Raymond Carver’s short but critical time at Chico State
Raymond Carver, who like his mentor John Gardner would go on to become one of the most famous and respected writers in America, attended Chico State University from the fall of 1958 to the spring of 1960. During that time, he published his first short story, “The Furious Seasons,” in the school’s literary journal he founded, Selection, a copy of which sits tattered and forgotten in the Meriam Library’s Special Collections.
In 1957, a year after graduating from A. C. Davis High School in Yakima, Wash., Carver married his 16-year-old high-school sweetheart, Maryann Burk. He took a job as a pharmacy delivery man and took classes at Yakima Valley Community College. In December of that year, Carver’s first child, Christine LaRae, was born. A little less than a year later, Carver borrowed $125 from his employer, moved his family to Paradise and enrolled in Chico State as a part-time student. He rented a house in the foothill town for $25 a month.
“My wife and I had just moved down from Yakima, Washington, to a place called Paradise, California, about 10 miles up in the foothills outside of Chico,” Carver would later write in his essay “Fires.”
“We had the promise of low-rent housing and, of course, we thought it would be a great adventure to move to California.”
In another essay called “John Gardner: The Writer as Teacher,” Carver explained that, when he moved to Paradise, “my wife and I were stone broke. We had to eke out a living, but the plan was that I would take classes at what was then Chico State College.”
Carver said that for as long as he could remember he had wanted to be a writer, so he figured he needed an education.
“Understand that nobody in my family had ever gone to college or for that matter had gotten beyond the mandatory eighth grade in high school,” he wrote. So in the fall of ‘58, married and a father at only 20 years old, Carver enrolled part-time at Chico State taking a couple of courses, including a freshmen English class taught by Edgar Glenn and Creative Writing 101 with Gardner.
“That fall at Chico State I enrolled in classes that most freshmen students have to take, but I enrolled as well for something called Creative Writing 101,” he wrote in his essay about Gardner. “This course was going to be taught by a new faculty member named John Gardner, who was already surrounded by a bit of mystery and romance.”
That mystery, Carver wrote, centered on the reasons Gardner had left his previous teaching position at Oberlin College in Ohio. Some students said he was fired, while another said Gardner’s teaching load was too heavy, leaving him no time to write. This fascinated Carver.
“I was excited about taking a course from a real writer,” Carver wrote. “I’d never laid eyes on a writer before, and I was in awe.”
To his dismay, Carver learned that Gardner had yet to be published. But Gardner apparently saw the promise in Carver.
“Gardner had become aware of my difficulty in finding a place to work,” Carver wrote. “He knew I had a young family and cramped quarters at home. He offered me the key to his office. I see that gift now as a turning point. It was a gift not made casually, and I took it, I think, as a kind of mandate—for that’s what it was. I spent part of every Saturday and Sunday in his office. … It was in his office, within sight of his unpublished books, that I undertook my first serious attempts at writing.”
Carver remembered sitting in Gardner’s office in Taylor Hall on Sunday mornings and seeing his professor parking his car—"a car so lacking in any of the amenities it didn’t even have a car radio"—on the street outside and walking his wife down the sidewalk to church. The street was First Street, which ran through campus at the time, and the church was the Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian.
On Oct. 19, 1959, Carver’s second child, Vance Lindsay, was born. Carver returned to school as a freshman for two more semesters. In spring 1960, Carver established and edited the first issue of Selection.
In the Winter 1960-'61 issue of Selection, Carver published his first story, “The Furious Seasons,” which tells of a married man who impregnates and then murders his sister by slashing her throat with a razor. The narrative switches back and forth between the protagonist’s present and past; oddly, the past is rendered in present tense and the present in past tense.
Prof. Lennis Dunlap, who retired a number of years ago, wrote a critique of the works in Selection for the school paper, The Wildcat, dated March 9, 1961. “Carver’s rendering of the simultaneity of experience is technically interesting, and the symbolic structure of the piece, though arbitrary and contrived, works,” Dunlap wrote. “On the other hand, there is much in the story that is bad. Mr. Carver seems to have little feeling for words (what, for heaven’s sake, is a ‘chaise chair'?) and is extremely careless about grammar.”
“As published,” Dunlap suggested, “the story is so flawed that the reader is tempted to dismiss the piece without giving it a fair reading.”
But Carver apparently did not harbor any ill will against Dunlap. Some time after leaving Chico State, Dunlap recalled a few years ago, Carver called and woke him late at night.
“He got me out of bed and said he hoped I wasn’t offended if he modeled a character in a short story after me,” Dunlap recalled. “I hadn’t read the story, but I told him it was all right, and then later when I did read it I found it wasn’t unflattering at all.”
The story is “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” and the character based on Dunlap, a Dr. Maxwell, is described as “a handsome graceful man in his early 40s, with exquisite manners and with just the trace of the South in voice.”—Tom Gascoyne