Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Truth About Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver (left) with his brother James

James Carver would like to set the record straight.

Over the years, his brother Raymond’s life has been distorted by those who’d like to hitch a ride on the famous writer’s coattails. “Everyone seems to have an agenda when writing about my brother,” James writes in a personal remembrance published at Electric Literature today, on what would have been Raymond Carver’s 78th birthday had he not died (much too early) in 1988. The essay, which has the Carveresque boiled-down title of “Reflections on Raymond Carver and My Family,” is an earnest, simply-told collection of family memories and includes several never-published photos of the Carver family (which Electric Literature has allowed me to reprint here, along with a brief excerpt below).

Though it’s unclear why younger brother James feels the sudden urge to purge the record of myths and lies, he casts a wide net when it comes to finding the source of rumors, including pointing a finger at Ray himself: “Ray embellished his childhood in interviews as well as in writings. He misrepresented facts, making our home life seem worse than it was. Perhaps he wanted to make his climb to fame appear more remarkable, or perhaps alcohol abuse clouded his memory.” James also blames John Updike for helping to taint the legacy by saying (at Carver’s memorial service, of all places) that Raymond grew up in a house of abuse and alcoholism. “Updike innocently picked that information up from others,” James writes. “This is how incorrect information perpetuates itself. If a lie is told often enough, it becomes the truth.”

He would probably be the first to admit he regrets the way he treated his sibling at times. In Carol Sklenicka’s biography (which James says is “the only serious and credible one written so far”), she describes the time when, shortly after Ray’s first wife Maryann kicked him out of their house, he turned to his younger brother for help:
Ray tried to live in an apartment by himself and hated it. Then he asked his brother, James, if he could stay in his Santa Clara apartment while James and his wife were on vacation. Concerned that Ray’s drinking, smoking, and partying might lead to damage at their home, James and Norma declined Ray’s request. Ray took it hard. He told his friends, “My brother forsook me, he forsook me”—lingering over the biblical phrase as much as he did over the wound. From their mother, James later learned that Ray never forgave him. He would come to regret putting “material possessions before my love for my brother.”

The Electric Literature essay seeks to mend some of those broken bridges and it can be quite moving at times, serving as a sort of eulogy—one which James perhaps wishes he could have delivered at his brother’s funeral. Instead, we can be grateful to Electric Literature for allowing us all to share in these small, good moments from a family’s history.

Here is just one of those memories from the time the Carvers lived in Washington state. To read the rest at Electric Literature, click the link at the end...

In Yakima, we had the best years of our family’s life. Our decline began in 1956, the year our father quit the Cascade Lumber Company in Yakima. He had been there for fifteen years or more, never missing a day’s work. Up until that moment, dad always paid his bills on time and provided his family with a good living. He was responsible, working since he was fourteen or fifteen years old and supporting his parents when they needed his help. Our family was living in a nice bungalow on Summitview Avenue, the better side of Yakima. We were settled, happy and doing well. Then dad’s brother Fred, who had been an institution at Cascade, was fired.

Our father quit Cascade and accepted a job as a saw filer with his brother, Fred, in Chester, California. That move started the decline of the Carver family, a slow insidious unraveling that cost all of us almost everything. Dad’s health began to deteriorate when he got blood poisoning from a saw while working for the Collins Pines Lumber Company in Chester. It caused our mother grief and hardship, forcing her to work full time to support the family when my father became too ill to work. It greatly affected my life, as I was in and out of many schools, with no roots, no friends and no permanency. I had wanted to attend the University of Washington, in Seattle and had taken all necessary preparatory courses in high school. If we hadn’t moved to California, I most likely would have graduated from the University of Washington, with my father’s help, and lived in Seattle. The move also affected Ray and Maryann’s life together for many years into the future. If Dad had not left Yakima, he might have been able to have helped them financially; maybe their lives wouldn’t have been such a painful financial struggle for all those years; it may even have averted Ray’s alcoholism.

Ray and I lost our beloved father in Crescent City, California, in June of 1967. Dad was working as a saw filer for Simpson Timber Company. The night of his death, he ate a big dinner and went to bed early. He didn’t wake up the next morning. Mom found him cold and blue. The doctor was called. Dad’s heart had failed; he was pronounced dead and taken to the local morgue. Fortunately, I was with my mother, between college semesters. We were both in a state of shock. We immediately called Maryann in Sacramento. She called Ray, who was in Iowa, enrolled in the university to work on his master’s degree. He withdrew from school and came to Crescent City. After arrangements were made, we all followed the hearse back to Yakima. It was our father’s last journey.

Click here to read the rest at Electric Literature


  1. Fascinating stuff. It makes sense that Carver would exaggerate the details of his childhood. He was a fiction writer, after all, and like James said, it makes his success seem that much more remarkable. It's a shame it affected the relationships in his family.

  2. Two siblings can have completely different views of a family. Perhaps Ray wasn't a liar, he just reported a different perception. This is a wonderful post about one of the most important authors of my reading life. Thank you.

    1. i was thinking the same. my mother always says that two kids can grow up in the same family and have a fairly different childhood.

  3. I agree with you Maureen, Ray wasn't a liar, he saw things clearly and wrote about them as they were. I think Ray experienced his home life much differently than how his brother, James, remembers it. James claims their home life wasn't as bad as Ray described it but how do we know that Jim isn't the one lying to hide the fact that their home life was really unhealthy?

    Some people just can't face the awful truth so it seems Jim is in complete denial so he had to stoop so low as to publicly call his brother a liar. James even denied his brother's plea to stay with him just to protect his material possessions.

    James seems like a bitter man who just want attention and wants to cover up the truth about what his famous and talented brother, Ray, has written about for years.

  4. let's face it, NONE OF US know how their family life was. but just because Ray was the famous writer doesn't mean he was correct. James doesn't seem bitter at all. I think he's just sticking up for his hard-working dad whose been wrongly labeled as an abuser.