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Doris (Isaac) Grumbach Biography

Doris Grumbach comments:

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1918. Education: Washington Square College, A.B. 1939; Cornell University, M.A. 1940. Military Service: U.S. Navy WAVES. Career: Title writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New York City, 1940-41; proofreader and copyeditor, Time, Inc., 1941-42; associate editor of Architectural Forum, 1942-43; English teacher at Albany Academy for Girls, Rochester, New York, 1952-55; held a variety of positions from instructor to professor of English at College of St. Rose, Albany, New York, 1952-73; literary editor for The New Republic, 1973-75; professor of American literature, American University, Washington, D.C., 1975-85. Columnist for Critic, 1960-64; National Catholic Reporter, 1968-76; New York Times Books Review, 1976-83; Saturday Review, 1977-78; and Chronicle of Higher Education, 1979-84. Contributor of reviews and criticism to New York Times Books Review, Chicago Tribune, Commonweal, Los Angeles Times, Nation, Washington Post, New Republic, National Public Radio, and the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. Board of directors, 1984-89, and executive board, 1985-91, PEN/Faulkner. Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award (New England Booksellers Association), 1996. Member: American Association of University Professors, Phi Beta Kappa. Agent: Maxine Groffsky, 2 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.



The Spoils of Flowers. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1962.

The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1964.

Chamber Music. New York, Dutton, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

The Missing Person. New York, Putnam, and London, HamishHamilton, 1981.

The Ladies. New York, Dutton, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984.

The Magician's Girl. New York, MacMillan, 1987.

The Book of Knowledge. New York, Norton, 1995.


The Company She Kept (biography). New York, Coward, 1967.

Coming into the End Zone (autobiography). New York and London, Norton, 1991.

Extra Innings: A Memoir. New York, Norton, 1993.

Fifty Days of Solitude. Boston, Beacon Press, 1994.

Life in a Day. Boston, Beacon Press, 1996.

The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany. Boston, Beacon Press, 1998.

The Pleasure of Their Company. Boston, Beacon Press, 2000.

Recordings: The Craft of My Fiction, Archive of Recorded Poetry andLiterature, 1985.


(2000) I write fiction to make sense of the world I have known in my eighty-two years of life. I use the people I have known, the ones I have thought might have existed, and myself, as I imagine myself to have been or to be, as characters. They live in real places, or places I remember as real, and what happens to them is what seems reasonable or likely to me. The prose I utilize is plain song to suit the reduction I have made of the poetry of existence. There is no lesson in any of these seven novels, unless it is the lesson that life is infinitely varied, that characters (persons) are never typical, and that place/setting is always filtered through the vagaries of memory.

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Immediately apparent in Doris Grumbach's fiction is its decency. She prefaces some of her novels without resorting to the usual disclaimer, "no relationship to anyone living or dead," but declares her characters as typifying numerous individuals: "This novel is a portrait, not of a single life but of many lives melded into one." However, her stereotypes attracted the most pejorative criticism of her work and are likely to be the reason that her most widely acclaimed books are recent nonfictional memoirs.

Her novels' inflammatory scenes and subjects are treated delicately, with an unfashionable sense of niceness. The Ladies is a polite narrative of an eighteenth-century lesbian relationship between Eleanor, who at seven decides to "be a boy, and then a man," and Sarah, whose "steps were prim and careful." Leaving behind authoritarian fathers and hand-wringing mothers, the women spend their first night together in a cold barn where "they put their arms about each other, ignoring the wet discomforts of their clothes, seeking to dry themselves in the heat of their creature love." Later, free and established in Wales, "they lay close together," which does not explain the trouble to which they have gone. More warmth has already occurred in a scene from Eleanor's childhood, masturbating on a stone lion and "never allowing herself to believe that in her ecstasy it was she who dampened his granite back."

Nor are we given more than an implication of a physical relationship between Chamber Music 's Caroline and Anna: "the way we moved together at the start of sleep to lie close, often in each other's arms, the sense of creature warmth and security we kindled between our two bodies as we touched." Grumbach relies upon the imagination of her audience to equate "creature love" or "creature warmth and security" with passion.

Lovemaking is more vividly portrayed in The Magician's Girl through Minna's reverie after Lowell has left her bed: "Enlivened by the pressure of his young presence, she greeted his entry with moisture long absent from the unused region of her sex." Readers spoiled by the power of a D.H. Lawrence novel or desensitized by pulp fiction may have jaded tastes, but also Grumbach seems to be writing to an easily offended, past generation. She sacrifices credibility by making scant distinction between friendship, love, and sex.

She is much less ambiguous about other themes, such as the lonely survivor, the wasted lives of those who wait for excitement to come to them. Chamber Music 's heroine Caroline is "raised by a lovely, heartbroken mother," and the book concludes with Caroline's observation that, "Conceived in the age of the Centennial's bentwood sofa, I lived an almost empty life into an overcrowded and hectic century." The Ladies ' Sarah barely sustains herself with memories, indeed the ghost, of Eleanor. The Magician's Girl leaves the ineffectual Liz musing that she is "the one left. Odd woman out. Or in. Still afloat, still kicking," but without direction.

Sarah alone finds peace with herself: "After a time of crying at her fears and her life's small tragedies, she never shed a tear again." Likewise, in Magician's Girl, Minna loses the fear taught by her mother, and although "Minna Grant's first memory, at five, was of terror," she leaves "fearless." By contrast, Caroline's worst fear is realized as she is "deserted by the single point of light, the one glowing coal, in a long, cold, dark life." Franny has no personality, only her stage persona: "Eddie Puritan, the agent of her real self, the slate man for all her inner takes, was the only one … who thought Fanny Marker was a person. And then, of course, he died." As a homosexual ("nance"), he was the only man who had not been a sexual threat.

The four principal characters in The Book of Knowledge, which begins in the resort town of Far Rockaway, New York, are unable to overcome the circumstances of their lives, some of which come from outside—the story opens around the time of the 1929 stock market crash—and some of which are internally motivated. Caleb and Kate Flowers are driven by their "twinned sensibility" to become furtive sexual partners, and Kate retains her affection for her brother while Caleb discovers longings that in that time were almost as taboo as incest. Later, at Cornell, he rediscovers childhood friend Lionel Schwartz—the book takes place over a fifteen-year period—and the two embark on a doomed gay relationship. Roslyn Hellman, the fourth friend, discovers that she is a lesbian, but like Caleb she suppresses her desires. Though America recovers from the Great Depression to fight a good war in the 1940s, the characters never recover from their own personal crashes.

Despite all of the unusual, improbable, or unexpected situations that actually happen to people and which Grumbach employs in her novels, she nonetheless maintains a detachment from her characters, unlike Charles Dickens's or John Irving's emotive qualities. Grumbach readers feel little sympathy for those who will cry no more, little arousal from those who snuggle faithfully rather than intimately, little compassion for those who never really lived. What then engages us so deeply about these characters who reveal their worst flaws and banalities, their deepest fears, and self-knowledge, but realism? What Grumbach's critics fault her for is intermixing realism and romanticism. Her books are not intended for readers who need to identify with hyperbolic characters, rather for those with enough sense of self to know that they too are at times ordinary, prudish, or in need of a cuddle.

—Maril Nowak

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