When one is seeking a bright, cheerily optimistic view of the world one does not automatically turn to the works of Raymond Carver. The short story writer - whom many critics cite as being the greatest master of that form since Ernest Hemingway - filled his pages with anger and discontent, despair and loss, desperation and the demons of addiction. The overall tone of his work is certainly dark. But his writing is not universally so, a fact that tends to be overlooked in the overall tone of this oeuvre. But while it would of course be dishonest (and a disservice to the tone of his writings) to call Carver an optimist, it would also be a disservice to him not to consider the happier, gentler and sweeter moments that intercede into his work. This paper examines those moments of brightness, those moments of lightness, in his work when he observes the world around him and seems to take happiness from the everyday, seems to be aware of the healing power of the ordinary.
This paper argues that while his work was often dark, Carver was in his writing (as in his life) searching for the common happiness that arises from daily life. Because he himself spent so many years not being able to feel happy (indeed living an essentially miserable existence while he was addicted to alcohol), I believe that he wanted to prove both to himself and to his readers that it was possible to find light in the world. Using works from his earlier and later periods as well as critical analyses of his writing, this paper argues that while his later works were certainly not in any way simply Pollyannaish, they were imbued with a sense of hope and an inclination to look more forward than backward.
Sense of Beauty and Mystery
Carver's fiction - although this is certainly much less true of his poetry - was often compared to that of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, hovering as it did in the borderlands between minimalism and realism. Carver himself disliked the term "minimalist" because it "smacks of smallness of vision and execution" (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rcarver.htm) but there is a certain truth in calling his work minimalist rather than realist. Crane and Hemingway were writing in a different world and about a different world than was Carver; they belonged within the tradition of High Modernism. And they belonged to a moment in history in which the center was wobbling but might well still be expected to hold.
Carver was a product of - as well as an architect of - postmodernism. The world that wrote about in his short stories was one in which there was no possibility that the pieces could be put back together. This sense of fragmentation is, of course, the primary distinguishing feature of postmodernism. It might also be said to be the distinguishing feature of his life. The two are not unrelated and not simply in a personal sense: Carver was a writer of postmodern tales while living a postmodern life. He was, in other words, a product of his moment in history (as are we all) and as such a man living in a time in which the world had come apart.
His insistence on the appropriateness of the short story through which to tell his message was important, for the form reflected his sense of the impossibility of the long view, either in life or within fiction. "I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact - so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration - that the story can be written and read in one sitting, " he wrote in the foreword to Where I'm Calling From (1998) and it is this intimate fit between his philosophy and the form of the short story and the poem that we find evidence both of the postmodernism of his work and also the hopefulness that resides in his writing.
Life is seen and experienced and understood in flashes that in real life can be almost instantaneous but that in writing must take at least as long as a poem or a short story. This way of living produces a highly fragmented existence, a highly fragmented perspective, but it also allows for happiness to creep in. If Carver's perspective on life (and his work as a writer) had been more unified, we might not have seen these flashes of hope, of simply joy. But because he presents the world - his world - to us in pieces, we are able to hear birdsong in them, see the sunlight upon our faces, taste the first dappled apple of the season.
Mickey Spillane and Early Fatherhood
It is, of course, always problematic to draw inferences between a writer's life and his (or her) work, but it is tempting to do so in the case of Carver because certainly much of the darkness that ran through his fiction also ran through his life. As Halpert (1995) tells us in his excellent biography of the writer, Carver was born in a Columbia River Oregon mill town where his father - also an alcoholic, worked at the sawmill and told his son about his own early adventures as a hunter in the Northwestern wilderness and his grandfather's fighting in both the Confederate and Union armies. Carver's mother worked as a waitress or stayed home to care for her family, which lived in that area between poverty and working-class persistence.
Carver grew up, Halpert tells us, reading Mickey Spillane novels and magazines filled with boys' life adventures. But the larger world that he read about between book and magazine covers would be essentially closed to him. Just after he graduated high school in 1956, he married his 16-year-old high-school girlfriend, whom he had gotten pregnant. She would have their second child two years later. While he worked trying to sell various products, as a janitor, as an unskilled laborer in the local sawmill, his wife, Maryann, waited tables, taught school, and worked as a sales clerk and secretary. It was indeed a most fragmentary existence and one that produced just enough to keep the family fed and housed - most of the time. Like many writers, Carver would grow in full adulthood in an atmosphere in which he had no sense of professional affiliation. He was not a professional, just a working man scrambling to stay ahead.
It was an attempt to improve the economic position of his family that prompted Carver in 1959 to move from Oregon to a town called Paradise, California. It was also here that he began to be a writer, after taking a creative-writing course. His course - all the way through to the point at which he died at the age of 50 of cancer - would remain troubled. Although he would write from 1959 until his death in 1988 his career never ran smoothly and would worsen considerably after 1967 - the same year that his first really successful story, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?," came out and even more so after 1970, when he lost a textbook editing job. This did allow him to write full time although he would also teach in university writing programs as well.
The first year I [Maryann] taught [at Los Altos High School], Ray had a whole year off where he could write, and he wrote many, many stories. He finished the bulk of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please. That was in 1971....[It] wasn't published until 1976, and for five years Ray didn't draw a sober breath. He left his job at University of California, Santa Barbara, a semester early [in 1974] due to his health, and after that he wasn't able to work until 1978.
The alcoholism grew to take up all of his time. He became what he called a full-time practicing alcoholic. In 1976, the same year Will You Please Be Quiet, Please was published by McGraw-Hill with the help of Gordon Lish Ray hit rock bottom. Between October of 1976 and January of 1977, he was hospitalized four times for acute alcoholism. The Carver's house was sold in October and Ray began living apart from his wife, all at the same time" (http://cai.ucdavis.edu/enl3/carver'svision.htm).
The most important event of his mature years was arguably his decision in 1977 to join Alcoholics Anonymous and become sober: His stories after this point are less sere, more touched by a sense of the possible as if his own recovery had allowed him a chance to understand that the path of one's life can lead one to unexpectedly lovely places, even if it does not allow one to stay in them.
An Editor's Hand?
Another possible explanation for the shift in tone between Carver's earlier and later works has also been floated,…