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Raymond Carver’s Death

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | November 1988
Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Hu­manities at Harvard Medical School. His latest book is Harvard Diary, a collection of his columns from the NOR, pub­lished by Crossroad.

On Monday, August first, 1988, I found my­self writing some notes about Raymond Carver’s stories. I had been immersed in them for weeks, and had written the column which preceded this one about “Errand,” the final story in Carver’s most recent, and alas, last collection, Where I’m Calling From. I had even begun to dream of meeting him some day — talking with him and learning from him.

I have spent a lot of time talking with so-call­ed working-class people — men and women who show up regularly on assembly lines, on construction crews, in stores and offices, in gas stations, in trucks that crisscross America. I think I know some children who hail from that “middle Ameri­ca” fairly well. As I have read Carver’s stories I’ve kept wandering back in my mind to certain homes I used to visit in Lynn, Massachusetts, near a General Electric plant; in Framingham, Massachusetts, near a General Motors plant; and too, in the South and the Southwest, where as one truck driver put it, “there are lots of folks who keep trying to get by, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.” That mood — that mixture of stoic persis­tence and melancholy tentativeness — used to hit me in the face, sometimes, as I’d enter, yet again, a bungalow, a mobile home, a not very fancy apartment house. In Carver’s stories I felt the same mood — a writer summoning his readers to a world he knew like the fingers of his hands. His people are holding on for dear life; some, in fact, are sinking fast, while others tough it out, day by day. They are not exactly the ones who figure in most Amer­ican fiction today. They are not well-to-do subur­ban men and women, or fast-thinking academics or urban sophisticates. They don’t even have race or geography going for them — the liberal fascination with one “them” after another.

On Wednesday, August third, my fan letter to Raymond Carver finished in the rough, I sat down to the newspapers, and in one of them as I turned the page, I caught sight of this statement in the upper left hand corner of an even-numbered page: “Raymond Carver, Writer and Poet of the Working Poor, Dies at 50.” I’ve been reading New York Times obituaries for years, and usually find them to be a brag sheet: all too predictably concerned with the pomp and circumstance of big-shot lives. Carver has, indeed, become a major literary pres­ence, and so I suppose the significant attention paid him in our nation’s leading paper of record marked a final success of sorts. His smiling, hand­some face is allowed a farewell to all those busy, intelligent readers. Yet, the write-up of this prominent American short-story writer and poet is sure­ly one of the more unusual death notices to appear in an important American paper. He is quoted this way: “I’m a paid-in-full member of the working poor. I have a great deal of sympathy with them. They’re my people.” We learn, further, that he was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, the son of a sawmill worker and a waitress. His father loved Zane Grey’s many books, and read from them aloud; he also hunted and fished a lot (Carver was an avid fisher­man) and told stories, such as the time an ancestor (the author’s great-grandfather) “stole a hog for the hungry men in his regiment.”

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