Book Review: Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman

Gruber

Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman, by Ruth Gruber is is a reprint of Gruber’s 1931 (published in 1935) doctoral dissertation with an extremely interesting introduction. Gruber was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York. She entered New York University at fifteen and earned a post graduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She won a second fellowship to the University of Cologne, Germany. She earned her PhD in 1931 and was, at the time, the youngest person to earn a PhD. Gruber’s time in Germany was also marked with the rise of Hitler and the growth of antisemitism. As an American Jew, she was she witness to Nazi rallies and upon her return to New York she told of the dangers of Nazism. She served as a foreign correspondent to the Herald Tribune, visited the Soviet Union and experienced an unprecedented visit to the Soviet Arctic. In 1944 she went on a secret mission to Europe to bring one thousand Jewish refugees to the United States. She has written nineteen books and on her ninety-ninth birthday, Ahead of Time premiered in New York City. The movie covered her life from 1911 to 1947. Virginia Woolf was written in 2004; a quick bit of math put her at 93 at the time of writing. At present time Gruber is still alive at 101.

I wanted to read this book to learn about, someone I think is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Instead, I learned more about another great writer and humanitarian: Ruth Gruber. Gruber’s life in nothing short of amazing. She had a stellar academic career and amazing life. She was extremely brave in going to and staying in Germany; she was American and Jewish, both hated in the new Germany. At an American Embassy sponsored event in Berchesgaden, she was insulted by the German host’s advances and antisemitism; she left much to the dismay of the American diplomats. Despite the racism in Germany, Gruber did earn her PhD from a board of German professors.

Gruber’s writing on Virginia Woolf is a scholarly dissertation, and I will admit that even after reading all Virginia Woolfs books, including her diaries and letters, I found myself over my head more than a few times. That is to be expected, Gruber’s intended audience wasn’t university trained political scientists like myself. There is a wealth of information in both the dissertation and introduction, which centers on Gruber’s year in Germany and her meeting with Virginia Woolf. Gruber makes two important revelations about Virginia Woolf. The first, many (or most) suspected that Virginia Woolf was as Gruber says “catty” which would probably be much more severe in today vernacular. She was warm and friendly in person and in her letters, but her diary revealed something altogether different. Gruber was recorded in Woolf’s diary as “some German woman” even though letter were exchanged to United States and not Germany. Gruber also found in Virginia Woolf’s diary that the meeting was going to be a “a pure have yer” – supposedly Cockney slang for a task that is forced one but needs to be done. People outside of Woolf’s circle of friends, although treated polite in person were treated with contempt in her diaries. (This is also true of her first impressions of Vita Sackville-West.*) Gruber’s second revelation is the distinct polarity in Woolf’s work. This parallels Woolfs probable and undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The character Orlando was physically bipolar while other references are between light and dark, shape and ambiguity, and between the characters in The Waves.

Gruber spends much of her dissertation on the growth of Woolf as a woman writer. Woolf must battle the critics and her influences and become her own writer. Gruber first sees Woolf as an early twentieth century feminist.

“For Virginia Woolf,” I said, “Woman is the creator and man is the destroyer. Many of her women are heroic and her men are often weak, with no heart, no mind.”

Virginia Woolf was able to rebel, but avoid being labeled a fanatic. Her criticism is not bitter and at times humerous. Gruber tracks and documents Woolf’s development and growth into becoming her own writer: a woman writer in a world dominated by men. Although the dissertation may be above the average readers expectations, it is a valuable reference, Gruber’s story of meeting Woolf, the exchange of letters, and her time in Germany is alone worth the read. Virginia Woolf is an outstanding read that will give any Virginia Woolf admirer much more than what is expected.

*my observation, not the authors

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