Monday, July 14, 2014

"What It Used to Be Like"

Have recently been on a Raymond Carver kick, ordering the "Library of America" edition of his stories (which I'd owned and read in various cheap paperbacks back in the '80s), plus the 2009 bio, plus the 2006 memoir by his wife of over 20 years, Maryann Burk Carver: "What It Used To Be Like."

I'm now halfway through his wife's book. (It's 1961: The Pill has just become available, and Maryann is understandably relieved after two kids in three years.)

Maryann was a college-prep kid with a future when she met Ray Carver. Carver was a working-class kid who didn't like to study (even at a junior college) or work. He got very, very lucky in that someone like John Gardner "discovered" him during one of his brief stints at a state school (Humboldt). Not "lucky" in the sense that Carver wasn't a great writer, but "lucky" in that: How many other potentially "great" writers get  hyped by a minor academic and then such hype takes hold in the literary industry? Very rare. Carver's taking off was very much the exception and not the rule.

Good for him. But the "bad-for-her" Maryann part is that after over 20 years of her supporting him (and providing first-hand emotional intelligence and, most importantly, ENERGY for his stories), he decided to leave her for some peace. Tess Gallagher, an academic that he met in '79 and officially married only six months before his death in '88, I don't consider as much of anything except an executrix of his estate.

Maryann Carver's reminiscences are a counter to the idiocy of a professor that I had in grad school at San Francisco State in the mid-90s: This professor, in a Melville/Dickinson class I was taking, was certain that Herman Melville's wife had been nothing but a drain on his creativity.

Oh really? Melville had been fucking about on odd jobs and as a sailor, with one publication, "Typee," to his credit in 1846, the year before he married. AFTER the year of his marriage in 1847, the ENTIRE rest of his work was published, including the now-famous novel "Moby-Dick" and the story "Bartleby the Scrivener" --- and again, not just those, but EVERY OTHER THING he ever published.

Melville not only had a home base but also had a willing cadre of women (his wife and daughters) there to transcribe his every word. Melville wasn't operating in a vacuum. Neither was Carver.

During my time in academia in the late-80s-to-mid-90s learning about various literary men, I can't tell you how often the female life partners were dismissed and denigrated as somehow being nothing more than "balls and chains," as local girls that the guys had gotten pregnant... I'd like to see a history of art/literature sans such women (aka, "muses" and/or in-house secretaries).

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