"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
What would you do if you made the uncomfortable discovery that the most imitated writer in America might have lifted the plot, characters and theme of one of his most famous stories?
Well, for starters, you might try to dismiss the charges. Any old literary saw would do the trick. After all, everyone knows that Shakespeare cribbed his plots, that good writers borrow and great ones steal, and that all literary artists struggle under what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” Maybe, as some have said, there are really only a few basic narratives, and a writer can only come up with different ways of telling them. But what if the similarities between two stories by two acknowledged masters were just too close to be easily brushed aside? If you were D.H. Lawrence scholar Keith Cushman and believed you had stumbled upon a brilliant rewrite of one of the master’s tales you might draft a letter to the most influential short-story writer of your time. And Raymond Carver just might write you back.
In 1918 the British author D.H. Lawrence wrote “The Blind Man,” a brilliant short story that would eventually be published in a collection of his war-themed tales entitled “England, My England.” Passionate and subtle examinations of the psyche, these stories can leave you astounded by the power of Lawrence’s vision. And while perhaps not every reader reacts to the stories in “England, My England” with the intensity of intimate recognition, it seems that Carver most likely did. He must have been so moved by “The Blind Man” that it became lodged in his soul, only to reemerge when he started working on his masterpiece, “Cathedral,” in 1980.
Recently while reading “The Blind Man,” I was reminded of “Cathedral.” Although at first the two authors seemed worlds apart, I wondered if Carver had read Lawrence. Superficially, at least, they share common biographical points, enough that I could imagine Carver being drawn to Lawrence’s writing. Both were born into decidedly “unliterary” lives; raised in rural backwaters, they grew up in poor, working families headed by mostly absent fathers who labored at dangerous, back-breaking jobs: Lawrence’s in the coal mines of Nottingham, England, and Carver’s in the sawmills of Washington state. They both had a burning ambition to write that propelled them through difficult lives. And, ironically, both writers died on the brink of middle age from lung disease. However, although I suspected there might have been some influence at work, I wasn’t prepared for the extraordinary similarity of “Cathedral” to “The Blind Man” when I read the two stories back-to-back. They have an almost identical plot, premise, construction, characters and timing of crucial narrative events.
Both tales involve a triangle: A husband and wife in a troubled marriage get a visit from the wife’s close (but sexually unthreatening) male friend who takes a train to get to their house. In Carver’s tale the friend is blind; in Lawrence’s it’s the husband, but in both stories the climax is the communion between the two men while the wife is absent: In “Cathedral” she’s asleep, in “The Blind Man” she’s in another room. “What is it?” the wife in Lawrence’s story asks, rejoining the two men to usher in the denouement; “What’s going on?” says Carver’s. The slight action unfolds identically over the same time expanse in both stories: The wife’s friend arrives from the train station, there’s a strained greeting between the two men, at dinner they break the ice and after dinner the two men (at the blind one’s instigation) touch and have an intense reaction to their contact, wherein lies the “epiphany” of the tales.
I was so surprised at the affinities of structure, plot and theme that “Cathedral” has to “The Blind Man” that I wondered why no one else had noticed it. After all, “Cathedral” is a very well-known story, considered the Jewel in the Crown in the opus of the most revered American writer of recent memory. But, of course, someone had. Professor Keith Cushman, a distinguished D.H. Lawrence scholar who teaches at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro, had corresponded with Carver about the two stories’ similarities in 1987 and had published a paper about them in France in 1988.
Intriguingly, Carver wrote to Professor Cushman in the fall of 1987 that he hadn’t read “The Blind Man” before writing “Cathedral,” although he had “read those three or four stories of [Lawrence's] that are always anthologized — ‘The Horse Dealer’s Daughter’ and ‘Tickets, Please’ and one or two others.” He further wrote that when he did finally read “The Blind Man,” he liked it “a good deal” but did not “recall noticing any or many similarities” to “Cathedral.” He even went on to supply Professor Cushman with an account of the genesis of “Cathedral”: “The thing that sparked the story was the visit of a blind man to our house! It’s true. Well, stories have to come from someplace, yes? Anyway, this blind man did pay a visit and even spent the night. But there all similarities end. The rest of the story was cobbled up from this and that, naturally.”
Somewhat disappointed, Cushman who felt that “Cathedral” was a “brilliant re-write” of “The Blind Man,” accepted Carver’s explanations. But he couldn’t ignore the resemblance between the two tales and wrote his paper anyway. Now, more than a decade later, Cushman says that, “At the time I had to take [Carver] at face value … Though I can make a case for his not lying, it’s easier to imagine he was.”
It certainly seems that Carver was a bit more interested in D.H. Lawrence than he let on during the course of his correspondence with Professor Cushman: Journalist Jim Naughton, a former student of Carver’s, wrote a commemorative article in “The Washington Post” shortly after Carver died, reminiscing about the famous short-story writer: “I wanted [Carver] to be a literary guru, I suppose, but I think he lacked the ego for it. I remember only two occasions on which he spoke with any heat. On the first he said that D.H. Lawrence was one of the best writers in the language and one of the worst, and sometimes in the same story …”
Naughton also dates Carver’s short European fiction course at Syracuse University in the fall of ’81. Carver told Cushman that he first read the story and distributed it to his class in 1982. (Syracuse University confirms Naughton’s account.) In addition, poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s wife, says that she first showed her husband “The Blind Man” in 1980: “I showed it to Ray after we had finished working on his story ["Cathedral"] … there were some correspondences between the stories that meant he would have to know about it.” While perhaps Carver’s vagueness about dates isn’t significant, it is notable that he never mentioned to Cushman that his wife had shown him Lawrence’s story because she, too, thought that it had similar elements to “Cathedral.”
However, although Gallagher thought there were similarities between the two stories, she did not think they were significant. She says definitively that Carver had not read or heard of “The Blind Man” until after he wrote “Cathedral.” To top it off, she adds, “I think I liked it ["The Blind Man"] more than Ray did.”
Carver himself identified “Cathedral” as “totally different in conception and execution from any [of his] stories that have come before” to Mona Simpson in a 1983 interview in the Paris Review. He went on to describe writing “Cathedral” as an almost rapturous experience: “When I wrote ‘Cathedral’ I experienced this rush and I felt, ‘This is what it’s all about, this is the reason we do this.’ It was different than the stories that had come before. There was an opening up when I wrote the story. I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any further in that direction and I’d be at a dead end — writing stuff …I wouldn’t want to read myself, and that’s the truth.” He went on to explain, “In a review of the last book, somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it. There’s something about ‘minimalism’ that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like.”
But can the startling similarities between “The Blind Man” and Carver’s breakthrough masterpiece really be a matter of pure coincidence? And if so, why did Carver pretend that no one else had noticed them before Cushman did? Dr. Paul Skenazy, professor of American Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who worked with Carver in the early 1970s, says, “The similarities [between the two stories] — the temporal frame is exactly the same, there are other parallels and a kind of echoing of Lawrence in the Carver story that makes it clear that somewhere in the back of his mind was this story. So why deny it? ‘Cathedral’ represents the move Ray made to open up. It was his first major story after he stopped drinking, after he was with Tess — it’s a major transition.” And if Carver intended to make a deliberate departure from “minimalism,” who better to inspire him than Lawrence?
Once the similarities had been brought to his attention by as unconfrontational a scholar as Professor Cushman, it’s hard to see why Carver would stonewall. “Cathedral” was an immensely successful, influential story and there were and are many people who couldn’t care less whether Carver had lifted “Lawrence’s scaffolding” in Cushman’s words. Perhaps Carver felt pressured to maintain that the piece was uninfluenced, aware that, as Professor Bloom has written, it is originality that marks artistic genius, that marked Carver’s own literary heroes like Lawrence, Joyce and Chekhov. Or perhaps Carver truly could not see how closely his story resembled Lawrence’s. Whatever the case, writers are notoriously unreliable commentators on their own writing. “An artist is usually a damned liar,” D.H. Lawrence wrote in “Studies in Classic American Literature.” “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”
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.
Samantha Gillison's first novel, "The Undiscovered Country," was published in 1998.More Samantha Gillison.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)