The seventeen stories that comprise the collection of Robert Carver in the anthology titled Beginners all reveal the extent to which his writing is profoundly influenced by Ernest Hemingway. From the opener “Why Don’t You Dance?” to the closer “...
Though Raymond Carver published only a handful of books in his lifetime, he is often considered one of the great American short story writers. Debate still exists as to whether to consider Carver a minimalist for his frequent use of sparse language, a voice of the working class for his commitment to 'ordinary' characters, or a champion of "dirty realism" for his frank depictions of modern American life. But no matter how one regards his work, Carver's legacy and reputation have only grown since his death in 1988, at the age of 50.
Carver was born in Oregon on May 25, 1938. He grew up primarily in Yakima, Washington. His parents had moved to the Pacific Northwest from their home state of Arkansas for work, and his father (C.R. Carver) would mirror such transitions throughout his shiftless life, often leaving the family for periods of time in order to seek work elsewhere, an absence compounded by alcohol dependency. Throughout his childhood, Carver had to balance his great affection for his father with his awareness of his father's weaknesses, a conflict that permeates his work. He was also deeply influenced by the financial difficulties his parents faced, and by the community of sawmill workers who wanted desperately to claim a place in America's growing middle class.
From an early age, Carver was drawn to literature and the art of writing. He worked a handful of blue-collar jobs throughout high school and afterwards, but his two passions were stories (which he failed to get published despite a strong work ethic for submissions) and Maryann Burk, a local girl four years his junior. When his parents moved to California for work, Carver already had the plans in motion for their marriage.
The relationship between Raymond and Maryann would define much of Carver's life. Within two years of marriage, they'd had two children, Christine and Vance. Most of their early life was fraught with financial difficulty. Carver's passion for writing was intense, but was at odds with his disdain for any other kind of work. As such, Maryann tended to act as breadwinner, usually through waitress jobs, as she supported Carver's attempts to get recognized and also his attempts to earn a college degree, a goal thwarted by both financial trouble and Carver's insecurities.
And yet some attention for his writing started to materialize. His stories began to be accepted by small magazines, and his piece "Furious Seasons" in particular gained notice that led to his acceptance into the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. The family relocated to the Midwest, where Carver impressed some faculty and alienated others through his brooding insecurities. He left Iowa upon his father's death, having earned no degree.
Financial troubles continued to haunt the Carvers after they relocated again to the West Coast, so much so that they filed for bankruptcy. As both Maryann and Raymond attempted to complete their college degrees, Carver finally got a white-collar job as a textbook editor, which afforded him more time to write. After one story – "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" – was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1967, his first book of poems was subsequently published, and he was awarded a degree that would allow him to teach writing. Things seemed to be looking up.
And yet he had still to face his greatest demon: his alcoholism. Maryann and Raymond had struggled together so long that they found themselves in a co-dependent, abusive relationship that neither had the means to sever. Carver ruined many chances at college jobs through commitment problems engendered by his addiction, and the family continued to struggle even as his stories found larger and larger audiences in magazines like Esquire.
Carver's most important break came through a long-time friend, Gordon Lisch, who had become an editor at Esquire. Through the connection, Carver published his first major-press collection, the Lisch-edited Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? In the years following, he and Maryann finally separated and Carver gained control of his drinking. The book was widely praised, and it is clear in light of his biography how well he made use of the sadness and desperation he had experienced in his own life and those of his lower middle-class communities.
From there, Carver's fortunes improved. Sober and committed, Carver published another collection – What We Talk about When We Talk About Love – and though it's often criticized as having been too heavily edited by Lisch, it won even more acclaim than the previous collection. Along with another poetry book (Fires), Carver then prepared his final collection of all-new stories, considered by many to be his masterpiece: Cathedral. In this time, Carver met and moved in with Tess Gallagher, a poet who would eventually become his wife and partner until his death.
Financially stable through both fellowships and book sales, Carver spent his final few years cementing his reputation as a great American literary figure. His relationships with his mother, Maryann, and his children grew stronger. And then he was diagnosed with cancer – though he'd beaten alcohol, his life-long dependency on cigarettes had taken its toll. Together, Carver and Gallagher remained active ensuring his legacy would survive, both through public exposure and publications of collections and other re-prints.
Carver and Gallagher married in June of 1988. Less than two months later, on August 2, 1988, Raymond Carver died. In the over 20 years since his death, his work has only gained more interest. As the particulars of the social milieu with which it was first associated (that of the late 70's/early 80's Americana) has faded somewhat, the universality of his stories and the longing of their characters has continued to recommend Carver to a new generation of readers.