Grumbach, Doris 1918–
Grumbach, Doris 1918–
(Doris Isaac Grumbach)
PERSONAL: Born July 12, 1918, in New York, NY; daughter of Leonard William and Helen Isaac; married Leonard Grumbach (a professor of physiology), October 15, 1941 (divorced, 1972); companion of Sybil Pike; children: Barbara, Jane, Elizabeth, Kathryn. Education: Washington Square College, A.B., 1939; Cornell University, M.A., 1940. Politics: Liberal Religion: Episcopalian
ADDRESSES: Home—Sargentville, ME. Agent—c/o Tim Seldes, Russell & Volkening, 50 West 29th St., New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Writer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New York, NY, title writer, 1940–41; Mademoiselle, New York, NY, proofreader and copyeditor, 1941–42; Time Inc., associate editor of Architectural Forum, 1942–43; Albany Academy for Girls, Albany, NY, English teacher, 1952–55; College of Saint Rose, Albany, instructor, 1955–58, assistant professor, 1958–60, associate professor, 1960–69, professor of English, 1969–73; New Republic, Washington, DC, literary editor, 1973–75; American University, Washington, DC, professor of American literature, 1975–85. Visiting University fellow, Empire State College, 1972–73; adjunct professor of English, University of Maryland, 1974–75. Literary critic; Morning Edition, National Public Radio, book reviewer, beginning 1982. Board member for National Book Critics Circle and PEN/Faulkner Award; judge for writing contests. Military service: U.S. Navy, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, 1941–43.
AWARDS, HONORS: Lambda Literary Award, Lesbian Biography, 1997, for Life in a Day; Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, Publishing Triangle, 2000.
The Spoil of the Flowers, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1962.
The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1964.
Chamber Music, Dutton (New York, NY), 1979.
The Missing Person, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981.
The Ladies, Dutton (New York, NY), 1984.
The Magician's Girl, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
The Book of Knowledge: A Novel, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
The Company She Kept (biography), Coward (New York, NY), 1967.
Coming into the End Zone (memoir), Norton (New York, NY), 1991.
Extra Innings: A Memoir, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
Fifty Days of Solitude (memoir), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994.
Life in a Day (nonfiction), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1996.
The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
The Pleasure of Their Company (memoir), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2000.
The author's papers and correspondence are housed at the New York Public Library. Also author of introductions and forewords for books. Contributor to books, including The Postconcilor Parish, edited by James O'Gara, Kennedy, 1967, and Book Reviewing, edited by Silvia E. Kameran, Writer, Inc. (Boston, MA), 1978. Columnist for Critic, 1960–64, and National Catholic Reporter, 1968–; author of nonfiction column for New York Times Book Review, 1976–, column, "Fine Print," for Saturday Review, 1977–78, and fiction column, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1979–. Contributing editor, New Republic, 1971–73; book reviewer for MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Contributor of reviews and criticism to periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review, Chicago Tribune, Commonweal, Los Angeles Times, Nation, Washington Post, Washington Star, and New Republic.
SIDELIGHTS: Doris Grumbach, a biographer and respected literary critic, is the author of several novels with historical, biographical, and autobiographical elements. Early in her career, Grumbach worked as a title writer, copy and associate editor, literary editor, and an English teacher; her career as a novelist did not begin until she was in her early forties, but it continued for three decades. After leaving the hustle and bustle of New York City to settle with her long-time companion, Sybil Pike, in rural Sargentville, Maine, where Pike runs Wayward Books, Grumbach wrote two books of reflections on religion and four volumes of memoirs.
In an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS), the author recalled the time when she sought to have her first book published: "The manuscript was in a typing-paper box, wrapped in a shopping bag from the A. & P., and taped shut with scotch tape. I left it with the receptionist, remembering too late that I had not put my name and address on the outside of the box. I expected, as one does with an unlabeled suitcase at the airport, never to see it again. Two weeks later I got a phone call from an editor at Doubleday telling me they wished to publish the novel. Two years later they published a second novel." These first two books, The Spoil of the Flowers, about student life in a boardinghouse, and The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth, about life on a college campus three months before Hitler's march on Poland, "were by a beginner at a time in my life when I no longer should have been a beginner," Grumbach related in CAAS. "There are some good things, I believe, in both novels: had I much time ahead of me now, I would rewrite them and resubmit them for publication."
Upon the request of the publisher, Grumbach wrote her third book, The Company She Kept, a literary biography of the acerbic novelist Mary McCarthy. This book became the subject of a threatened lawsuit before its publication and of a volatile critical debate after its release. The Company She Kept parallels events and characters in McCarthy's novels with those in her life. "The fiction of Mary McCarthy is autobiographical to an extraordinary degree, in the widest sense of autobiography," Grumbach explains in the foreword to the book. "In the case of Mary McCarthy there is only a faint line between what really happened to her, the people she knew and knows, including herself, and the characters in her fictions." To prepare the biography, Grumbach spent a year reading McCarthy's work and criticism of it and interviewed the author extensively at her Paris home. Difficulties with McCarthy arose, Grumbach says, when McCarthy, who suggested she read the galleys of the book to catch any factual errors, protested against some of the information Grumbach had included in the manuscript.
In a New York Times Book Review article on her dispute with McCarthy, Grumbach reported that McCarthy voluntarily provided her with intimate biographical details in conversation and in a detailed memorandum. McCarthy's anger over their inclusion therefore came as a surprise, said Grumbach. "I was unprepared for the fury of her response when she saw the galleys … and realized that I had used the autobiographical details she had, as she said, given me," commented Grumbach. "She had said, once, that it felt strange to have a book written about one, 'a book that includes you as a person, not just a critical analysis of your writings.' Now she insisted that the curriculum vitae had been sent to be 'drawn upon,' not used, although just how this was to be done continues to be a mystery to me…. [McCarthy's] feeling was that the tapes and her letters to me had been intended solely for 'your own enlightenment.'"
For all the attendant publicity, however, The Company She Kept was not well received by the literary establishment. Stephanie Harrington wrote in Commonweal: "To anyone who has read The Company She Kept … the newspaper stories that followed the book's publication must have seemed too preposterous to be anything but a desperate attempt by the publisher's publicity department to drum up business for a clinker." A Times Literary Supplement contributor, who described The Company She Kept as "sparkily written and often critically sharp," felt that Grumbach falls short of her stated goal of "weaving one fabric of [the] diverse threads of McCarthy's biography and her fiction." Grumbach, asserted the reviewer, "never fully succeeds in dramatizing the complex interactions that go into such a pro-cess; [therefore, The Company She Kept] is likely to end up as required reading for gossips." Ellen Moers, writing in the New York Times Book Review, did not argue the validity of Grumbach's attempt to find the facts in Mary McCarthy's fiction—the process of "set[ting] out to name names," as Moers called it—but instead claimed that Grumbach misread McCarthy and thus arrived at erroneous conclusions. To Grumbach's statement that "there is only a faint line" between fact and fiction for McCarthy, Moers responded: "This simply cannot be true. The husbands in McCarthy fiction … are such dreary mediocrities, her artist colonies and political oases are so bare of talent or distinction, her suites of college girls are so tediously third-rate—only a powerful imagination could have made such nonentities out of the very interesting company that Mary McCarthy actually kept." Saturday Review critic Granville Hicks, however, did not find Grumbach's approach in The Company She Kept objectionable and approved of her straightforward manner in tackling it. "Although there is nothing novel about finding Miss McCarthy in her books, critics are usually cautious about identifying characters in fiction with real people, and I am grateful for Mrs. Grumbach's refusal to beat around that particular bush."
In the wake of the harsh reviews The Company She Kept received, Grumbach tried to deflect some of the criticism from herself by discussing the circumstances leading to her decision to write the McCarthy biography. Explaining in the New York Times Book Review that she was asked to write the book on McCarthy, rather than instigating the project herself, Grumbach stated, "An editor asks, somewhere in the inner room of a dim New York restaurant, would you do a book on Her? And because you do not ordinarily eat and drink such sumptuous lunches in the proximate company of so many successful-looking people, and because you need the money, and because after all, She is a good writer (you've always thought this) and apparently a fascinating woman, you say yes, I will." Commented Harrington: "Mrs. Grumbach's apologia in the Times … [indicates] that it was foolhardy to expect a serious piece of work in the first place when she only decided to take on Mary McCarthy because an editor asked 'somewhere in the inner room of a dim New York restaurant, would you do a book on Her?'" Recognizing the shortcomings of The Company She Kept, Grumbach summarized her difficulties with the book in the New York Times Book Review: "The value of the whole experience lies, for me," she said, "in the recognition of how difficult, even well-nigh impossible, it is to write a book that deals with a living person. It does not matter in the least that the living person is willing to assist the writer (beware the Greeks bearing …) in conversation or letter; the fact remains, the law being what it is, the subject can give with one hand, take back with the other, and in this process of literary Indian-giving the writer is virtually helpless."
Ten years after publishing The Company She Kept and fifteen years after writing her novels, The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth and The Spoil of the Flowers, Grumbach returned to fiction. Her first novel after the hiatus was Chamber Music, written as the memoirs of ninety-year-old Caroline MacLaren, widow of a famous composer and founder of an artists' colony in his memory. Released with a 20,000 copy first printing and a $20,000 promotional campaign, Chamber Music won the popular and critical acclaim that eluded Grumbach's earlier books. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Peter Davison called the book "artful, distinctive, provocative, [and] compassionate." Chamber Music, remarked Victoria Glendinning in the Washington Post Book World, "is a book of originality and distinction."
Chamber Music is the story of "the chamber of one heart," says narrator Caroline MacLaren in the introduction to her memoirs. The novel's plot revolves around the subjugation of Caroline to her husband Robert and to Robert's music. Their marriage is a cold and barren one and Chamber Music charts its course through Robert's incestuous relationship with his mother, his homosexual affair with a student, and, finally, to his agonizing death in the tertiary stage of syphilis. Especially noted for its sensitive handling of its delicate subject matter and for its characterizations, Chamber Music was called by the New York Times's John Leonard, "one of those rare novels for adults who listen." The characters in Chamber Music, Leonard continued, "are all stringed instruments. The music we hear occurs in the chamber of Caroline's heart. It is quite beautiful." With her third novel, Grumbach "makes us hear the difficult music of grace," wrote Nicholas Delbanco in the New Republic.
Although Chamber Music's "revelations of sexuality are meant to shatter," as one Publishers Weekly contributor commented, and the passage on Robert's illness gives "a clinical description so simply precise, so elegantly loathsome, that it would do nicely either in a medical text or in a book on style," as Edith Milton observed in the Yale Review, it is the contrast between Chamber Music's action and its language that gives the novel its impact. While much of the material in Chamber Music is meant to shock, the language is genteel and full of Victorian phrases. "What gives the main part of this book its polish and flavor is the contrast between matter and manner," maintained Glendinning. "Clarity and elegance of style account … for the distinction of Chamber Music," wrote Eleanor B. Wymard in Commonweal, and other critics offered high praise for Grumbach's writing. For example, a Washington Post Book World reviewer claimed the book's language is "as direct and pure as a Hayden quartet," and Abigail McCarthy in Commonweal stated that Chamber Music has "the classical form, clarity, and brilliance of a composition for strings." Because it is Caroline's story, the novel adopts her voice—a voice that is "slightly stilted, slightly vapid, of the genteel tradition," one Atlantic contributor observed. Milton further asserted: "The novel is wonderfully written in [Caroline's] voice to evoke a time gone by, an era vanished…. The prose, understated, beautiful in its economies, supports a story of almost uncanny bleakness."
In her short preface to Chamber Music, Grumbach states that the novel's characters "are based vaguely upon persons who were once alive" but stresses that the book is fiction. "Chamber Music is a thinly, and strangely, fictionalized variation on the life of Marian MacDowell, [composer] Edward MacDowell's widow, who … founded an artist's colony in New Hampshire…. The names are changed; though not by much considering what else changes with them," wrote Milton. Gail Godwin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, suspected that the parallels between the MacDowells and the MacLarens "handicap … [Grumbach's] own possibilities for creating a fictional hero who might have come to life more vividly." However, other critics, including Glendinning, found that "the illusion of authenticity is strengthened by the inclusion of real people." "Robert MacLaren himself is given a semihistorical glamour by the parallels between his career and that of … Edward MacDowell—the two share teachers, musical styles, even a Boston address, and MacDowell's widow did indeed found an artist's colony in his name," noted Katha Pollitt. "Such details give Caroline's memoirs the piquancy of a historical novel."
Franny Fuller, the protagonist of Grumbach's novel The Missing Person, is also patterned after an actual figure. Franny, a 1930s movie star and sex symbol, closely resembles actress Marilyn Monroe. Written as a series of vignettes interweaving the events of Franny's career with an ongoing commentary by a gossip columnist, The Missing Person traces the actress's life from her sad beginnings in Utica, New York, through her rise to stardom, and finally to her disappearance from both Hollywood and the public consciousness. "Here, with certain sympathetic changes, is quite visibly another tale about the sad life of Marilyn Monroe," observed the New York Times's Herbert Mitgang. "Missing person," wrote Cynthia Propper Seton in the Washington Post Book World, refers to "this sense that one is all facade, that there is no self inside." Franny is supposed to serve as a prototype for all the "missing persons" who are, "above all, missing to themselves," claimed Herbert Gold in the New York Times Book Review. "There seems evidence," Abigail McCarthy wrote in Commonweal, "that Doris Grumbach may initially have thought of Franny Fuller's story as a feminist statement in that women like Franny whom America 'glorifies and elevates' are sex objects made larger than life. But if so, as often happens in the creative process, she has transcended the aim in the writing. The creatures of the Hollywood process she gives us, men as well as women, are all victims."
Grumbach, in a prefatory note to the novel, comments on the nature of the book. "This novel is a portrait, not of a single life but of many lives melded into one, typical of the women America often glorifies and elevates, and then leaves suspended in their lonely and destructive fame," she says. Still, commented Richard Combs in the Times Literary Supplement, "there is no prize for guessing that the novel's heroine is Marilyn Monroe." The close correlation between Marilyn Monroe's life and Franny's life was disturbing to many critics. "The question that poses itself about a book like this is, Why bother? If you must write about Marilyn Monroe then why not do so in fiction or otherwise?," asked James Campbell in the New Statesman. "Real names thinly disguised are a bore." Combs believed Grumbach's reliance on the facts of Marilyn Monroe's life hindered her ability to substantiate the point she makes in the preface. "The more the real Hollywood shows through [in the novel], the less satisfying the portrait becomes," Combs maintained. "The author's assumption … seems to be that since Hollywood put fantasy on an anonymous, mass-production basis, the results can be freely arranged by the inspired do-it-yourselfer…. But in refantasizing the fantasy factory, Mrs. Grumbach allows herself the license of fiction without taking on the responsibility … to find revised truth in the revised subject."
"It is hard for [Franny] to have a separate imaginary existence in the mind of the reader," stated McCarthy. "But this flaw, if it is one, is more than compensated for by the writer's evocation of the scene against which Franny moves—tawdry, wonderful Hollywood at its peak." Indeed, Grumbach is praised for her fine writing and for "the adroit structure of the novel," as Gold called it. "There is in this prose a certain leanness, a sparseness that separates most of the characters into a chapter each, surrounded by an implied emptiness. Instead of the usual crowded Hollywood narrative, [The Missing Person] has the melancholy air … of an underpopulated landscape," stated Combs. Seton commented on Grumbach's ability to capture the tone and feeling of old Hollywood films and newsreels in her writing. "Doris Grumbach's special gift lies in her ability to suit the style and structure of her novels to the world in which she writes," McCarthy said. "The Missing Person is itself like a motion picture—a pastiche of scenes centered on the star, complete with flashbacks, close-ups and fade-outs."
About her intentions in writing The Missing Person, Grumbach told Wendy Smith of Publishers Weekly: "I was interested in seeing what you could do, given a catafalque of fact that I assumed might be known to any literate person who came to the book. I wanted to fantasize about it, to imagine things that probably were not so, and by that process make them true." However, Grumbach was disappointed in her readers, she continued: "I thought you could make that move and people would forget what the catafalque was, but they don't; they superimpose what they know, or think they know, upon what you've written, and they become critical about it."
Grumbach switched her topic from the rise and then demise of a 1930s starlet in The Missing Person, to the public ostracism then acceptance of two aristocratic lesbian lovers of the eighteenth century in her novel The Ladies. "Grumbach compellingly recreates the lives of two women who so defied convention and so baffled their contemporaries that they became celebrities," lauded Catharine R. Stimpson in the New York Times Book Review. The story relates Grumbach's concept of how Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two Irish aristocrats known as "the Ladies of Llangollen," shocked the community with their lesbian relationship but were eventually accepted and visited by such noteworthy individuals as Anna Seward, the Duke of Wellington, and Walter Scott. Stimpson noted that the book "eloquently documents the existence of women who lived as they wished to, instead of as society expected them to."
As Grumbach relates, Lady Eleanor, feeling the lack of love from her parents because she wasn't a boy, becomes the boy in her behavior and dress. Always looking to fulfill her need for acceptance and love, Eleanor falls in love with the orphan, Sarah Ponsonby, who is being sexually harassed by her guardian. Eleanor attempts to rescue Sarah, but the two are caught before they get far. A second attempt prompts the families to allow the couple to leave together, but under the condition that Lady Eleanor is banned from Ireland forever. After a few years of wandering, Eleanor and Sarah settle with a former servant and create their own haven in Wales. Eleanor and Sarah "seemed to each other to be divine survivors, well beyond the confines of social rules, two inhabitants of an ideal society…. They had uncovered a lost continent on which they could live, in harmony, quite alone and together," writes Grumbach in The Ladies. Eventually, visited by other aristocrats, they become more secure within the outer community; however, problems arise in their relationship as their greed and fame alters their lives.
The Ladies met with good reviews. Stimpson, while recognizing Grumbach's pattern of blurring biography and fiction, praised the book, noting that "The Ladies is boldly imagined, [and] subtly crafted." Comparing Grumbach's work with the likes of Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Sandra Gilbert commented in the Washington Post Book World that Grumbach has "recounted their story with grace and wit," and she applauded "the sureness with which Grumbach accumulates small details about the lives of her protagonists and the tough but loving irony with which she portrays their idiosyncrasies." She observed, though, that while the protagonists' "road to reposeful Llangollen is strewn with obstacles for the runaway ladies…. All ends well once the weary travelers arrive in friendship's vale." Thus Gilbert maintained that "if there is anything problematic about The Ladies, it is that all seems to go almost too well" in the novel and "like Grumbach's earlier Chamber Music, seems here and there to flirt with the conventions of an increasingly popular new genre: The Happy Lesbian novel."
The title for Grumbach's next novel, The Magician's Girl, is borrowed from Sylvia Plath's poem "The Bee Meeting." In this story Grumbach writes about three women who were college roommates and grew up during the twenties and thirties. In episodic fashion, the stories of Minna, Liz, and Maud are related from their childhood to their sixties, and from their hopes and dreams to their reality. Pretty, shy Minna marries a doctor, has a son, and becomes a history professor. After surviving years in a loveless marriage, at the age of sixty she finally develops a loving relationship with a young man in his twenties. Not long after they meet and she experiences this fulfillment, she is killed in a car accident. Maud, the daughter of a nurse and army sergeant, marries a handsome man whom she eventually rejects, has twins whom she neglects, and spends most of her time writing poetry. Her poetry is good but she destroys it all, except for the copies she sends to Minna in her letters; she commits suicide before realizing the true success of her writings. Liz, the only survivor, lives with her partner in a lesbian relationship, achieving fame as a photographer. Summarizing the book's theme, Anita Brookner in her review for the Washington Post Book World, stated that the formulaic stories about these three women demonstrate "the way early beginnings mature into not very much, for despite the achievements that come with age, a sense of disillusion persists." Brookner asserted that Grumbach asks more questions about women's lives than she answers in her story, including the question, "Is that all?," and surmises that this may be more important than the answers. In conclusion, she praised The Magician's Girl as "a beautifully easy read, discreet and beguiling, and attractively low-key. It is an honorable addition to the annals of women's reading."
Several critics faulted Grumbach for too closely describing the lives of Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus as the characters of Maud and Liz, respectively. Other critics found Grumbach's writing weak in definition and description. The Times Literary Supplement's Marianne Wiggins found events "unlocated in time" and places "without a sense of period." She asserted that it is written "as if the text were a rehearsal for a talent contest"; she considered this especially disconcerting since she regards Grumbach as the "master of the quick sketch" and pointed out that generally "when her narrative shifts to describing the specific, it soars." In contrast, Paula Deitz in the New York Times Book Review commended Grumbach's attention to detail in The Magician's Girl. She deemed that the characters described "are all rich images, informed with the magic conveyed by the small details that reveal the forming of these lives." Deitz further maintained that "The Magician's Girl is most disturbing, and therefore at its best, in its acute awareness of the pains endured unflinchingly by the young." Christian Science Monitor's Merle Rubin summarized: "What is most poignant about this novel is that its special aura of serenity tinged with sadness comes not from the pains and losses the characters endure, although there are many of these, but from the conviction it conveys that life, for all its sorrows, is so rich with possibilities as to make any one life—however long—much too short."
As she turned seventy, Grumbach found herself looking inward and asking important religious and philosophical questions. Because her seventieth birthday "was an occasion of real despair," as she told Smith, Grumbach decided to put pen to paper with a new view in mind—to alleviate her despair. "I thought, well perhaps it would help if I just take notes on this year," she continued; "whatever happens may throw some light on why I'm still here, make some sense out of living so long." What resulted was the first of what would be four autobiographical and reflective volumes: Coming into the End Zone: A Memoir. "What is most delightful about Coming into the End Zone—[is] the wry, spry, resilient, candid recording of present happenings and suddenly remembered past happenings which fill almost every page with anecdotes and reflections," exclaimed Washington Post Book World's Anthony Thwaite. Grumbach comments on a wide range of topics, including contemporary annoyances such as phrases like "the computer is down," the death of several friends from the complications of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), her dislike of travel, her move to rural Maine, her memories of being fired from the New Republic, and Mary McCarthy's last curt comment to her. "The best moments are the passages in which the author seems least to be writing for posterity, merely trying to capture herself on the page, moments when the need to maintain a public persona gives way to the vulnerability of the private person, sometimes even to the young girl still inside this old woman," declared Carol Anshaw in Tribune Books. "The book that Ms. Grumbach intended as a confrontation with death winds up being a celebration of life," commented Noel Perrin in the New York Times Book Review, adding that "it is a deeply satisfying book." "Grumbach's reflections record—with honesty, fidelity, much important and unimportant detail, and with much grace and informal wit—her feelings of the time. I know no other book like it," wrote Thwaite, who concluded: "This is a book to grow old with even before one is old. The best is yet to be."
Grumbach continues her reminiscences in Extra Innings: A Memoir. Reviewers disagreed about how satisfactorily the author presents her experiences. In the Washington Post Book World, Diana O'Hehir defined a memoir as a grab bag and, directing her comments to Grumbach, wrote: "I felt yours wasn't enough of a grab bag. Not enough gossip about people. Not enough detail about you, not enough specific detail about relationships, family." However, Kathleen Norris presented the view in the New York Times Book Review that the book is "more of a hodgepodge" than End Zone. Norris maintained that "for all its recounting of ordinary events, Extra Innings, like End Zone, is a document still too rare in literary history, an account of a woman who has lived by words. Ms. Grumbach wittily chronicles the absurdities and ambiguities of the modern American writer's life."
She returned to fiction with her 1995 historical novel The Book of Knowledge. In it Grumbach introduces four central characters as adolescents the summer before the great stock market crash of 1929, then touches on each of their lives into adulthood, through the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the characters are a brother and sister who become intimate, sexually and emotionally, that summer. The other two are the vacationing son and daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, with whom the brother and sister become friends. All strive for selfhood in various fashions; and the two young men eventually have a homosexual relationship. According to Tribune Books's Nina Mehta, "Grumbach cuts right to sexuality, condemning her main characters to lives stunted by their inability to deal honestly with their sexual feelings." As Julia Markus of the Los Angeles Times Book Review remarked, "The stories of [the four] and their families are told and interwoven with great irony, subtlety and beauty." Markus concluded that "with masterful conciseness and with her own unique haunting force, Doris Grumbach has brilliantly delineated the tragedy of an entire generation."
But other reviewers faulted Grumbach for not delving into the interior lives of the foursome. Grumbach makes "a lot of tendentious commentary about puberty and the chasteness of homosexual inclinations," pointed out Mehta, "but what's most disheartening … is the book's lack of insight." Mehta further maintained that "by neglecting to ventilate her characters' lives with even a breeze of introspection, Grumbach gives them less personality, less psychological weight, than they deserve." Likewise, Sara Maitland asserted in the New York Times Book Review: "Ms. Grumbach prods at her four central characters with a sharp stick, but when they turn over, she withdraws her authorial attention in disgust." Maitland decried that the reader is "never shown the painful workings through of … personal choices that we are told the characters have to endure."
During the 1990s Grumbach published two works about her spiritual journey: Life in a Day, in which she writes about solitude and thanksgiving as she recounts a day at seventy-seven years old, and The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany. In the later, which Cross Currents reviewer Kenneth Arnold called a "story of spiritual hunger," Grumbach describes a profound religious event that she experienced while in her twenties and her subsequent search for a renewal of that intense experience. After decades of going to church services that only felt sterile, Grumbach has tried solitude and contemplative prayer. "I had discovered how necessary it was (for me) to discard my stale concepts of God and ritual practices in order to approach the pure core of prayer," she explains in The Presence of Absence. "A long life in the church had formed me into a half-hearted, secular worshiper. It was a condition I had to cast off." At the time also suffering from the shingles, a painful inflammation of the nerves, and because the pain was so intense as to prevent prayer, she read works by Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and Thomas Kelly. "Her experiences are set out in graceful prose and with compelling honesty," wrote Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence S. Cunningham in Commonweal. And Kathleen Norris, who is herself a writer on spirituality, wrote about the currency of this "brief and forceful" work: "It is an important book for pastors in that Grumbach … conveys something that many older people experience but do not articulate—a profound disappointment with the churches to which they have devoted their lives." "One must thank Grumbach for penning an authentic work," Cunningham added. "Anyone who despairs of the church but still clings to prayer will benefit from this woman's struggles and insights."
Grumbach's memoir The Pleasure of Their Company ostensibly deals with the author's upcoming eightieth birthday, yet that is only the framework around which she attaches her musings. These include sketches of deceased friends, as well as her former husband and current companion, and reflections on literature, memory, and prayer. Enthusiasts of the work included Booklist's Donna Seaman, who dubbed it "quietly compelling and always satisfying," Commonweal's Lawrence S. Cunningham, who described it as an "elegantly written and very moving memoir," and Library Journal's Carol A. McAllister, who called the author "vibrant and perceptive," and found her observations "meaningful" and ramblings "wise." Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewer Steve Harvey also praised Grumbach's ability to get to the heart of the matter: "[She] has gotten very good at getting under the skin of her own life. She is able in a few words to reveal the heart of the matter, in this case fear of growing old and dying, and yet she approaches it all with such wit, good feeling and candor that we find ourselves delighted, rather than disconcerted by her words." Finally, in the Lambda Book Report Karla Jay compared the work favorably to a memoir by Judith Barrington and to exemplars of the genre as a whole: "Memoirs generally tackle thematic issues that reach beyond the immediate life of the author, and these two works are brilliant examples of the genre."
In 2000 Grumbach was awarded the Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement by Publishing Triangle, the publishing association of gay men and lesbians in the publishing industry.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 13, 1980, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 64, 1991.
Grumbach, Doris, Coming into the Endzone, Norton (New York, NY), 1991.
Grumbach, Doris, Extra Innings: A Memoir, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
Grumbach, Doris, Fifty Days of Solitude, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994.
Grumbach, Doris, Life in a Day, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1996.
Grumbach, Doris, The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
Grumbach, Doris,The Pleasure of Their Company, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2000.
America, June 2, 1979.
American Spectator, January, 1982.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 4, 2000, Steven Harvey, "The Unexpected 'Pleasure' of Growing Older," review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. L10.
Atlantic Monthly, March, 1979.
Booklist, October 1, 1993; May 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. 1639.
Choice, January, 1999, review of The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany, p. 905.
Christian Century, May 19, 1999, Kathleen Norris, review of The Presence of Absence, pp. 567-569.
Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1987, p. 22.
Commonweal, October 6, 1967; June 22, 1979; January 15, 1982; March 26, 1999, Lawrence S. Cunningham, review of The Presence of Absence, pp. 25-28; January 12, 2001, Lawrence S. Cunningham, review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. 28.
Cross Currents, spring, 1999, Kenneth Arnold, review of The Presence of Absence, 140-143.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 4, 2001, review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. D12.
Lambda Book Report, September, 2000, Karla Jay, "Writing beyond the Margins," review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. 18.
Library Journal, March 1, 1979; May 1, 2000, Carol A. McAllister, review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. 112.
Listener, August 9, 1979.
London Review of Books, August 20, 1992.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 16, 1995, p. 3.
Ms., April, 1979.
Nation, March 28, 1981, pp. 375-376.
National Review, June 8, 1979.
New Republic, March 10, 1979.
New Statesman, August 17, 1979; August 28, 1981.
Newsweek, March 19, 1979.
New Yorker, April 23, 1979.
New York Times, March 13, 1979; July 20, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, June 11, 1967; March 25, 1979; March 29, 1981, pp. 14-15; September 30, 1984, p. 12; February 1, 1987, p. 22; September 22, 1991, Noel Perrin, "Be Cranky while You Can," review of Coming into the End Zone; November 21, 1993, p. 11; October 21, 1993; November 21, 1993, Kathleen Norris, "Not Cranky; Not Grumpy; Not Any of Those Things," review of Extra Innings: A Memoir; October 2, 1994, Le Anne Schreiber, "Home Alone," review of Fifty Days of Solitude; June 25, 1995, p. 19; August 6, 2000, Leslie Chess Feller, review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. 16.
Observer, August 12, 1979.
Publishers Weekly, January 15, 1979; February 13, 1981; April 24, 2000, review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. 75.
Sewanee Review, January, 1995.
Spectator, August 11, 1979.
Time, April 9, 1979.
Times Literary Supplement, December 7, 1967; November 30, 1979; September 11, 1981; July 12, 1985; June 19, 1987, p. 669.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 29, 1991; August 13, 1995, p. 6.
Village Voice, August 24, 1987.
Washington Post, June 4, 2000, David Guy, "Look Homeward, Author," review of The Pleasure of Their Company, p. X08.
Washington Post Book World, March 18, 1979; February 10, 1980; April 5, 1981, pp. 9, 13; September 30, 1984, p. 7; January 4, 1987, pp. 3, 13; September 8, 1991; October 24, 1993, p. 5; October 10, 1996.
Women's Review of Books, December, 1993; December, 1995.
Yale Review, autumn, 1979.