Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cathedral – Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver - May 25, 1938 – August 2, 1988

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat myself here – one of the most important gifts that I am receiving from this project is the introduction to some of America’s best writers. Writers who were once “just names” in the table of contents now seem like close friends. I spend time after each story doing a bit of research on the author, and I feel that this enhances and opens new doors to their stories.

Researching Carver for “Cathedral” is one of those times where I have found a new favorite. Gardner did a fine job of placing him first in this collection, and and in doing so, his selection was even approved of by Updike – “Cathedral” was chosen for inclusion in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” by Updike.

Gardner uses his position as the editor of BASS 1982 and places Carver in the prime position for readers. One must wonder if the personal relationship between the two had any influence on the choice.

I’m not doubting or disputing that Carver was a master of the Short Story and the fact that ‘Cathedral” was so widely recognized as a wonderful story buttresses the choice...but, man Gardner...put the guy in second or third – don’t be so transparent.

Here are a few paragraphs from interviews or bios. concerning the relationship between Gardner and Carver.

Carver became interested in writing in California, where he had moved with his family - his wife's parents had a home in Paradise. Carver attended a creative-writing course, and was taught by John Gardner. Later he said that all his writing life "he had felt Gardner looking over his shoulder when he wrote, approving or disapproving of certain words, phrases and strategies." (Carver's former student Jay McInerney in The New York Times, August 6, 1989)

Carver wrote thankfully of Gardner "giving me the key to his office so I would have a place to write on weekends," or explaining "the difference between saying something like, for example, 'wing of a meadow lark' and 'meadow lark's wing,'" or "drumming at me the importance of using -- I don't know how else to say it -- common language, the language of normal discourse, the language we speak to each other in."

Carver was the son of a craftsman, and his writerly development followed the stages of a craftsman’s training. After moving his family from Yakima to Paradise, California, in 1958, he enrolled at Chico State College. There, he began an apprenticeship under the soon-to-be-famous John Gardner, the first "real writer" he had ever met. "He offered me the key to his office," Carver recalled in his preface to Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983). "I see that gift now as a turning point." In addition, Gardner gave his student "close, line-by-line criticism" and taught him a set of values that was "not negotiable." Among these values were convictions that Carver held until his death. Like Gardner, whose On Moral Fiction (1978) decried the "nihilism" of postmodern formalism, Carver maintained that great literature is life-connected, life-affirming, and life-changing. "In the best fiction," he wrote "the central character, the hero or heroine, is also the ‘moved’ character, the one to whom something happens in the story that makes a difference. Something happens that changes the way that character looks at himself and hence the world." Through the 1960s and 1970s he steered wide of the metafictional "funhouse" erected by Barth, Barthelme and Company, concentrating instead on what he called "those basics of old-fashioned storytelling: plot, character, and action." Like Gardner and Chekhov, Carver declared himself a humanist. "Art is not self-expression," he insisted, "it’s communication."

When John Gardner died at forty-nine in a 1982 motorcycle accident, Carver termed the loss to literature "beyond figuring."

And finally, the story “Cathedral” and others collected in a collection bearing the same name were thought by Carver to be:

“a watershed in his career, in its shift towards a more optimistic and confidently poetic style.”

- What did I get out of this story?

Well, it really is a wonderful story. A good ‘ol fashioned story.

It reminded me of the need to welcome new experiences – new ideas – to be open to opinions of others. Not to shy away from what is unknown or what could be frightening to me. Take it all in as a learning experience.

You never know what someone could teach you. And once again, apply that newly developed knowledge into learning a bit about yourself – question where those former beliefs came from, where the attitude developed that caused to be afraid, or hesitant - to be open to what frightened you.

1 comment:

  1. The first time I read "Cathedral"--on the urgings of a very good friend--I was underwhelmed. I thought, "This is the story that's supposed to change my life?"

    And then, weeks later, I picked it up again, almost idly. Reread. The second time I read this story, that's when the magic happened for me. So many things were finally held up to the light when I bothered to look at it again. So many nuances I'd missed, so many undercurrents I hadn't noticed. He was a genius all of a sudden--and remains to be, for me.

    Carver--and his work--is creepy that way.

    Also, I did not know about Gardner and Carver's friendship. But I suppose that you could do worse than playing favorites with Raymond Carver?