British Association for American Studies


Raymond Carver: Thirty Years On


While he was alive, Raymond Carver, the short story writer and poet who died thirty years ago today, was described as the ‘chronicler of blue-collar despair’.[1] His writing depicted the anomie and desperation experienced by many working-class Americans during a period of unprecedented economic and technological change. Given the current socio-political climate, Carver’s work appears to be as prescient as ever.

While it is inequitable to reduce Trump’s 2016 election win to a single cause, recent political analysis suggests that a major component of his victory was his ability to win a swing of white, working-class votes – the demographic of people without a college degree or regular salaried job.

The consortium research facility, The National Election Pool, reported that the 2016 election saw a 14% shift from Democrat to the GOP for voters without a four-year college degree, and a 16% shift for those who earn under $30,000 a year. The same poll reported that 78% of GOP voters thought that their family financial situation was worse than in the past; 63% thought it would be worse still for the next generation.[2]

These kinds of figures are best viewed in light of the broader context of contemporary American consciousness. A report jointly commissioned by the PRRI and The Atlantic last year found that the three major factors that appealed to Trump’s voters were anxiety about cultural change, immigration, and a particular type of economic fatalism born from the realisation that the American dream is as illusory as it has ever been.[3]

Given the complex weaving of perceived personal economic decline and the tendency towards free trade and globalisation under neoliberalism, it is unsurprising that political rhetoric that appealed to the historic values of American exceptionalism had such a purposeful impact.

Just like those who played such a pivotal role in the recent election, Carver was a casualty of faith in the American dream, believing, as he wrote in his essay ‘Fires’, that if he ‘worked hard and tried to do the right things, the right things would happen’.[4] For Carver, this meant trying to hold enough part-time jobs to finance his education. But even after graduating with a BA he struggled to hold the kind of white-collar work that he thought would propel him and his family to the middle-class. As he put it in his laconic prose, ‘We had great dreams, my wife and I. We thought we could bow our necks, work very hard, and do all that we had set our hearts to do. But we were mistaken’.[5]

Not long after his graduation Carver filed for bankruptcy. At the time, his wife, Maryann, was selling encyclopaedias door-to-door, but despite their combined income the Carvers found a number of outstanding debts – mainly college loans and credit cards – too much of a burden. After meeting an attorney at a bar, Carver decided that the easiest way to escape their onerous loans was to declare bankruptcy.

Carver’s writing, which is born from this kind of economic experience, reveals the negative space behind the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism. His fiction depicts the waitresses, gas-service attendants, labourers and salesmen that populate the neoliberal service sector; people struggling in temporary employment or un-salaried positions; people who lack the education, opportunity and historic rebellious working-class narratives to challenge neoliberal common sense. In bringing these forgotten people to life, Carver’s fiction offers a muted oppositional alternative to neoliberal dominance, and, in turn, sheds light on a particular way of American life that, until the recent 2016 presidential election, found itself side-lined from political discussion.

Take Jill, a character in the story ‘Boxes’, she is thirty-five and lives in the far reaches of the American northwest. For the last five years she has groomed dogs for a living. But that is a recent occupational development. Before grooming dogs, she was a full-time housewife and mother, but her first husband left her and took their kids to Australia. She re-married, but her second husband, an alcoholic, left her with a broken eardrum the night he drove their car off a bridge into the Elwha River. He didn’t have life insurance and Jill had to take a loan out to pay for the funeral – before the City sent her a bill for the bridge repair.

Or take Leo, a father of two who works at a fibreglass plant in ‘What Is It?’. His wife, Toni, grew up on the poverty line, but since the liberalisation of the economy has opened up easy personal credit, they justify a spate of purchases on their kids. Leo even takes an extra shift at the plant to help pay off a loan they made on a convertible – a purchase that epitomises their attainment of the American dream. But as the period of debt-funded prosperity comes to an end their life begins to unravel. In fact, the situation is so desperate that they have shipped the kids off to their grandparents and Toni has gone out to sell the convertible. While she is out hawking the car, Leo, in a moment of intense humiliation and despondency, wonders how hard it would be to go into the basement and tie a noose with his belt.

Or there’s Sandy’s husband, a roofer, who in the story ‘Preservation’ is sacked on Valentine’s Day. The local economy has taken a turn and developers are reducing their quotas. He goes to the employment centre the next day, only to find hundreds of labourers, just like him, looking for work.

Or what about Ross, an unemployed aerospace engineer in ‘Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit’. He’s an alcoholic with a gunshot wound from his first wife, who doesn’t have the money to pay alimony to his six kids.

Or, Al, in ‘Jerry and Molly and Sam’, who commits to a long-term lease the same month his employer announces a round of lay-offs; or, the disabled man in ‘Viewfinder’, whose only way to make a living is to take pictures of people’s houses; or, Holly in ‘Gazebo’, who imagines an idyllic future with her boyfriend Duane, but in reality is caught in a web of infidelity, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies; or, the father in ‘Night School’, retired early after an accident at work, and now his settlement money has almost gone can’t afford to loan his recently divorced and unemployed son $200.

These are the characters that are the focus of Carver’s fiction. They are antecedents of the white, working-class voters who, in a period of economic and political disillusionment, have cast their lot in with Trump in a last-gasp-effort to change the status quo. But rather than patronise or denigrate, Carver’s sympathetic portrayals reveal that these people are casualties of neoliberal libertarianism, a promising economic philosophy that has driven Federal and State legislation over the last four decades but which, in reality, simply prioritises business interest and capital accumulation at the expense of universal health care, public education and social services. While Carver’s characters are, of course, fiction, they have become presciently synecdochic of contemporary American white, working-class experience.

In 2018, the importance of Carver’s work shows little sign of abating. While a billionaire has been elected to the White House, he has done so on a wave of white, working-class support — on a campaign that emphasised the negative impact of neoliberalism on the kinds of individuals central to Carver’s work.

Parallel to this political shift is the rise of commentary – on both sides of the political spectrum – on the negative impact of neoliberal practice over the past four decades. Anti-neoliberal apologists like George Monbiot and Joseph Stiglitz have become frequent contributors to newspapers and magazines; while the popularity of publications like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville (2017) have been adopted by conservative critics as an example of poor, white experience at the turn of the twenty-first century.

While neoliberal trauma has, of course, been the dominant experience for many in the last three decades – not least for urban African Americans – there is little doubt that, whatever the political rights and wrongs of the arguments surrounding their experience, the white, working class are becoming an increasingly vocal, visible and politically vital demographic. Such an emphasis suggests that while he died thirty years ago, Carver’s work will continue to remain influential for the foreseeable future.

[1] Bruce Weber, ‘Raymond Carver: A Chronicler of Blue-Collar Despair’, New York Times, 14 June 1984 <https://www.nytimes.com/1984/06/24/magazine/raymond-carver-a-chronicler-of-blue-collar-despair.html>

[2] Jon, Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland and K.K. Rebecca Lai, ‘Election 2016: Exit Polls’, Edison Research for National Election Pool, 9 November 2016 <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.html>

[3] Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch and Robert P. Jones, ‘Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump’, PRRI/The Atlantic, 9 May 2017 <https://www.prri.org/research/white-working-class-attitudes-economy-trade-immigration-election-donald-trump>

[4] Raymond Carver, ‘Fires’, in Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, ed. by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll (New York: The Library of American, 2009), pp. 734-745 (pp. 739-40).

[5] Raymond Carver, ‘Fires’, p. 737.