Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938. Carver began his career as a writer as a poet but is more well-known for his prowess in the art of short stories, for which he is widely regarded as the preeminent storyteller of his time. Carver himself is often quoted as saying: "I began as a poet, my first publication was a poem. So I suppose on my tombstone I'd be very pleased if they put 'Poet and short- story writer -- and occasional essayist' in that order." (The Borzoi Reader Web site)
Carver studied at Humboldt State University and the University of Iowa while working at various low paying jobs. He married early at the age of 19 and though he stayed married for twenty years, Carver himself said that they knocked around from town to town and job to job: "We were always looking for something better. We worked hard but there was never enough." Perhaps this was the reason why Carver's early life was marked by alcoholism and despair, which some literary critics have inferred was a profound influence on his writings and accounted for his minimalism (About Web site).
Carver's life changed in 1977 when he separated from his first wife, quit drinking and met the poet Tess Gallagher, who he said changed his life dramatically: "That's why I can speak of two lives, that life and this life." Be it his earlier life or the later one, Carver himself acknowledged, "All of my stories have in some way to do with my own life," (The New York Times, June 24, 1984) which accounts for the despair in his early stories giving way to the slivers of hope in his later ones (About Web site).
Jay McInerney, author of "Story of My Life," and a student of Carver when he was a teacher, also believed that Carver was inspired by his own life:
literature could be fashioned out of strict observation of real life, wherever and however it was lived, even if it was lived with a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the table and the television set droning.... His example reinvigorated realism as well as the short story form." (The New York Times, August 6, 1989).
Bruce Weber, who writes frequently on literary topics, is another critic who agrees with the view that Carver's writings were based on his own life:
Much of Carver's fiction sounds like that life, the first one, life as he no longer lives it. His characters, more often than not, are hapless, in the sense that their lives are without luck.... Hearing Carver speak about the demise of his first life, you know where the stories come from...." (The New York Times, June 24, 1984)
Carver's style may have been one of realism and minimalism, but the beauty of Carver's work lies in his ability to take ordinary lives and turn them into meaningful ones. As Richard Ford, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Independence Day, wrote:
Life was this way yes, we already knew that. But this life, these otherwise unnoticeable people's suitability for literary expression seemed new. One also felt that the consequence of the story was seemingly to intensify life, even dignify it, and to locate in it shadowed corners and niches that needed revealing so that we readers could practice life better ourselves. And yet the story itself, in its spare, self-conscious intensity, was such a made thing, not like life at all; it was a piece of nearly abstract artistic construction calculated to produce almost giddy pleasure." (The New Yorker, October 5, 1998)
It was this talent of Carver that led to the recognition and fame that he earned during his lifetime and beyond. Carver's first collection of stories, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please" was a National Book Award Nominee in 1977. This was followed by "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral," which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and "Where I'm Calling From" in 1988, when he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The success and recognition earned through his gift for the short story unfortunately led to a lack of attention to the fact that Raymond Carver also wrote a respectably sized and well-crafted body of poetry, even though he did win numerous prizes for his poetic efforts including Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize in 1985.
Where I'm Calling From," a collection of 37 stories was published in 1988, the year in which Carver died from lung cancer. Of the 37 stories, 30 were collected from four earlier volumes. In line with his genre, "Where I'm Calling From" also comprises of tales that revolve around the lives of very ordinary people and reflects his own life as well. The title story, for example, is almost a leaf out of Carver's own experiences as a reformed alcoholic. And much like his entire body of work, "Where I'm Calling From" is neither romantic nor maudlin. Its people are not tragic figures, they are simply human.
Marilynne Robinson, author of the novel "Housekeeping," in her review of "Where I'm Calling From" writes:
Mr. Carver uses his narrow world to generate suggestive configurations that could not occur in a wider one. His impulse to simplify is like an attempt to create a hush, not to hear less but to hear better. Nothing recurs so powerfully in these stories as the imagination of another life, always so like the narrator's or the protagonist's own that the imagination of it is an experience of the self.... This seems to me to express the rationale of Mr. Carver's own artistic practice.
In 'Neighbours'...the Millers are, in a way, seduced by the apartment, a perfectly ordinary place except for odds and ends brought back from the vacations that make their neighbors' life seem 'fuller and brighter' than their own.... What they experience amounts to an objectification of their own life, a little sweetened by reachable enhancements." (The New York Times, May 15, 1988)
The fact that Carver's stories appealed to a large multitude of critics and public alike is evident by the fact that Michael Dirda, Washington Post's Senior Editor of Book World, selected "Where I'm calling From" as one of the books that "...have been the truest mirrors to American Society in our time, or have attempted innovative forms of storytelling, or revealed new subject matter, or generated schools of imitators.... If you want to understand the way we live and think and feel now, these are the books to read first." (Washington Post, June 1, 1997)
When collecting his old and new stories for "Where I'm calling From," Carver had "observed that he had decided against collecting all of his stories because 'there are some I'm not particularly fond of and would not like to see reprinted again.' In using this fact as the introduction to his review of Carver's posthumously published work "Call if You Need Me," Michiko Kakutani, book critic with The New York Times, and Pulitzer Prize winner for Criticism, acknowledges that "Where I'm Calling From" is indeed a collection of Carver's best works:
The wisdom of Mr. Carver...becomes even more evident with the publication...new book titled 'call if You Need Me.' Though Carver scholars might welcome the opportunity to study his complete oeuvre, the lay reader can only be disappointed...." (The New York Times, January 16, 2001)
Where I'm Calling From" would form a treasured part of any carver fan's collection since it epitomizes what he himself considered to be his best work and demonstrates what Marilynne Robinson termed as standing "squarely in the line of descent of American realism...should be famous for the conceptual beauty of his best stories." (The New York Times, May 15, 1988).
Raymond Carver's talent for the short story form was, in all likelihood, an outcome of his passion: "I love the swift leap of a good story...and the fact that the story can be written and read in one sitting."(The Edge Online) But it wasn't just his ability to write a good short story that earned Carver his lauded status as one of the greats of contemporary American literature. It was his deep compassion for and understanding of ordinary human lives that enabled him to turn everyday ordinary episodes into humane and meaningful tales.
As Michael Woods, author of Stendahl and America in the Movies, said: "He has done what many of the most gifted writers fail to do: He has invented a country of his own, like no other except the very world, as Wordsworth said, which is the world of all of us.... 'I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making." (The New York Times, April 26, 1981).
Above all, Raymond Carver's achievements are remarkable because of his own humble beginnings and difficult earlier life. In many ways, it is ironical that Carver ultimately achieved the great American dream for himself by being able to…