Racial Imaginings in Raymond Carver's Short Stories and in American Culture

Article excerpt

In the essay "Fires," an autobiographical essay that details various influences on his writing, Raymond Carver recalls the event that inspired the character of Nelson in "Vitamins," published in Cathedral:

On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was a wrong number and I said so and hung up. [...] But pretty soon I found myself writing a black character into my story, a somewhat sinister character whose name was Nelson. At that moment the story took a different turn. [...] I see it is right and appropriate and, I believe, aesthetically correct, that Nelson be there [...] this character found his way into my story with a coincidental rightness I had the good sense to trust. (Fires 29-30)

Although Carver uses this example to illustrate how random a writer's influences can be--a wrong number becomes the grist for an important character in a major short story collection--this essay suggests that Carver's interpretation of this phone call was not random or even coincidental. While this quote avoids detailing the precise use to which Carver put this character in the story, Carver's equation of a black male voice with a "sinister character" hints at it. As in most of his self-conscious writer-persona essays, however, Carver carefully divorces his discussion of writing from social, cultural, or political issues or contexts. Even taking into account Carver's disinclination to engage in "fancy language" to discuss his work, his quote describing Nelson is striking in its adamancy about the "rightness" of the character and his avowal that the creation and situation of Nelson in "Vitamins" was primarily aesthetic in nature (Lainsbury 14). Repeating "right" twice, Carver lets the reader know that he fully stands behind this character.

As this essay will demonstrate, however, Carver's representation of Nelson as a very sinister and even castrating character in "Vitamins" is far from simple; instead, the story employs layers of racialized meaning and representation. Inspired by Toni Morrison's powerful demonstration of the ways that seemingly innocuous minor roles assigned to nonwhites in fiction written by whites reveal insidious racial ideologies, this essay analyzes Carver's incorporation of African American characters into his short stories. It may be important to note here that this essay is not invested in outing Carver as a racist or in evaluating degrees of racism in his work. As overt racism becomes more infrequent in the United States, studies of race and racism encourage a turn from thinking about racism as an easily identifiable set of assumptions and practices, in other words as an individual pathology, and more as a complex web of cultural discourses and social and ideological systems, in which we are all embedded, that have harmful implications for nonwhite people. Analyzing moments of black and white interaction in Carver's stories both enables a fuller understanding of the function of race in his writing and provides an examination of many of the ways discourses of race shaped by white Americans' ideas about blackness were embedded in United States culture and society during the 1970s and 1980s.

Carver criticism has moved away from the predominantly formalist orientation that characterized its early years and is increasingly attuned to the ways in which Carver's stories and their reception were shaped by the society and culture in which they are embedded (Lainsbury; Kleppe and Miltner). Carver's stories, like individual lives, contain resonance far beyond their surface details, and are, in fact, imbricated in vast social and cultural networks. As Tamas Dozoby argues in "McCarthy's Mailmen," "Carver's stories not only are a record of America's quotidian troubles but also are about the way in which the quotidian is frequently an expression of, or response to, larger, even international, political conflicts" (115). …