Sherwood Anderson and Raymond Carver: Poets of the Losers

“So have American novelists gained stature by concern for America’s losers.” –Nelson Algren

By Claire Bruyère

I am sometimes impelled to say of a contemporary story “How Andersonian!” without necessarily thinking in terms of influence or filiation. In order to explain what I mean by “Andersonian,” I am going to take a fresh look at Anderson in conjunction with Raymond Carver to find out how each may throw light on the other.1

I will concentrate on Carver’s and Anderson’s short stories, recalling mostly the later ones by Anderson, and their insistent dealings with the character-type called by Americans a “loser.”

This loser is not exactly the clumsy, ill-starred character familiar to readers of Yiddish or Jewish-American literature under the names of “schlemiel” or “schlimazel.” Although bad luck may strike him, he seldom jokes about it. He is an individual who, in one way or another, does not make it or is thought not to have made it, or who thinks he has failed. The emergence of that character in American fiction is linked to the Social Darwinian spirit of the late nineteenth century, so that one of his first incarnations may have been Colonel Sellers, in Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age. I keep saying “he” because the idea of the loser would not exist without its opposite, the winner, who is rooted in a firm conception of maleness and virility. Most literary losers, therefore, are men. I don’t mean to say, however, that the losers we are going to encounter are to be perceived in naturalistic terms, that is as mere victims of outside forces.

Nelson Algren in 1961 wrote of American writers’ concern with the losers, of their ‘”search that went down Main Street in Winesburg, Ohio, and down Main Street to the edge of town …on either hand … faces of men and women living without alternatives were revealed.”2 This applies just as well to Raymond Carver, whose stories may be set “on the edge of town,” like “They’re not your husband.” Carver’s often nameless towns have changed little since Anderson’s time.3 His characters are the same ordinary (white) people. However, Carver’s prose, in narrative as in dialogue, is much more “tough” or “hard-boiled” than Anderson’s, closer it seems to Hemingway’s, so that putting Anderson and Carver together is somewhat paradoxical.

The archetypal loser in Anderson’s long works is the character modeled after his own father. In his short stories, the most memorable one is also a father, that of the narrator in “The Egg” (1921). As with Colonel Sellers in The Gilded Age, his failure is commensurate with his ever-renewed confidence. There is no equivalent to this story in Carver’s works, as the theme of the failed go-getter has probably exhausted itself somewhere between Clyde Griffiths and Willy Loman. Carver’s characters do not dream of material success or social recognition; they earn a small living or are unemployed and wish they could afford to repair the fridge when it breaks down (“Preservation”).

Anderson’s losers were not all like the father in “The Egg.” Let us recall for instance his characters in various New Yorker stories of the 1930s. Pop seems neither ambitious nor disillusioned. It is the narrator of that story, Frank Blandin, who guesses at his utter solitude, alleviated only by the drinking which eventually kills him ( “Pop,” 1933). Billy, the copywriter who dreamed of being an artist, writes shameful speeches for his boss and feels avenged when he once socks him in the jaw, saying: “I guess I caught him off balance” (“Off Balance,” 1933). In “His Chest of Drawers” (1939), as in ‘”The Egg” or in “Off Balance,” extreme attention is given to some words or phrases and their multiple meanings. The narrow-chested protagonist gives in to his wife’s and daughters’ power. Bill proclaims they are better than he is and all is as it should be. He just gets drunk now and then. John Wescott, another shy little man (“Two Lovers,” 1939), is dazzled by the glibness and social boldness of a male friend. He misses his dead wife, but he could not communicate much with her when she was alive. We understand that he became a “tippler” long before she died.

None of these stories is a first-person narrative by the major character. There is always a mediator who does a little explaining but refrains from commenting. None of these losers is self-pitying, as was the old man in “The Sad Horn Blowers” or as were some characters in Winesburg, Ohio. Although the pattern of these stories is simple, usually one of counterpoint, they are not the works of a ‘”baffled” or “fumbling” writer, as Anderson was often branded by critics of the thirties, largely on account of his novels of that period.

With Carver’s stories in mind, one realizes the degree of restraint practiced by Anderson. The potential conflicts do not erupt. But Carver’s characters, placed in more extreme or violent situations, are not so remote. In the story entitled “One More Thing,” a drunkard husband thrown out of his house by wife and daughter offers no resistance but gropes for parting words: “He said, ‘ I just want to say one more thing.’ But then he could not think what it could possibly be.”

Here is a sentence that could have been written by either one of these writers: “He had put them off the land. That was all that mattered. Yet he could not understand why he felt something crucial had happened, a failure. But nothing had happened.”

This passage is from ‘”Sixty Acres” by Raymond Carver, an echo of countless similar passages in Sherwood Anderson. In Carver’s story, a man feels he has been cowardly, not daring to chastise poachers on a piece of land that he owns. With Anderson, “something happened” or the same ironic “nothing had happened” is a leitmotif.4

Something must change in the course of a story, and many of Carver’s revolve around change. In “The Compartment,” a father is aboard a train, on the way to Strasbourg to see his son after many years and after a divorce from the boy’s mother. By the time he enters the station, the man has decided not to see his son. He merely rides back. The story is accompanied by quasi-absurdist comic incidents.5 It is akin to “The Return” by Sherwood Anderson, but more powerful because here one understands that in addition to fearing to face his son, the man has not recovered from his divorce.

“Jerry and Molly and Sam” has a more complex pattern. Told in the third person from Al’s point of view, it suggests the man’s guilt and his sorrow. Al, an unfaithful husband, takes it out on a female dog belonging to his children, Suzy. In secret, he tries to get rid of her and abandons her far from the house. Later, awed by his children’s grief, he sneaks away to bring her back, but Suzy snubs him and trots away. His family is falling to pieces. The story ends as follows: “He sat there. He thought he did not feel so bad, all things considered. The world was full of dogs. There were dogs and there were dogs. Some dogs you couldn’t do anything with.” The prose here sounds like Gertrude Stein’s, even if William Gass, in his attack on “that rare disease, minimalism,” denied any connection between the two.6

I won’t discuss Carver in terms of minimalism, since I side with writers like Tobias Wolff or Richard Ford against the critics in questioning such labels.7 Yet there is, in the economical writing of Raymond Carver, an interesting combination of precision, terseness and ellipses, along with vague, indeterminate words and phrases that go back to Stein and Anderson. The critic John Biguenet has made fun of the opening sentence of “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” which is: “I’ve seen some things.”8 To him, at that point, Carver ceases to be a true author and “relinquishes authority.” But it is unfair to judge a story on such a short unit, especially one written in the first person. Gertrude Stein used to insist that a paragraph at least was necessary to create a mood or an emotion: “Paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not. Paragraphs are emotional not because they express an emotion but because they register or limit an emotion” (“How to Write” in “What Is English Literature”). The nameless narrator of “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” cannot express the terrible times he has been through except with the word “thing” and with a pathetic attempt at humour, calling his wife’s ex-lover ‘”Mr. Fixit” and white collar men (he is a blue collar himself) “Mr. Coffees.” At the end of the story his wife, who had left him, returns, and here is the exchange that serves as a conclusion:

“‘Honey,’ I said to Myrna the night she came home. ‘Let’s hug awhile and then you fix us a real nice supper.’

Myrna said, ‘Wash your hands.'”

It is clear that it is these kinds of characters, the “inarticulate” ones, that some readers object to, find unworthy of so much attention, rather than stylistic choices per se.

Carver’s story “The Calm” is more subtle. “I was getting a haircut” is the factual opening. The narrator recalls a conversation heard in a barber shop. There were three other men there, besides the barber. He felt drawn to the barber. “Did you get your deer, Charles?” the barber asked one of the waiting customers. Charles, the hunter, accompanied by his father and his son ( the latter suffering from a hangover), did shoot at a deer and they wounded him, but one understands they gave up the chase and let the animal be the prey of the forest, a violation of the unspoken code of sportsmanship. This started a quarrel in the barber shop. The barber calmed the men down, but the three waiting customers left, leaving the narrator alone with the barber. They were silent. The barber was cutting his hair, standing behind him. The narrator looked at himself in the mirror (a compulsive gesture of Carver’s characters), the barber looked at him while working (“He ran his fingers through my hair. He did it tenderly, as a lover would.”) Then comes the last paragraph, abruptly:

“That was in Crescent City, California, up near the Oregon border. I left soon after. But today I was thinking of that place, of Crescent City, and of how I was trying out a new life there with my wife, and how, in the barber’s chair that morning, I had made up my mind to go. I was thinking today about the calm I felt when I closed my eyes and let the barber’s fingers move through my hair, the sweetness of those fingers, the hair already starting to grow.”

The caress in the barber’s fingers, which offsets the barbarity of the hunters, is of course most Andersonian, in that the truest form of human communication and sympathy is wordless and physical. It is here a male bond, but the barber is androgynous. He is close to the narrator’s mother in Anderson’s “The Egg,” who soothes her husband by caressing his bald head. The barber becomes both male and female in this reversal of the barber’s role in the last words. His fingers give life, as it were, by making the hair grow again.

Carver proceeds exclusively by juxtaposition, a method often used by Anderson. The initial description of the men in that room reminds us strongly of Anderson’s “The Dumb Man'” (“The story concerns three men in a house in a street…”) . In addition to that, Carver omits all references to time and change at the beginning of the story. He too transgresses the rules and we cannot say that the reader’s role is easy. I imagine that the narrator decided to leave his wife and was led to that decision by identifying with “Mr. Buck,” the wounded deer.9

Is the narrator a loser? There is no hint of any happiness having resulted from that decision. The emphasis in the text is on place, but the implication of the final scene with the barber is that such moments are most precious, all there are perhaps–and that perception is totally Andersonian as well.

Anderson and Carver both resort to symbolic objects that often give their titles to the stories; the egg, the brown coat, the milk bottles, a chest of drawers are some of Anderson’s; candy sacks, a bridle, a vacuum cleaner, plaster teeth are in Carver’s magic box; and the two introduce animals solely for that purpose. But this has been a staple of the modern short story since Maupassant and Chekhov. What is remarkable is the intensity of life imparted to certain objects, by Carver in particular. “Why Don’t You Dance?” is a case in point. None of the three characters in that short story is described at all. We are made to guess at their emotions through the part played by a long list of objects–those that used to furnish the man’s bedroom when his wife was still there and that he has put out in his yard for sale. The things are described no more than the people, but their transfer from the intimacy of the bedroom to the nakedness of the yard is enough. The man’s unhappiness is suggested by his constant drinking and by his trivial exchange with the young couple that has wandered in. An example:

” Hello,” the man said to the girl. “You found the bed. That’s good.”

“Hello,” the girl said, and got up. “I was just trying it out.” She patted the bed. ‘”It’s a pretty good bed.” “It’s a good bed,” the man said.

The third-person point of view shifts back and forth from the man to the “girl.” He, looking at this newly formed couple, sees all its potentialities but remains noncommittal: “In the lamplight, there was something about their faces. It was nice or it was nasty. There was no telling.” Later, there is a moment of physical sympathy between the girl and the man as they dance, all the while conscious, and not unpleasantly, of the neighbours who stare at the weird scene. In the epilogue (last paragraph), the girl tries to tell a friend about the episode, but she gives up–she cannot find the words. What we keep in mind is unreal, yet precise, cruel, and dreamlike. Everything looks fake, theatrical, and yet a man has metaphorically bared his soul.

Carver’s characters, like Anderson’s, become familiar to us after a while. The impact of the stories on the readers proceeds largely by accumulation. Hence the real difference between a story read in a magazine and a collection. When told that his characters are inarticulate and drab, Carver answered: “I AM one of these confused, befuddled people. I come from people like that, those are the people I’ve worked with and earned my living beside, for years.”10 This is the way Anderson spoke over and over again. Here is one example: “In my stories I simply stayed at home. among my own people, wherever I happened to be, people in my own street.” (letter to G. Freitag, Aug. 7, 1938). It is the Whitmanian stance, the writer claiming his brotherhood with all men and women. Reading Carver after Anderson, one recognizes, beyond the lack of words, the hopeless gestures of defeat (in “Viewfinder” as in many Winesburg stories ), the “kick” to be got out of voyeurism ( it is duplicated in “The Idea”), the urge to identify with others (“‘Neighbors”). The fear that so many characters experience feeds on an eerie sense of possession or projection: in “Fat,” a young waitress feels she is swelling after serving an obese customer and she takes it as an omen of change in her life. Nothing else is said. How characters react to a loss or a betrayal is a recurrent subject of Carver’s stories. It is true that, as in Anderson, they are basically passive, forever drifting, trying to escape their “unbearable selves.”11 Even change is often accidental. The stories do not always resolve in epiphanies. Mystery predominates over revelation–for both character and reader.

Anderson’s losers feel that they have missed “something,” bypassed creative or emotional possibilities. With Carver, the loss is related to a broken marriage in an astonishing number of cases. Men try to face being thrown out or abandoned or betrayed. They cope with realities like children, joblessness, excessive drinking, and the fear of death. William Gass observes the return of the “tough guy” and describes the style of Carver and some contemporaries as “soft tough,”12 which makes sense and contrasts with what Virginia Woolf called Anderson’s “shell-lessness.”13

Beyond this, Carver and Anderson express forms of nostalgia in which women play a crucial role. In Carver, the female characters are not stronger or more admirable than the men. Nobody knows what love is (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”), but the acute pain of loss is caused by their women’s defection. Anderson, the author of Perhaps Women, turns out to have a most conventional view of gender roles, as has been shown in particular by William V. Miller.14 Anderson sees women as entirely different, therefore stronger (they are not made ‘impotent’ by the machines); they are the muses of the (male only) artists, sometimes the agents of sexual repression (all those frigid silent wives or frustrated mothers) and of material ambition. In “The Egg,” after all, the father’s crazy scheme has been due only to his wife’s prodding him to get on in life. In “Two Lovers” John Wescott can find no better simile to describe his joy when the girl he had wanted said “yes” than to compare her to a car he also coveted. We cannot be sure Anderson is ironic here. Carver has a story (“What Is It?” or “Are These Actual Miles?”) in which the husband practically prostitutes his wife in order to get a car sold. When she returns, she calls him “son of a bitch,” yet she seems to have acquiesced to the role. Critic Vivian Gornick has said that, as a woman, she feels manipulated by Carver, for nothing establishes the previous happiness of the couples he shows in the process of breaking up. I agree with her in this and when she suspects that Carver was aware of it but wrote with a “wistful longing for an ideal tender connection that never was, and never can be.”15 It is true that, after all, the ideals of manhood and of womanhood have not changed that much from Hemingway to Carver or to Richard Ford or Andre Dubus, although the latter are not sexists but, as Gornick says, “tenderhearted men.” These authors , like Anderson, are romantics of a kind that is irritating to female readers. Anderson, at least, mourned his characters’ inability to mature.

But in their search for form and through different experiments, the two writers also share an attempt to wrest as much as possible from contemporary idioms and the rhythms of the vernacular, a struggle to work by way of indirection, although Carver has not had to fight the same battles. The narrator of Winesburg, Ohio kept calling for a poet (“it needs a poet there…”), but Anderson wrote poetry that was inferior to his prose. Carver was a poet, felt the kinship between poem and short story, but could not venture into longer writings, where Anderson excelled several times. Anderson’s voice comes from his own thematic and aesthetic appropriation of the grotesque, which is characterized by tenderness. By comparison, Carver’s voice is harsher. Can we even speak of a “voice” of his? I am not so sure, as he hides so much behind the surfaces of his characters’ words. He has a distinctive style rather than a voice. The more open-ended his stories, the more provocative for the imagination. When, in his later period, Carver felt more “positive” he found some stories “unfinished” and reworked them, injecting some optimism into them. A good instance is “The Bath,” taken up again and continued in “A Small Good Thing.” Whereas the first version is rich in tension, suspense, fear of the loss of a child, the second makes the story pathetic and more conventional with the long wait in the hospital and the moral regeneration of the baker. Several stories in his last collection, Cathedral, are longer and more “affirmative.” At the same time, Carver said: “I’m more sure of my voice. I really know what I have to do,”16 he was losing in sharpness and singularity. This is exactly what happened to Anderson whenever he felt less unsure–as in his novels of the ’20s–hence my thesis, which is that his best creative asset was an expression of the feeling of powerlessness, or at least doubt.17

This of course makes for a kind of writing that is limited in register, in diction even, and not as “plotless” as Anderson put it, but a kind of writing that is about what Tobias Wolff called “matters of life and death.”18 This is unappealing to some readers who prefer a more abstract, ironic, metafictional kind of writing. For Carver and Anderson are first and foremost tellers of stories, even if those are only glimpses, fragments. Their best work conforms to a superb definition of fiction: it has “the sense of mystery” and ‘”the sense of manners” prescribed by Flannery O’Connor, whom Carver liked to quote.19 It is therefore a bit puzzling to see how violently Carver has been attacked by fellow writers like William Gass and John Barth.20 They accused him of lack of artistry and, by implication, of pandering to the taste of a semi-illiterate audience. No wonder Carver turned to Anderson, writing a poem to him in which he fused the memory of his small town youth and that of his early readings:

“Anderson, I thought of you when I loitered in front of the drug store this afternoon. Held onto my hat in the wind and looked down the street for my boyhood ……………………………………………………………………… … still this feeling of shame and loss …… I am here in the house. I want to try again. You, of all people, Anderson, can understand.”21

(Bruyère, who teaches American literature at the Universite Paris-VII, is the author of Sherwood Anderson: L’Impuissance Creatrice (Paris: Klincksieck, 1985).


  1. Another writer who is occasionally “Andersonian”is Charles Bukowski, for instance in “Loneliness.” That story’s title and the subtitle “Stories of the Buried Life” for the collection which includes it, South of No North (1978), are even literal quotations. Bukowski paid tribute to him in his poem “One for Sherwood Anderson,” Dangling in the Tournefortia, 1982.
  2. N. Algren, Chicago, City on the Make (1953), 1961 Afterword, McGraw Hill, 1983. Earlier on, Algren had gone too far, however, in saying “the novelist’s place has traditionally been on the side of the loser,” “Interview with Nelson Algren” by Bob Perlongo. It took place in 1957 and was published in Arizona Quarterly, Spring 1989, vol. 45.
  3. In Shortcuts, by moving the stories to a big city, Robert Altman deeply modifies them.
  4. Something Happened, the 1974 novel by Joseph Heller, is also the story of a man who feels weak and is always frightened.
  5. The Carver story is like a condensed version of Michels Butor’s La modification, 1957.
  6. W. Gass, “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense” New York Times Book Review, Oct. 11, 1987.
  7. See T. Wolff, Introduction to Matters of Life and Death, Wampeter Press, 1983 and R. Ford, “What a Sea of Stories Taught Me,” New York Times Book Review, Oct. 21, 1990.
  8. See J. Biguenet, “Notes of a Disaffected Reader: the Origins of Minimalism,” Mississippi Review, 40-41, Winter 1985.
  9. There are other readings of the story. For instance, Marilynne Robinson’s: “This ending seems arbitrary, but it is not, if his leaving her is a violation of the way things should be, like the miserable business with the deer.” “Marriage and Other Astonishing Bonds,” The New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1988.
  10. Interview with Larry Mc Caffery and Linda Gergory in Mississippi Review, 40-41, Winter 1985.
  11. See H. Waldman, “The Unbearable Self. A Study of the Theme of Identity in Sherwood Anderson.” thèse de Doctorat, Université Paris VII, 1978.
  12. W. Gass , in article cited note 6.
  13. V. Woolf, “American Fiction,” ( 1925) The Moment and Other Essays, 1948.
  14. W.V. Miller, “Earth Mothers, Succubi and Other Ectoplastic Spirits: the Women in Anderson’s Short Stories,” MidAmerica (1974), reprinted in Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, David D. Anderson, ed., Boston, G.K. Hall, 1981.
  15. V. Gornick, “Tenderhearted Men: Lonesome, Sad and Blue,” New York Times Book Review, Sept. 16, 1990.
  16. Interview cited in note 10.
  17. See my book Sherwood Anderson L’impuissance créatrice, Paris, 1985.
  18. See above, note 7.
  19. See his essay “On Writing,” Mississippi Review 40/41, winter 1985.
  20. See J. Barth, “A Few Words About Minimalism,” New York Times Book Review, Dec. 28, 1986, and, for a more detailed presentation of the adverse criticism on Carver, Understanding Raymond Carver by Arthur M. Saltzman, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, especially ch. 1.
  21. “Harley’s Swans” in When Water Comes Together With Other Water, New York: Random House, 1984, reprinted in The Winesburg Eagle13 (Summer 1988): 7. For an interesting, more general study of the short stories of these two writers, see Elizabeth Savery Taylor, “Sherwood Anderson’s Legacy to the American Short Story,” Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 1989, ch. V.