Grumbach, Doris

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Born 12 July 1918, New York, New York

Daughter of Leonard W. and Helen Oppenheimer Isaac; married Leonard Grumbach, 1941 (divorced); children: Barbara, Jane

Doris Grumbach, retired professor of literature at the American University in Washington, D.C., has written several novels, literary biography, numerous critical articles, and hundreds of book reviews for the New York Times Book Review, Common-weal, New Republic, America, and Saturday Review.

The characters in the academic (The Spoil of the Flowers, 1962; The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth, 1964) and semiacademic (Chamber Music, 1979) settings of Grumbach's novels are a dimension of her concern with the mind at work, for these are often men and women who for all their intelligence and learning, reflect but gain little pleasure from reflection, think but cannot act effectively on their thoughts, and create but cannot share. The rivalries in The Spoil of the Flowers, the frustrated lives in The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth, and the unhappy marriages in Chamber Music all speak to the fragmentation characterizing the lives of many of Grumbach's characters.

In Chamber Music, one finds composers who have no desire to share with their wives "the old talk, the old making of music together, four hands at the same keyboard, four hands and two mouths and our whole beings engaged in the same loving act." Only in the extraordinary loving relationship of Caroline and Anna, sketched so economically and sensitively in this introspective novel, does the reader find an integrated, unified relationship. Yet even this relationship is continually in the process of being reshaped and redrawn by Caroline. At the work's conclusion, she notes, "I think the historian's view always superimposes itself upon history." Asked to write the history of her famous composer husband, Caroline "managed to produce merely a sketch of the chamber of one heart" and continues to live only because her memory of Anna has "grown, reached up, covered, and supported the rest of [her] life."

Grumbach's exposure to socialism as a student surfaces both in The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth and in a sensitive essay on McCarthyism, and her memory of a nun in an undergraduate class appears as a vignette in a novel and as a touchstone in an essay on her own conversion to Catholicism. This is not to imply Grumbach is primarily a biographically inspired writer. Rather, it is to say her works, as diverse as they appear to be, are of one piece and reflect upon each other in terms of themes and techniques. One watches Grumbach as an essayist explore the relationship of the experience to the written word, as a biographer study the bond between the life and the work of Mary McCarthy (a woman who, like herself, was also a novelist and outstanding critic), as a novelist show awareness of the reviewer, and as a literary critic analyze the works of others.

Grumbach's literary concerns initially seem unrelated—the Catholic layperson's role in the Church, the academician's scrutiny of the teaching profession and the Modern Language Association, the feminist's consideration of women writers, the biographer's perspective on her subject—but the primary and unifying thrust behind all of Grumbach's work is that of reflection. An experience is considered and transformed in the retelling so that a continual sense of evaluation and reevaluation informs Grumbach's fiction as well as her nonfiction.

Grumbach's roles gather their shape from her varying responses to the printed word, as teacher, critic, reviewer, essayist, and novelist, and it is possible to see in her literary production her own contention that a good teacher lets students see her mind in the process of grappling with an idea. In "The Art of Teaching: Some Minor Heresies," Grumbach notes that "the student sees that learning is a continuous process, not a matter of authority or imposition of views" (Catholic World, Oct. 1964). In the controlled, evocative language and characterization of Chamber Music, Grumbach best illustrates the active, reflective spirit that characterizes her own literary production.

Grumbach's active, reflective spirit is especially obvious in Coming into the Endzone (1991), a memoir and a reflection on the seventieth year of her life. "Growing old means abandoning the rituals of one's life, not hardening into them as some people think," she writes. And so, in the summer of 1989, the year following her seventieth birthday, Grumbach and her longtime companion, Sybil Pike, moved from Washington, D.C., to Sargentville, Maine.

Her active mind is not hardened against new ideas. The computer provides both assistance and simile: "My memory is diminished, like a hard disk that suddenly fails to deliver.… I operate with floppy intelligence." She continues to believe that to help students learn, you "hold their coats while they go at it."

Grumbach collects, she says, metaphors for death—caged lions, a dead goldfish. Young friends are dying of AIDS, older ones are becoming frail. She is starting a new life, this time on the ocean, much as she and Sybil Pike did in 1972 when they moved to Washington to start their life together. Reflecting the freedom of form that memory enables, the book moves through sadness and loss to affirmation in a voice that is distinctively Grumbach's own.

During the 1980s, Grumbach published three novels. The Missing Person (1981) traces, through second-person references, the life of Franny Fuller, a movie queen much in the Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe molds. Although reviewers frequently assume that the subject is Monroe, Grumbach has said, "I really was not writing about Marilyn Monroe, as everyone assumed, but simply about someone who might have been almost anyone. I erred in staying too closely to the biographical facts." The missing person is a Hollywood star, manipulated, used, abused, superficial, and enormously beautiful. We do not hear her speak, but see her only through narrators, just as we see movie stars only through their pictures; she is a prototype for all people who are missing, especially to themselves.

The Ladies (1984) fictionalizes historical figures. Two Irish-born women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, move to a small Welsh village so they can live as they wish to, as a married couple, rather than as society wishes them to. The women become renowned for their independence, and their visitors include such people as William Wordsworth, who dedicated a poem to them, Edmund Burke, and Walter Scott. Lonely, they are forbidden by Eleanor's father to step foot inside Ireland again; they farm their land, make friends with and enemies among the local townfolk, become sick, aged, and die. Their marriage has all the incumbent difficulties and pleasures. Eleanor, tutored and bright, teaches the shy, unlettered Sarah; as Eleanor becomes crotchety and loses her sight, Sarah is increasingly in charge. While some critics argue that the novel is an admirable departure from more pessimistic lesbian novels, others see it as predetermined, placing joy where it may not have existed.

The Magician's Girl (1987) tells of three college roommates in the 1940s. The title is taken from a line by Sylvia Plath: "I am the magician's girl who does not flinch." Grumbach is acutely aware of the pains endured unflinchingly by young women: Maud, poor and unattractive, Minna, middle class and overprotected but haunted by fears, and Liz, whose parents were Communist sympathizers, scoffing at the world outside their apartment. This is the first direct use of autobiographical material in Grumbach's work. Liz, the photographer who does not flinch, who survives, has Grumbach's socialist, Jewish, New York childhood. She is the survivor, recording the world through her lens.

In addition to her work as a novelist, Grumbach has had a distinguished career as a teacher and a critic. In 1972 she became literary editor for the New Republic, a position that occasioned her move to Washington from upstate New York where she had taught at the College of St. Rose. After two "magical" years at the New Republic, she returned to teaching, becoming professor of literature at the American University. Grumbach retired from teaching in 1984, but remained very active as a reviewer for both print and radio. From 1982 to 1990, her distinctive voice and carefully considered reflections on books were familiar to listeners of National Public Radio.

Grumbach has completed a second volume of memoirs, Extra Innings, published in 1993. Extra Innings: A Memoir has been said to be more of a "hodgepodge" than Endzone, but whatever it is, it is the recollections of a woman who has lived her long and speckled life through words. Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) explores what Grumbach did when left alone while her companion went on a book-buying trip—she listened to music, sat in silence, and looked inside herself, what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls the "inscape, the deep meandering landscape of an interior life." Again in Life in a Day (1996), she writes introspectively about solitude and her gratitude for everyday, common things, as the reader follows her through a day in her seventy-seven-year-old life.

The Book of Knowledge (1995) takes a turn to study four central characters, teens during the stock market crash of 1929, and follows them through to adulthood. The book deals head-on with sexuality issues, which some critics have attacked, but others feel followed closely the tragedy of that generation.

Grumbach's The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and Epiphany (1998) explores a subject many explore in their later years: God. Grumbach specifically reflects on her ongoing search for God, sparked by a revelation that occurred over 50 years ago. She delves into the works of writers and philosophers—such as Simon Weil, Thomas Merton, and Kathy Norris—as she does in her other works, to make sense of her thoughts. She is waiting for God to return to her life, to come back to her spiritually.

Other Works:

The Company She Kept: The Fiction of Mary McCarthy (1967).


Arnold, K., The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and Epiphany (Mar. 1999).

Reference works:

CAAS (1985). CA (online, 1999). CANR (1983). CLC (1982; 1991). Gay & Lesbian Literature (1994).

Other references:

Key Reporter (Autumn 1991). WRB (Dec. 1991).