Raymond Carver, Introduction

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RAYMOND CARVER: An Introduction

When Raymond Carver died at the age of 50 in 1988, he was just beginning to be widely known outside of literary circles. In the previous dozen years he had produced four collections of short stories that had been highly praised and had been compared, in their simplicity and directness, to the writings of Ernest Hemingway when Hemingway was young and his voice was still shockingly fresh. The comparison was apt: as Hemingway had done in his time, Carver managed to create a style and a voice that was at once distinctly his own while at the same time it captured the tenor of his times with an accuracy that was uncanny and was immediately recognizable to anyone who read his stories. Like Hemingway, Carver was quickly, and widely, imitated; and, like Hemingway imitators, no one came very close to successfully duplicating the unique combination of his particular literary skills and his moral vision. For it was moral vision that, ultimately, defined Hemingway more than the terseness of his sentences--a conviction that the right writing could capture and convey not just what is, but a new understanding of what is, which could shed new light and open up new possibility. Both Hemingway and Carver were widely imitated not so much for their syntax, which some even poked fun at, but for their universally recognized and acknowledged courage--their commitment to unfettered perception and clear expression in the service of values that ultimately exalt the human spirit, in spite of our imperfection.

No one was more acutely aware of the foibles of his characters than Raymond Carver; their quirks, self-deceptions and weaknesses were exposed with surgical precision. Yet he never condescended to them or exalted himself or the reader at their expense. It would have been easy to do so, given the sort of humdrum lives that he typically wrote about. But he took a more difficult path, and a more fruitful: he explored and exposed them to show us ourselves. And, like Chekhov--to whom he was also often compared--he did it with compassion and forgiveness, so that at the end of reading a Raymond Carver story, you may find that you do not particularly like the characters you have met, but that you do feel something like love for them: you value them; you appreciate their concerns; you care about them. And you recognize them. If Carver's characters succeed in earning our forgiveness for their foibles, it is we ourselves who benefit, by gaining the capacity to recognize, and to forgive, our own shortcomings.

Robert Stone once called Raymond Carver a "hero of perception." I think he was referring to Carver's courageousness in chronicling the lives he did with a fearsome, unblinking clarity. In another context, Ken Kesey once talked about Jack Kerouac as a "saint of perception," who used his gift for clearsightedness and his facility for writing to record the sins and follies of his friends and, by so doing, take them onto himself and free the others of their burdens. I think Carver did the same: by making the plain people of a middle American underclass a fitting subject for art, he elevated both the people and the art.

I first heard of Raymond Carver in 1976 when I was a student at Goddard College, in Vermont. Carver was teaching in the MFA program there and his book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, had recently been published. My writing workshop teacher, Kathryn Davis (whose second novel, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, was recently published to excellent reviews), had us read some of the extraordinary stories in Carver's book. They were shown to us as examples of writing that, while on the surface quite plain and simple, nonetheless carried enormous emotional weight. When I began collecting first editions, I collected the authors who had been at Goddard that summer--in particular Carver and his student, Richard Ford. When Carver first got "hot," in 1981, I sold off my own personal collection--all of the books, signed or inscribed, most in the year of publication--for the then-astounding sum of $1000. I have wished for that collection back many times since.

The books in this catalogue largely come from the collection of one of the publishers of Carver's small limited editions. It is, I am convinced, one of the best Carver collections ever assembled, and is undoubtedly the finest collection to ever come on the market. Virtually everything Carver published is represented, usually signed, often in multiple states, including many prepublication copies. With a tiny handful of exceptions, every state of every Carver book ever published is included here. I am a little bit in awe of this collection, because of its completeness, of course, but more importantly because of how much astoundingly good writing it represents. Hemingway had 15 years of literary glory, in which he redefined modern American fiction, which were then followed by two decades of decline. Carver had a dozen years between the publication of his first, already influential, story collection and his death. And at the time of his death, he was getting better: he was not just getting more well-known (which he was), but his writing was getting sharper and clearer, less muddied by the residue of his alcoholic past, more imbued with the sense of the preciousness of life that his awareness of his cancer seems to have given him. At the moment he was taken away from us, Carver was giving us the most and best that he had ever yet given.

This is the best collection of books ever offered of a writer who single-handedly reinvigorated the American short story, and in so doing helped set in motion a vast sea of changes--in literature, literary publishing, and in writing itself--that is still taking place around us. Like a magician who weaves an unseen spell that affects all around him, Carver's influence has been pervasive and has helped to reshape our perception of who we are. That Robert Altman, one of the most respected and the most iconoclastic representatives of the American pop culture institution that is Hollywood, should be the one to turn Carver's vision to the movies is entirely fitting--it is a tribute to both Carver's individuality and the power of his vision. For those who have read Carver, the books in this catalogue will come as a welcome reacquaintance with an old friend; for those who haven't read him, the books in this catalogue will come as a revelation: an opening into the heart of the world as we know it, and a vision of ourselves at its core--sensitive, troubled, hopeful.

About This Catalogue

The books in this catalogue are divided into "A" items, "B" items, and "C" items--books entirely by Carver, books with Carver contributions and periodicals with pieces by Carver, respectively. We borrowed the identifying numbers--for example, A15--from William Stull's Carver checklist that appeared in the now-defunct American Book Collector in January, 1987. We've attempted to update the checklist by including writings published since then, and numbering them: our numbers are enclosed within double quotes, e.g., "A44". We understand that William Stull, who is probably the foremost scholar of Raymond Carver's work in the country and who has edited several books of Carver's writings that are contained in this catalogue, is working on a full-fledged bibliography that will supersede this list altogether. Until it is ready, we hope this list will serve as the most complete checklist of Carver's writings currently available. We would also like to express our deep appreciation of William Stull's efforts to make Carver's work more widely known and understood.

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