Doris Grumbach Grumbach, Doris (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doris Grumbach 1918–

American novelist, critic, and biographer.

Grumbach is best known for Chamber Music, a fictional memoir written in elegantly archaic language. In this account of a turn-of-the-century marriage, Grumbach juxtaposes the decorum of American puritannical manners and incest, homosexuality, and lesbianism. Her next novel, The Missing Person, is the portrayal of a young woman who becomes a Hollywood sex symbol and struggles to retain her identity. Grumbach has also written a critical biography of Mary McCarthy, The Company She Kept.

(See also CLC, Vol. 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Short Throat, The Tender Mouth … [Doris Grumbach] collects a handful of N.Y.U. undergraduates, and examines them as they go their way to a series of bad ends. The focus of this sharply-drawn collection of portraits is an undergraduate literary publication which brings together some student archetypes of the day: Jack Magill, plenipotentiary from the Young Communist League; Delia Sanderson, slummer from Miss Hewitt's Classes; Paul Lessmuller, confused esthete; Vivian Lefevre, a brilliant misfit; Issachar Steiner, "a perpetual sonny." There is no fruition for the hopes of any of these young hopefuls: the brightest of them is a suicide; the most militant becomes an informer; the most visionary becomes a window-dresser. In describing their various destinies, Mrs. Grumbach keeps a nice grasp on the currents of the time, and on the personalities that are moved by them, creating an interlude that has both clarity and depth.

Martin Levin, "A Reader's Report: 'The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1964. p. 56.

Michele Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In her first novel, The Spoil of The Flowers,] Mrs. Grumbach demonstrated real skill in handling a large number of characters without falling prey to fictional elephantiasis. With delicacy and care, she told us the relevant information about each character, displayed her in a characteristic posture, then picked up another character to repeat the performance, weaving a pattern into which everything would fit. Small, neat and consistently interesting, it was more than a competent first novel.

In her [The Short Throat, The Tender Mouth] (title courtesy of Chaucer, but a poor choice, for all that), Mrs. Grumbach uses the same technique until the final section, but her subject has broadened and deepened, her cast of characters become more complex, and what was successful in the first book is less so in the second. Indeed, so much is wrong with the choice of technique that the book, despite a subject of much potential depth, finally fails almost completely.

And yet, having said that, it remains to say more, and that in praise of both the conception and the intelligence that supports it. The novel is set in Washington Square College of New York University in 1939…. Mrs. Grumbach recalls it for us, not with nostalgia, but with scrupulous reconstruction of the feel of the times—the campus radicalism with its mixture of idealists and crude miniature Stalinists, the pervasive poverty of the students, the...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Vivian Gornick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The [main] character in The Missing Person is modeled on Marilyn Monroe; thus, both the public persona and the infantilism are of pathological proportion. Set in the 1930s, the novel tells of Fanny Marker, who grows up in Utica, New York, the daughter of a pugnacious beautician who lives with hard hats. One of them rapes Fanny when she's 14 and sends her on her way to waitressing, small-town whoring, a trip to New York, a homosexual agent who gets her into pictures and, finally, her transformation into Fanny Fuller, one of the most potent images of sexual fantasy ever produced in Hollywood.

Fanny remains locked up inside Franny: brutalized, lost, emotionally speechless, a damaged child screaming silently for help from behind her famous drowsy eyelids, her open wet mouth, her sexually anesthetized body. A number of good people fling themselves against her extraordinary inertness, each one hoping to induce response; all are defeated by the infinite power of intractable damage. For a long while these people continue to replace one another in her life because a sickly sweetness emanates from the fetal vulnerability inside the gorgeous face and body …, but each one in turn (the Joe DiMaggio figure, the Arthur Miller and the Billy Wilder) gives up, abandoning her to a neurosis that is siphoning the oxygen from the room.

However, that's all right with Franny. She simply does what she's always done since she became a movie star: she disappears. Periodically, when the panic threatens to drown her, Franny smears dirt on her face, puts on workmen's...

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Herbert Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Missing Person"] is the sexy pink-and-blonde star, Franny Fuller, née Fanny Marker, with her floating lack of definition, her enticing passivity, her awful lostness. Shattered by her childhood, alcoholic and drugged, she has become unreal to herself. Briefly she takes as rescuer an athlete husband, then a writer husband, leaving us in no doubt that we're to think of the famous beauty that Norman Mailer, Alvah Bessie and others have muddled in. The book has a problem here. Despite the deftness and delicacy of Miss Grumbach's touch, and the credible projection of a Marilyn Monroe aura, Franny does not offer us the sense of surprise that we expect of a fully created fictional character. Miss Grumbach does not spare us Franny's shallowness; yet she intends the myth to be engrossing. The refusal of sensationalism as Miss Grumbach depicts Franny's childish resistance to making any kind of autonomous choice, simply letting herself be used by others, gives the novel both a subdued rectitude and a certain pallor. Franny doesn't bathe, she doesn't think, she doesn't enjoy love-making. She is pathetic for what she lacks at the source, in herself, more than for the failures which beset her. Franny the star is just poor dim Fanny. (p. 14)

The tone of the novel lies midway between realistic pity and satiric scorn. Miss Grumbach manages a sober interlocking of anecdote that is reminiscent both of Sherwood Anderson and Nathanael West, though...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Cynthia Propper Seton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] seems that The Missing Person is meant to be a hypothetical explanation of the phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe. And the question is whether Doris Grumbach's intrusion is a worthy attempt to bring a clearer lens, a fresher, more insightful understanding, to the lives of people who, in all their aspects, have become clichés.

The private Franny Fuller she describes is an inarticulate, sexually inert, amorphously fearful, lonely woman, drugged and drunk, her few recorded words and thoughts often sweet, always banal. One must take on faith that she can memorize her lines, obey her director. The first husband, the football player, is so endlessly nice you suspect he is one of those who did not always wear his helmet. The second husband, the New York Jewish intellectual, is not nice. He is rigid, self-serving, vain, and it is impossible to believe he writes poems up to the mark of Edgar Guest. And it is troubling that there is something not nice about the descriptions of so many of the peripheral people who have to do with Franny….

An underlying weakness in this story is that the inner person in Franny Fuller was really already missing before she left Utica. Franny isn't ruined by Hollywood, or even touched by it. It is unconvincing, therefore, that she has a serious effect on other people's lives, and indeed, the other people are stock characters, made to think improbable thoughts. Doris Grumbach is well known as a book reviewer and it seems to me that the respect and patience she lends to all sorts of authors, she withholds, for some reason, from too many of her characters. (p. 13)

Cynthia Propper Seton, "Paying the Price of Stardom," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), April 5, 1981, pp. 9, 13.