I return so often to listen to Raymond Carver’s voice that I was surprised last year when his widow, Tess Gallagher, reminded me that, on August 2nd of this year, his voice will have been silent for a decade. Except for those who knew him personally, today, when he would have been sixty years old, Carver is as much alive as he was ten years ago. In fact, as soon as he was gone, he seemed to be everywhere, not only here in the Northwest, or in America, but already translated into twenty other languages. Now, ten years later, almost as many volumes of his works have appeared posthumously as were published during his lifetime. Critical acclaim for his work—his poetry as well as his short fiction—already marked at the time of his death, has been massive in the interim. Carver is judged the most important American short story writer of the 1980s; he is also considered one of our country’s greatest writers of short fiction and remains, as he was first dubbed in The London Times, “America’s Chekhov.”
In the 1980s, Ray brought the short story out from under the shadow of the novel. His original voice, a felicitous mixture of honesty, compassion, and humor, evoked the extraordinary in the most ordinary of lives. He made his readers feel the struggles of a desperate underclass of working and out-of-work people only sporadically present in earlier literature. He never talked down to his characters, denying that there was in his stories any ironic pact between reader and writer whereby the reader knows more than the characters do. “I’m much more interested in my characters,” he told William Stull in 1986, “in the people in my [End Page 413] story, than I am in any potential reader.” 1 Without projecting a naturalistic thesis and eschewing any didacticism whatsoever, Ray gave voice to a quasi-inarticulate group of people on the margins who mattered not because of what they said, or even how they said it, but because of what befell them. He also succeeded in revealing genuinely positive human qualities even in his most dejected characters.
While many of Ray’s early stories break your heart, the later ones that he deemed “more affirmative” and “more generous” greatly enlarge it. Who can ever forget, for example, and not identify with, Tobias Wolff’s account of his first reading of “Cathedral”: “I was fighting the story. But after a few pages it disarmed me and I surrendered to it, and as I read on I felt myself drawn up by it. I felt as if I were levitating there above the couch. I was weightless, filled with a sense of profound, inexplicable joy. Blessed, and conscious of it, I understood that I was in the presence of a masterpiece.” 2
We have been privileged at Whitman College by our relationship with Tess Gallagher. Tess, an acclaimed poet, essayist, and short story writer, held our Edward F. Arnold Chair during the 1996–97 academic year. She did more here to involve students actively in poetry and creative writing than anyone I’ve seen in a quarter of a century. She taught poetry and a special course on Ray’s stories and poems. Her teaching excellence, lively presence, and wonderful sense of humor attracted and captured the imagination of students and faculty. Magically, she made poetry and fiction, mirabile dictu, the academic centerpiece on campus during her year in residence. Indeed it was Whitman College that was honored when it conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on Tess in May 1998.
When I told Tess that we wanted to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Ray’s death and asked her if she would contribute an article, she responded by sending me Can I Get You Anything? and The Favor, two as yet unperformed plays she and Ray co-authored in 1983. Composed for a contest of one-act plays sponsored by Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, they were written on a car trip from Syracuse, New York, to Port Angeles, Washington. Tess and Ray had also intended to co-author a...