Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

16. Raymond Carver, 1938–1988

When one reads Raymond Carver, one may be reading of real lives, but most of all one reads how Carver turned life stories into a great art. There are many good storytellers but there are very few good storywriters; Carver listened to and lived a great many stories, but all those stories were transformed into great literature through Carver’s word-by-word, line-by-line craft. Discussions among Carver’s friends disclose how much Carver listened. His notebooks contain overheard conversations and stories Carver might have used in his writing--conversations heard in bars, parties, while fishing, and at home. But Carver transformed stories into major emotional statements that matter in America and the world. William Kittredge says, “When I reflect and see my own life in the mirror of some of those great stories, like at the end of ‘A Small, Good Thing,’ these stories are consistently telling me I must learn to be good, to be humane, compassionate, considerate of other people. That is a major emotional orientation and, I think it’s utterly important to say, absolutely political” (cited in Halpert 1991:34).

The son of Clevie Raymond Carver and Ella Casey Carver, Raymond Clevie Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1938.  His family moved to Yakima, Washington in 1941 where they lived very close to the financial and familial edge. (An excellent visual view of Carver’s region can be seen in Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver [1990]. Otherwise, Carver’s own poems and stories detail his life eloquently.) All of Carver’s books bear witness to a remarkably decent, gifted man. His work was often geographically specific, though his stories transferred easily from setting to setting. For example, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1994), a movie mélange of nine Carver stories and a poem, take Carver’s stories from such original settings as the Ellensburg Canyon and Port Townsend, to new settings in the Los Angeles basin. Carver’s collected poems received their first full publication in England under the title All of Us (1996). In Rome, outdoor book fairs feature his translated novels and Japan has active centers of Carver scholarship. He is read worldwide. Still, Carver was specific about landscape. Just before Carver’s death, he set to work in the home/studio he shared with Tess Gallagher, just a few yards above the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Looking out on the water, he wrote rhythmically, regularly, and softly, as if he were part of its tides. As have other Northwesterners, Carver drew from the region. Patricia Hampl said of his last poems, “Mr. Carver is heir to the most appealing American poetic voice, the lyricism of Theodore Roethke and James Wright” (

Indeed, Theodore Roethke’s “place where sea and fresh water meet,” and Raymond Carver’s place “where water comes together with other water,” are in many ways the same. Roethke’s pilgrimage from the fresh water of Michigan’s Saginaw Bay to the salt water of the Pacific may signify a longer drive, but Carver’s trip from his Oregon birthplace along the Columbia River, to his childhood home in Yakima, Washington and to his final home in Port Angeles, was as difficult. Roethke came to Seattle just after the death of his father, driving into the symbolic West of his father’s departure, and toward the literal West of his own new life. Carver, who lived all over the country, published his first book of poems, Near Klamath (1968), in the year following his own father’s death, when Ray Carver was living in central California.

Both Roethke and Carver were rough on their bodies; they drank far too much and smoked too much, though Carver quit drinking and was reprieved for a decade before dying of lung cancer in his fiftieth year. Roethke died swimming underwater in a reflecting pool. Perhaps it was a heart attack; perhaps it was just holding onto his own breath too long. In any case, at their deaths, both men had come to the confluence of internal and external nature, from the arterial fresh rivers of the west, to the edge of the Pacific Ocean’s great hold, from the streams of their indelible childhood impressions, to well-earned artistic maturity. Roethke’s late poems, the “North American Sequence,” derive from his own spirit’s settling on the continent’s edge—his own soul’s bending into the sea wind. Carver died in his house, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, writing increasingly generous poems that paid tribute to his family, his wife, and his literary mentors, Chekov, primarily.  

Apart from the connection he’d made through his wife, Tess Gallagher, who studied with Roethke and David Wagoner in her student years at the University of Washington, Carver had very little to do with the classic Northwest School. Still, both Gallagher and Carver learned from the same hard-knock lessons as had West Seattle’s Richard Hugo--the school of poverty, tough homes, parental alcoholism, personal insecurities, and the day-by-day bedrock of labor. Carver was also attached to some of the Montana writers, William Kittredge and Richard Ford (who passed through Missoula for a time), as well as to Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy’s Life (1989) is as placed as any book has been in the sedimented weirdness of isolated small town life in the North Cascade mountains. So—in the land that attracts so many for its beauty—Carver and company, but especially Carver, exposed readers to the stories of those who log the woods and file the lumber mill saws, those who wait on the restaurant tables, who clean the hospitals’ floors. Though Carver knew how poverty sapped the spirit, and though he wasn’t about to glorify the virtues of poverty, his stories do show that work is hard, that suffering is real, and that hope generally persists. His characters have spiritual tenacity. Carver himself prevailed to blend his hardscrabble memories with the world’s greatest literatures. Works such as “Cathedral,” “A Small Good Thing,” the books Where I’m Calling From (1988) and The New Path to the Waterfall (1989), show a unity between the working man and the best in culture, the great cathedrals, the great literature of Chekov, Milosz, Dostoevsky, and the finest expressions of hope, grace, and loyalty.

See: Raymond Carver, "Prosser," "My Boat," "The Gift," and "Some Prose on Poetry," in All of Us: The Collected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

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