Remembering Doris Grumbach

My first mentor, the professor who taught me to write and think, died Friday, November 4, at age a hundred and four. Doris Grumbach was smart and scary and fierce and formidable and intelligent and imposing — and a great writer. To her, every word, every mark of punctuation, mattered, and she instilled that in her students. We learned to be careful writers, to build a sentence with thought, a paragraph with logic, and an essay with coherence and dispassion. We killed darlings, polished prose, and said what we meant. As readers, we learned to give the author his donné, respect for his right to tackle his chosen subject, and to bring our best tools to assess the results.

I passed these tools and respect on to my brother, Martin Denton, who applied them to every review he wrote on his now-defunct website,, and then instructed his reviewing team to approach each play they saw with the understanding that “they didn’t put it up just to annoy you.” The playwright’s donné, you see.

I am astonished at how much I remember about Mrs. Grumbach (she was ALWAYS Mrs. Grumbach to me, never Doris, but also curiously never Professor Grumbach, at least not to me), how much she impressed me. I was assigned to her Honors English class at American University in 1976. The syllabus was (mostly) modern (mostly) American lit. I’m doing this from memory forty-six years later, so it must have stuck: a book of short stories by Hemingway (my first real exposure to him and I really now can’t see him without seeing Mrs. Grumbach sort of melded there too), a set of three early plays by Eugene O’Neill (whose short work I did not know), Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge (a wonderful title), George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (which I can still remember), economist E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (which I cannot remember at all and wonder if we ever got to this one), Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (which I remember very well and aspire to daily), and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the first named review of which, on the very first page of the paperback I still own, is by Doris Grumbach.

The second week or so of class we were assigned our first essays. When she came to hand them back to us, she said bluntly that they weren’t much good, except for one student’s and, with the permission of the author, she would like to read that essay aloud to the class, and would that be all right, Miss Denton? Well, I was Miss Denton then, and yes — oh my yes! — it was all right.

I promptly signed up for an independent study with Mrs. Grumbach. I’m not even sure what our topic was, but I know our purposes. For me, I went where I was welcomed, plus four courses didn’t keep me sufficiently busy and challenged. For her part, she explained that her four daughters had attended Vassar, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Barnard, at all of which institutions “they were made to work their fool asses off. You, Nita, chose to come to American University. I will make you work your fool ass off.”

And she did.

She had me keep a journal and she read it weekly. She would speed read moving her finger diagonally down a page. One week I had read her biography of Mary McCarthy and noted with the astute sophistication of a freshman that I felt she rather longed to be McCarthy. That observation got a tart response, and I blushed a thousand shades of scarlet; I hadn’t until that point really believed she could speed read.

She was a reviewer and received books in galley form before their publication. She let me read and review some. I’d never seen galleys. I remember feeling so important, so privileged, reading Peter Taylor’s Summons to Memphis in galleys over dinner at the Mary Graydon Center. What a book! What a writer! I also read Lore Segal’s Lucinella, which didn’t impress me that much. There were others, and I never got over the thrill of reading those oversized proofs, tucking the edge under my dinner plate to make it lay flatter, glorying in being in the know, of seeing something before it was given to the rest of world.

In all, I took two independent studies and two formal classes with her. She casually, effortlessly commanded a classroom — any room in fact. Her handsome, imposing face, stern-featured, thick graying hair, huge, piercing intelligent eyes, with just a hint of sadness — or was it just experience?— in them, eyes that missed nothing. She wore no makeup, and I think I only saw her in a skirt once in all the time I knew her, which extended a bit beyond my undergraduate years. I remember her most typically in a vaguely nautical dark-blue-horizontal-striped, three-quarter-length-sleeve top, with a zipper up to the neck. Dark pants. Dressed for comfort; jaunty. A world away from the tweeds and patches and dowdiness of academe, she looked like she’d be more at home as first mate on a ship. So comfortable in her skin, in her being. Perched or sprawled or with leg tucked up in her chair, she dispensed sage observations, pragmatic guidance, dry, wry anecdotes, and stern injunctions to respect the work, the author, the written word. She would laugh occasionally, smile sometimes, look pleased or satisfied at a student’s observation or — more likely — something she’d read. And here are some of the things she shared:

  • On the occasion of our first blue book exam, she admonished us to think first, then write. She told us of a student she had had in a previous year who sat and sat and sat in front of her blank blue book, not writing, just sitting, staring, until after more than half the period had passed, at which point she began to write. Fluidly, confidently, in well-formulated sentences and paragraphs with nary a cross-out. I am not sure if that tale is apocryphal — much like the nihilist student my philosophy professor, Harold Durfee, described at the beginning of his Intro to Philosophy seminar, the student who said all year, “Nothing matters, Professor Durfee, nothing matters or has meaning,” until the final exam when the student’s A-quality work was accorded an F by Professor Durfee and when the student protested, Professor Durfee mildly remarked, “But if nothing matters…” — but it sure gave me motivation to write well under pressure.
  • I can’t remember the context, but in one class, she told us funny stories of her early jobs. One in Hollywood where she provided the French translation to be affixed as the caption for a Jean Harlow bathtub scene and she, being prudish, translated the dialogue literally, jamming text all the way up Harlow’s decolletage. There is another version of this story by Mrs. Grumbach herself in a 2016 memoir published in The American Scholar. I can’t tell you whose memory is faulty, but I would guess mine. And another where she wrote lingerie copy and was fired when she penned, “Ladies, this girdle will make you look positively uncanny!” (That story too appears in her memoir; we’re both more or less in sync on this one.)
  • I remember her taking me for a tour of the AU Literature Department as it existed in 1976. She introduced me to visiting scholar I.F. Stone, who was so kind and unprepossessing, and I had no idea at the time who he was, and she told me later confidentially, and not the least bit arrogantly, just matter-of-factly, that she and Izzie were the stars of the department.
  • I worked as a receptionist in the Lit Department, and I remember her resume: it was three-quarters of a page long. Compared to Henry Taylor’s forty-page CV, which listed every poem he had ever had published anywhere.
  • She taught me to read my prose aloud when writing and rewriting and re-rewriting — which one should always do — explaining that the ear would catch errors that the eye glossed over. (Particularly a speed-reading eye, I would think.) This advice has stood me in good stead to this day. I ALWAYS read aloud as I edit, and I always read my own writing aloud.
  • Mrs. Grumbach much admired Henry James, and she instilled in me an admiration for his intricate yet unerringly accurate construction. She introduced me to the delight of untangling a complex, tightly woven, multiline sentence — and to the despair of untwisting a carelessly fabricated one. The theme here is that she showed me why good writing is a pleasure, how it can be a sensual experience — meaning a gratification to the senses — to come across an elegant sentence, an evocative statement, and not to fall under its spell, no, no, not to be intoxicated by it, but to cogently, gravely, parse, savor, and appreciate it.
  • She emphasized the supremacy of the writer. If Herman Melville chose to write over 200,000 words about a great white whale, that is his choice, his business, his concern, his problem. The reviewer’s work is to determine how well he did what he set out to do: were those 200,000 words well contrived? The reviewer must never set him or herself above the author by judging the relevance or importance of the topic; the reviewer must never use the author’s work as a cudgel or as a platform for displaying his or her own cleverness. That’s not how the hierarchy works; that’s not how good faith reviewing works.

She asked me to help her and Sybil, her partner, pack up books in preparation for a move. I can’t remember when or where, just that I was very young and I helped and that my father came to pick me up, and that he and Mrs. Grumbach spoke and quite enjoyed each other. I think. I like to think. I know he much admired her and her writing, was hooked on Ragtime when I brought it home, and went on to read all of Doctorow, and to read and greatly appreciate — far more than I, but I was so young, how could I understand her subject matter yet? — Mrs. Grumbach’s novels and memoirs.

I know I went to a reading, at Lambda Books, maybe, when her novel Chamber Music came out. And she signed a copy of the book, and I’m pretty sure it was a gratis copy. And I still cringe a bit at the inscription: “For Nina — in Friendship — Doris Grumbach. 1 May 1979.” It took my ego a few decades to process that teachers don’t remember students as well as students remember their teachers. And they really don’t need to. The spark has been lit, the influence internalized. And in Mrs. Grumbach’s case, by me, via family and colleagues, spread wide and far. She was an influencer!

I think I did tell her at some point past graduation how much her teaching had resonated with me, stuck with me, informed my career and perspectives. I think I did. I like to think I did. And probably I did, because I have another book with an inscription. For Coming Into the End Zone, she wrote to me and my then-husband, “For Nita and Roger in memory of an older time — Doris Grumbach.”

Perhaps an older time. Perhaps just a memory. But Doris Grumbach’s teachings and values resonate in me to this day

Nita Congress has had her nose pressed up against Gargoyle’s window for decades, serving as its copyeditor and designer since issue 50. An editor since 1980, a book designer since the early 2000s, she, like McDonald’s, has served billions and billions — only words and sentences, not hamburgers. This is her first-ever literary magazine publication and she is giddily and perpetually grateful to Richard Peabody. She blogs at Random Reviews, from which this tribute was taken.