann. In June 1988 he married Tess in Reno and named her executrix of his estate. He was eleven years sober.

On the morning of August 2, 1988, as the tide was going out, Carver died at home in Port Angeles. A global readership mourned him: in the Times of London, Carver was eulogized as "the Chekhov of Middle America" (Sklenicka, 482); in his home state, his regional heritage was cited with pride. "What Paris was to Hemingway and Dublin was to Joyce, the Pacific Northwest was to Raymond Carver," declared The Seattle Times ("Epilogue: Raymond Carver ...").

His influence on late twentieth-century American fiction was inescapable. Among younger writers of his era, said the writer Jay McInerney, "there's hardly one that you might say didn't come out of Carver's overcoat" (Halpert, 141). Peers remembered Ray's generosity toward his fellow writers and, most of all, the clarity of his artistic vision. "At heart, of course, a story itself is consolation's instrument," wrote the novelist Richard Ford. "And to me the most arresting quality of Ray's stories was not how much they drew on life, or how dire or spare they were (they often weren't spare), but, rather, how confirmed he was, how unswerving was his election of art—stories—to be life's consoling, beautifying agent" ("Good Raymond").



Paul Andrews and Nancy Bartley, "Epilogue: Raymond Carver, Northwest Literary Giant, Is Dead at Age 50," The Seattle Times, August 3, 1988, p. C-1; Maryann Burk Carver, What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006); Raymond Carver, All of Us: The Collected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1998); Raymond Carver, "Are These Actual Miles?," in Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988), 96-103; Raymond Carver, Collected Stories (New York: Library of America, 2009); Raymond Carver, "Fires," in Collected Stories, 734-745; Raymond Carver, "My Father's Life," in Collected Stories, 719-727; Raymond Carver, "Where I'm Calling From," in Collected Stories, 452-466; Raymond Carver, "Why Don't You Dance?," in Collected Stories, 223-227; Richard Ford, "Good Raymond," The New Yorker (October 5, 1998), 70; Tess Gallagher, "Instead of Dying," December, 2006, The Sun Magazine website accessed March 25, 2022 (; Tess Gallagher, "A Nightshine Beyond Memory: Ten More Years with Ray," in Soul Barnacles: Ten More Years with Ray, ed. Greg Simon (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 226-244; Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull, eds., Conversations with Raymond Carver (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990); Cassandra Phillips, "Accolade-Winning Author Returns to Humboldt," in Gentry and Stull, 3-7; Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee, "Raymond Carver," in Gentry and Stull, 31-52; Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, "An Interview with Raymond Carver," in Gentry and Stull, 98-116; William L. Stull, "Matters of Life and Death," in Gentry and Stull, 177-191; Sam Halpert, Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995); Jack Hicks, Cutting Edges: Young American Fiction for the '70s (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973); Nicholas O'Connell, "Raymond Carver," in At the Field's End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 91-110; Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life (New York: Scribner, 2009); Geoffrey Wolff, review of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, The New York Times, March 7, 1976, Book Review section, p. 2; Michael Wood, "Stories Full of Edges and Silences," review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The New York Times, April 26, 1981, Book Review section, p. 1.

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