Cathedral | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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Raymond Carver | Biography


Raymond Carver, born May 25, 1938, in Clatskanie, Oregon, wrote about the people he knew best—the working poor. He grew up in a logging town, where his father was a sawmill worker. By age 20, Carver was married and the father of two children. Intent on pursuing a writing career, Carver moved with his family to California in 1958. There he and his wife struggled to support their family while he attended college. He worked nights as a janitor, gas station attendant, and apartment manager; she waited tables, packed fruit, and sold encyclopedias door-to-door.

Carver published short stories in magazines even before he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Humboldt State College in 1963. As a young writer, Raymond Carver focused his art on short stories and poetry out of necessity. He was struggling to support his family and didn't have the luxury of spending years on writing a novel. Instead, he wrote short pieces he could sell to literary magazines in order to provide a more constant source of income. Carver was a perfectionist, though, and would rework his stories and poems many times before sending them off. He was known to produce from 10 to 30 drafts of a story before he was satisfied with it.

He published poems and short stories while working full time as a textbook editor. After he lost his textbook editor job in 1970, Carver began to write full time. He also began to drink heavily, which took a toll on his marriage and on his health. He was hospitalized four times in the 1970s for alcoholism. In spite of his addiction, in 1976 he published his first short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? to great critical acclaim. Raymond Carver is often called the father of the minimalist short story, a genre characterized by sparseness or simplicity. Carver, though, didn't like the label minimalist because he thought it suggested "the idea of a narrow vision of life, low ambitions, and limited cultural horizons."

After finally achieving sobriety in 1977, Carver taught writing at the University of Texas and at Syracuse University. By this time, Carver and his wife had separated. In 1978, he met and fell in love with the poet Tess Gallagher.

Carver's third collection of short stories entitled Cathedral was published in 1981. The collection became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Critic Jonathan Yardley of Washington Post Book World said the collection marked a turning point in Carver's writing, citing stories that "overflow with danger, excitement, mystery, and possibility of life." Carver said that the story "Cathedral" was "completely different from everything [he'd] written before." He said he wrote it "in a period of generosity" and that "the story affirms something." He named it as one of his favorites, along with the story "A Small, Good Thing," which also appears in the Cathedral collection.

Carver and Tess Gallagher were together for the last 11 years of Carver's life, marrying just six weeks before he died of lung cancer on August 2, 1988.

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