Today in Literary History – May 25, 1938 – Raymond Carver is born

Raymond Carver, the masterful short story writer and poet, was born on May 25, 1938. Carver was born in Oregon and raised in the state of Washington. He married at the age of 19 (to his pregnant 16 year-old girlfriend) and moved to California.

He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but left before graduating. He worked jobs in sawmills, a bookstore and as a night janitor at a hospital while writing short stories, which began to be accepted for publication in the early 1960s. He studied at various universities and taught on short term contracts while he continued publishing stories.

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He also became seriously addicted to alcohol and spent more time drinking than writing as he later admitted. His destructive drinking habits (especially with his drinking partner John Cheever while they taught creative writing together during a disastrous semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1973) are dissected in Olivia Laing’s marvellous The Trip to Echo Springs and Leslie Jamison’s recent memoir The Recovering.

Carver’s alcoholism took a toll on his health and he was frequently hospitalized for problems related to his drinking. He finally quit drinking in 1977, just short of his 40th birthday, but he did continue to smoke marijuana for the decade before his death from lung cancer in 1988 at the age of fifty.

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I have loved Carver’s stories since I first began reading him not long before he died. His style is pared down and highly descriptive and his dialogues sound both real and poetic at the same time. His characters, often drunks and sad misfits, are drawn with generosity of spirit but also cold-eyed realism.

Carver had befriended Gordon Lish in California when they were both working as in-house corporate writers. Lish went on to become the fiction editor at Esquire magazine and later an editor at Knopf. He was Carver’s greatest champion and edited many of his short story collections.

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After Carver’s death there was a sort of backlash against Lish’s heavy editing which in many instances amounted to the editor completely rewriting the author’s work. Some of Carver’s original manuscripts have been published to make the comparison between them and Lish’s edits. There are arguments to be made for both versions but for me I have to say I prefer the edited stories, as I suspect Carver himself did.

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