Yet the similarity between these two stories raises some interesting questions about how we read Carver. That he is adored as few late-century American writers are is not news — as Bloom points out there’s almost a cult of Carver. Readers treasure not only his taut, bleak, deeply moving short stories but the legend of his life, as well: unhappy, alcoholic, stifled by frustrating poverty and saddled with the overwhelming responsibilities of teenage parenthood (“[My wife and I] didn’t have any youth” he told Simpson), Carver’s singular talent didn’t have room to develop until relatively late.
His eventual triumph over adversity, a story of late, spectacular blooming against all odds, has given him a rare hold on his readers’ affection. Carver chronicled the lives of the lumpen proletariat and the demoralized white working class with a sensitivity and eye for detail unmatched in his contemporaries and, many would argue, his followers.
He is commonly thought of as a truly American writer, perhaps stylistically indebted to Sherwood Anderson, Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway (he himself suggested the link to Hemingway in his book “Fires”), but in a sense sui generis — a talented, sensitive soul who rose up out of the deadening laundromats and strip malls of the great, dreary American suburban wastelands and wrote beautiful, sad stories in clipped, stripped prose.
The minimalism and domestic realism of his short stories made his work read very differently from the cerebral literary styling of his contemporaries, the university-ensnared postmodernists. But perhaps Carver’s work wasn’t as unfettered or as American (in his literary influences, at least) as all that. It seems that he read (and taught) the European modernists very carefully. Bloom says that, “Carver was a very literary writer and his work is full of echoes of other writers, some of them unintentional.
He’s a derivative writer — vastly overrated. ” Or, as Tobias Wolff wrote, admiringly, in the introduction to “The Best American Short Stories of 1994:” The picture of Gabriel Conroy [in James Joyce’s’ “The Dead”] watching his wife Gretta on the staircase above him as she listens to a tragic ballad … has become for me … the very emblem of that final distance which a lifetime of domestic partnership can never overcome. I wonder if there isn’t an echo of this image in Raymond Carver’s “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? when Ralph, returning from a walk on his honeymoon, sees his bride, Marian, “leaning motionless on her arms over the ironwork balustrade of their rented casita … she was looking away from him, staring at something in the distance.
But unacknowledged, unconscious “borrowing” or no, what does all of this matter when Carver’s fiction has given so many people so much pleasure? All artists (from great to lousy) in all media from time immemorial have borrowed and stolen, reinterpreted and reworked the art and ideas of their predecessors and contemporaries.
It’s the nature of creativity. So who cares if Carver shoplifted some ideas? Isn’t Lady Chatterly herself a descendant of Emma Bovary? Isn’t the most famous blind man of them all Oedipus Rex? And, as Professor Cushman suggests, isn’t Lawrence himself working closely with Sophocles’ ideas in his story? Yet, in the end, isn’t there a line between being influenced and knocking off someone else’s work? Nevertheless, to suggest such an influence and to note Carver’s denial of it can’t fail to be seen as throwing down a gauntlet.
Even in our era of sampling, of pastiche as high art and of the endless Hollywood remake, we still cherish originality as a cultural ideal, especially when it comes to the hallowed practice of literature. As recent events in publishing illustrate, the accusation of plagiarism or covert idea-theft can bring down a career and humiliate those involved with the accused project. It’s all right if an author is up front about riffing on an earlier work, as Peter Carey was with his most recent novel, “Jack Maggs,” or Michael Cunningham with “The Hours. ” But we feel fooled when something presented as original isn’t.
And we still see the history of literature (as well as those of art and architecture) as a narrative chronicling a series of innovations, starring the artists who shocked the world with the “new. ” Any writer striving for greatness, as Carver clearly was, worries that his claim on immortality may be tenuous. Carver’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious similarities between his own story and Lawrence’s speaks to the depths of his insecurity — as a working class writer in a literary world run by an Ivy-League-educated elite — about his own place in the canon.
That “Cathedral” was hailed by no less than Anatole Broyard in the New York Times as “perhaps Carver’s best work to date” would have made its provenance even more of a loaded issue. And while, to a more objective outsider, the debt to Lawrence might not seem like such a big deal, Carver could not afford to acknowledge that the centerpiece of his new book, the beating heart of his move “toward a greater ease of manner and generosity of feeling” (in the words of reviewer Irving Howe), was after all not solely and entirely his.
As Professor Skenazy puts it, “‘Cathedral’ is one of Ray’s trademark stories, and if you say, ‘I borrowed [it] from someone else,’ well, it seems less original. ” Near the end of his interview with Mona Simpson, Carver disparaged art, his own and literature in general, as essentially inconsequential: “After all, art is a form of entertainment, yes? For both the maker and the consumer.
I mean in a way it’s like shooting billiards or playing cards, or bowling — it’s just a different, and I would say higher, form of amusement … What then to make of this man who clearly saw himself as first and foremost a writer of literature, an art that he in turn claimed was of little more significance than bowling a rubber on a Saturday night? Nothing Carver himself didn’t already identify and write in his stories for us: ambivalence, insecurity, ambition, need, cowardice and hope — all the demons that beset the soul who wants to be Somebody. But judging from Carver’s enduring popularity and beloved status with a whole new generation of short-story writers and readers, he needn’t have worried.