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 you might regard his work, Carver’s legacy and reputation have only grown since his death in 1988, at the age of 50.
“Well, of course I had to keep him on a leash,” his mother, Ella Carver, said much later — and seemingly without irony. Mrs. Carver might have had the right idea. Like the perplexed lower-middle-class juicers who populate his stories, Carver never seemed to know where he was or why he was there.
Born in Oregon in 1938, Carver soon moved with his family to Yakima, Wash. In 1956, the Carvers relocated to Chester, Calif. A year later, Carver and a couple of friends were carousing in Mexico. After that the moves accelerated: Paradise, Calif.; Chico, Calif.; Iowa City, Sacramento, Palo Alto, Tel Aviv, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Cupertino, Humboldt County . . . and that takes us up only to 1977, the year Carver took his last drink.
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.
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.
On August 2, 1988, Carver died from lung cancer at the age of 50. He is buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, Washington. The inscription on his tombstone reads:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
His poem “Gravy” is also inscribed.