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literature

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Grumbach, Doris (b. 1918)  

In her novels, especially those based on the lives of actual people, Doris Grumbach treats homosexual relationships matter-of-factly as an integral part of the human landscape.

Grumbach was born on July 12, 1918, in New York City, the daughter of Helen and Leonard Isaac. She was educated at Washington Square College of New York University and holds a master's degree in English from Cornell University (1940). In 1941, she married Leonard Grumbach, whom she divorced in 1972. During World War II, she served two years in the Navy. Grumbach, who has four daughters, has taught both at the secondary and college level.

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The author of six novels, a biography, and two volumes of memoirs, Grumbach has written reviews for the New York Times Book Review and The New Republic, and is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

She and her life partner Sybil Pike now reside in Sargentville, Maine, after having lived for a number of years in Washington, D.C.

Grumbach's first two novels, The Spoil of the Flowers (1962) and The Short Throat, The Tender Mouth (1964), were followed by her biography of Mary McCarthy, The Company She Kept (1967), which generated considerable controversy primarily because of Grumbach's use of personal material McCarthy had given her but neither wanted nor expected to see in print.

After a twelve-year hiatus, Grumbach returned to fiction, basing her next four novels on the lives of actual persons, including the American composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian (Chamber Music, 1979); Marilyn Monroe (The Missing Person, 1981); Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (The Ladies, 1984); and Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus (The Magician's Girl, 1987).

In 1991, Grumbach published a memoir, Coming Into the End Zone, inspired by the deaths from AIDS of many gay male friends. Grumbach seems obsessed with old age in this work, as she reluctantly celebrates her seventieth birthday, and makes plans to move from Washington, D.C. to Maine with her partner Sibyl Pike. Grumbach followed End Zone with a second memoir, Extra Innings (1993), partly in response to criticism of End Zone's representation of aging.

Gay and lesbian readers should find especially interesting those fictional works that have a major homosexual component.

In Chamber Music, the ninety-year-old Caroline Maclaren retraces the course of her famous composer husband Robert's career, revealing his incestuous relationship with his mother prior to their marriage, his homosexual affair with another young composer, and his death from syphilis (Grumbach's graphic description is unforgettable).

At first, Caroline appears frustratingly self-effacing, practically a nonperson in the great man's light, but she comes alive the moment she begins a passionate liaison with Robert's nurse Anna. A well-placed metaphor concisely reflects this radical change in Caroline's existence: Anna's "glowing flesh" melts the "ice age" of Caroline's heart.

In The Ladies, Grumbach portrays the famous Ladies of Llangollen, whose story is one of the more remarkable in lesbian history. Their perfect devotion to each other never once diminished over fifty years. Grumbach's contribution to this story is to embellish historical fact with an imaginative recreation of their meeting, elopement, and daily life together in the Welsh village of Llangollen: The lesbian nature of the relationship is explored at length in Grumbach's text.

The Magician's Girl follows the lives of three women who remained lifelong friends after their student days at Barnard. Each gains recognition in her profession; two of the three die prematurely. Maud, overweight and unattractive, becomes a famous poet (having studied with and idolized an Ezra Pound-like figure) and eventually commits suicide; Minna, a professor of history, having left her husband, is killed by a car after finding bliss with a twenty-two-year-old male student.

The third woman, Liz, a photographer celebrated for her portraits of "freaks," enjoys a fulfilling relationship with another woman. It seems not coincidental that the lesbian is the only one of the three friends not to die tragically and prematurely.

Reviews of Grumbach's work have been mixed. Praised by some readers for her imaginative portrayal of fictional characters modeled on real persons, she is castigated by others for her "dispassionate" or "reserved" representation of these same characters. Many critics note the propensity of Grumbach's characters for extensive self-reflection.

Perhaps her most important contribution to gay and lesbian literature is the manner in which she consistently represents homosexual relationships matter of factly, as an integral part of the human landscape. Grumbach depicts lesbianism as a positive, life-giving force in women's lives.

Ann Cothran

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Grumbach, Doris. The Spoils of Flowers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.

_____. The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.

_____. The Company She Kept. New York: Coward, 1967.

_____. Chamber Music. New York: Dutton, 1979.

_____. The Missing Person. New York: Putnam, 1981.

_____. The Ladies. New York: Dutton, 1984.

_____. The Magician's Girl. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

_____. Coming Into the End Zone. New York: Norton, 1991.

_____. Extra Innings. New York, Norton: 1993.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Cothran, Ann  
    Entry Title: Grumbach, Doris  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 3, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/grumbach_d.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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