Doris Grumbach (1918-2022): A Student’s Appreciation

Doris Grumbach (1918-2022): A Student’s Appreciation

Doris Grumbach in 1998 (Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

She caught me. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to pass notes in Doris Grumbach’s fiction workshop at Johns Hopkins. Beth was sitting next to me as Doris flogged her short story. If the criticism had been about flimsy characters or a ham-handed plot twist, I would have leaned back. The issue was Beth’s distinctively, purposefully childlike voice—a concern worth raising, as I had previously done myself, but ultimately a matter of taste. There’s a difference between “Your style is affected” and “What you’re attempting isn’t legitimate.” The Chamber Music author forbade criticizing the subject of a classmate’s work. Here, my young self thought, she was violating something akin to her own rule.

I slid Beth a scribble of solidarity: “Her opinion. I think she’s wrong.”

Doris saw. “Read that note just you passed,” she said in her National Public Radio voice.

As my 11 comrades wilted in sympathy, I obeyed.

“And you’re just taking it easy on her.” That was her pronouncement.

And that was Doris Grumbach. John Barth was at the Writing Seminars helm back in the fall of 1984, and Doris took over the following spring. Why did we use her first name? In her 1991 memoir Coming into the End Zone, she confronts a chummy nurse: “Miss, I am Mrs. Grumbach. A stranger to you. About fifty years older than you, I would guess. Don’t call me by my first name.” But Barth went by Jack; maybe she just followed suit.

The connoisseur of manners, ballet, opera and literature whom I’ve come to appreciate in my vocational rearview mirror could be prickly, indeed, but she was also an edifying presence. To be clear, Doris and I could in no way be considered close. I saw her weekly for one semester of my master’s program and contacted her one time since. Mustering some courage, I sent a letter asking for a book blurb, confessing that I was the immature writer who passed a note in her workshop. She actually wrote back, which is a minor miracle in the current literary world, saying she remembered me—certainly not for the three stories I submitted. Her answer: “I no longer do that sort of thing.” She was 90-something. No hard feelings.

May Sarton (Credit: Wikipedia)

What I once regarded as starched and distant I now realize was warmth of a kind, consideration without a pretense of familiarity. As a teacher, Doris was a model of appropriate formality wearing L. L. Bean, which made her eventual move to Maine with partner Sybil Pike seem fated. Her memoirs of the 1990s are treasures of candor and authenticity. In 1996’s Life in a Day, she receives advance copy of a devastating New York Times review of her novel The Book of Knowledge and predicts fellow writer May Sarton’s response: “On Monday [May] will call to say how sorry she is. Secretly, I suspect, she will be pleased, her voice will sound strong because, as La Rochefoucauld reminded us, ‘We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.’ Or, as he said in another place, ‘In the misfortunes of our best friends, we often find something that is not displeasing.’”

Perhaps Doris was trying to offer Beth such penetrating honesty in 1985. A severe mercy? I might have been wrong.

Young writer with much to learn, 1985.

My most enduring Hopkins experience took place not in Baltimore, but in D.C. Doris invited the workshop to her row house on Capitol Hill. There I learned what coveting means. It wasn’t the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves or the ceramic tile kitchen countertop, its blue a bottomless royal. By coincidence, Sarton captures my impression in Journal of a Solitude when she describes entering Louise Bogan’s apartment East 168th Street apartment for the first time: “The habitation reflected in a very special way the tone, the hidden music, as it were, of a woman . . .  a deep loam of experience and taste expressed in the surroundings, the room a shell that reverberated with oceans and tides and waves of the owner’s past, the essence of a human life that has lived itself into certain colors, objets d’art, and especially many books.”

I craved that row house. “Civilized” and “human,” again in Sarton’s words.

Capitol Hill row houses (Credit: Carol M. Highsmith on Wikimedia Commons)

After dinner we saw the carriage house, where Doris worked on the renovated second floor. We fictionists wandered almost reverently, as if in a living museum. Autographed posters advertising engagements with colleagues the caliper of Updike and Atwood graced the walls. The space breathed life into our aspirations. So what if she wrote The Ladies, which she kindly inscribed for my mother, on an oversized, unremarkable teacher’s desk, faux wood on top, beige metal beneath? With pluck, luck and persistence, we might someday compose our own variation of this theme by Grumbach.

She sensed the impact that evening would have on us, and vanity wasn’t her motivation. The hospitality was an experiential counterpoint to the classroom exercise of comparing two versions of a Raymond Carver short story. One of the most influential writers for my generation changed “the” to “an” and switched a period to a semi-colon—or some such nitpickery. That was it. Doris made us grapple, even with minutia. To get anywhere, I learned, my pencil needs to be as sharp as Carver’s, if not as inspired.

John Barth, whose pencil was sharp as they come, in 1995 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1990, Doris and Sybil bought a house on a Maine cove and left D.C., taking Capitol Hill’s beloved Wayward Books with them. In 2009, the ladies moved to assisted living in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Sybil died in 2021. Doris was 104 when she followed on November 4, 2022.

She might be pleased that her sophomoric former student regards 1998’s The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany as a lasting kindness to his restless seeking. The memoir recounts a divine visitation she experienced as a young mother while sitting on her front steps. “I was filled a unique feeling of peace,” Doris remembers, “an impression so intense that it seemed to expand into ineffable joy, a huge delight. (Even then I realized the hyperbole of these words but could not escape them.) It went on, second after second, so pervasive that it seemed to fill my entire body. I relaxed into it, luxuriated in it. Then with no warning, and surely without preparation or expectation, I knew what it was: for the seconds it lasted I felt, with a certainty I cannot account for, a sense of the presence of God.”

“It never happened again,” she lamented, “at least not with the same force, with never the same astonishing sense of epiphany.”

After over a century of living, may Doris Grumbach rest in astonishment. I regard her as a sister in spirit, though she might frown upon such familiarity.


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