Raymond Carver was born in 1938 in the small town of Clatskanie, Oregon, to an alcoholic father who worked at a sawmill and a mother who worked as a waitress. He grew up in Washington state and married Maryann Burke, his high school girlfriend, when he was just eighteen. He and Maryann had two children by the time Carver was twenty-one. After high school, Carver and his family moved to California, where he worked a variety of odd jobs. He didn’t resume his schooling until 1958, when he began taking classes at Chico State College. While there, he took writing classes with the writer John Gardner, who introduced him to the world of writing.
Carver began writing poetry and short stories while continuing to work odd jobs to support his family. In 1968 he published his first poetry collection, Near Klamath, followed not long after by Winter Insomnia (1970) and several other works in the early 1970s. He began teaching at various colleges, and in 1976 he published his first short-story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which has become one of his best-known works.
Although Carver earned critical acclaim for his writing, he simultaneously struggled with alcoholism. His alcoholism was so severe that he was hospitalized several times. He finally stopped drinking in 1977, after many failed attempts to quit. After a hiatus from writing, during which time he focused on staying sober, Carver published several more short-story collections: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1983), and Elephant (published posthumously in 1988). Two compilations of Carver’s stories have also been published: Where I’m Calling From (1988) and Short Cuts: Selected Stories (1993). A film version of Short Cuts, directed by Robert Altman, came out in 1993.
Carver has a distinct writing style, a strong, minimalist approach that critics often compare to the writing of Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov. Carver liked to focus on down-and-out, blue-collar, middle-class people facing bleak truths, disappointments, and small revelations in their ordinary lives, all subject matter that places him firmly in the “dirty realism” school of writing. Other dirty realism writers include Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, and Richard Ford. Besides the style and subject matter, Carver’s short stories are known for their dialogue, which mimics realistic speech patterns, and their abrupt endings—also called zero endings—that fail to tie up the story neatly, if at all.
“Cathedral” features all of the well-known Carver characteristics and is often regarded as his best short story. Carver himself considered it one of his favorites and recognized it as an important step forward in his writing. “Cathedral” ends on a slightly more optimistic note than many of his earlier stories, and Carver believed that this story, as well as the other stories in the collection Cathedral, were “more hopeful” and more fully developed than his previous work.
As Carver wrote his later short-story collections, he divorced his wife, Maryann, and married a writer named Tess Gallagher. They were married for only a few months before Carver died from lung cancer in 1988. He was fifty.