The March


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In the last years of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched 60,000 Union troops through Georgia and the Carolinas, cutting a 60-mile wide swath of pillage and destruction. That event comes back in this magisterial novel. High school & older.

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Oct 2, 2017

Doctorow's March

In his latest novel, E.L. Doctorow explores the American Civil War, specifically the march of General W.T. Sherman and his army through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1864 --1865. Sherman's march is generally regarded by historians as the predecessor of modern total war. The march was directed not only against the Confederate army, but against an entire people, as Sherman's soldiers cut a broad swatch through the States and through cities, destroying resources, homes and food everything in their path. The war was of such a magnitude and the passions among the combatants and the citizens so strong that the will of the South to fight, not only the force of arms, needed to be subdued. This was a cruel, difficult, and still controversial march as Sherman cut his Army of from its own communications and supplies further North, marauded, and pillaged and lived off the land bringing destruction to everything in its wake and spawning a long legacy of bitterness in the South.

Doctorow begins his story of Sherman's campaign in the midst of it -- after the Union Army had captured Atlanta and begun the first leg of its march to Savannah, Georgia. Doctorow gives a vivid picture of an Army on the march, for the most part unopposed, destroying everything in its path. The march through Georgia is the subject of the first section of the book.

The second part of the book describes the campaign into South Carolina. Destruction in this portion of the campaign reached astounding levels because Sherman, together with most of the Union leaders, held South Carolina responsible for initiating the war. This section of the book includes graphic pictures of the Union Army's difficult march through the swamps of lower South Carolina and of the burning of Columbia. (There is still disagreement about whether the North or the South was primarily responsible for the burning. Doctorow shows that it was some of both.)

The third section of the book, set in North Carolina, deals with the waning days of the War, with the final battle of Bentonville, with Sherman's meeting with Grant and Lincoln, and with the end of the War and Lincoln's assassination. The Nation clearly and a great deal of healing and soul-searching to do.

Doctorow gives the reader an excellent sense of the movement of the armies, the horrors of war, death, injury, and barbarity, and, in particular, of the state of medical practice during the conflict. We are given a good portrait of General Sherman, but of the other leaders of the Army only the clvalry leader Kilpatrick, known as "Kil -Kilpatrick" for his feckless behavior gets a great deal of attention.

The book takes a broad sweep, but there is no single main character that stands out. The story is mostly presented through vignettes and miniatures involving a wide cast of characters. These include a brilliant but emotionally cold Union doctor, Wrede Sartorius, a beautiful young former slave, Pearl, who can pass for white, former Southern slaveholders whose plantations are destroyed and lives uprooted, and Arly and Will, two poor rural Southern soldiers who endure a variety of adventures behind Union lines and provide comic, if sardonic, relief. These individual stories are told from a variety of perspectives and are interlaced with each other. Thus, it takes attention on the reader's part to follow the narrative.

The stories show a great deal about the effects of the march on specific people and groups of people -- we see the war through the eyes of the newly freed slaves, of the dispossessed plantation owners, and of the troops on the ground, among other people and are encouraged to think about its scope and significance. Doctorow puts meditations and soliloquy passages into the parts of some of his protagonists about death, freedom, destruction, and sexuality. These are among the best parts of the book. Doctorow's characters are well-developed and their stories help us to understand varying perspectives on the conflict. But at times, I found them somewhat mannered and a distraction from the focus of the book on Sherman's march.

There are several highly graphic depictions of death, injury, suffering, and surgical operations in this book which capture unforgettably the brutality of warfare.

Doctorow has written an excellent novel about Sherman's march which will encourage the reader to reflect upon its meaning for and continued influence upon our Nation's history.

Robin Friedman


Sep 5, 2008

An American Treasure

E.L. Doctorow is a quiet writer. He?s not trendy, flashy or artfully obtuse. He just tells rich, stories in American history. The March continues this tradition.

Centered around Sherman?s infamous march through the South during the civil war, The March is masterful mix of people and cultures thrown together in the chaos of war. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict-- generals, civilians, Southern aristocrats and freed slaves-- are swept along in the wake of war and a world turned upside down. Mr. Doctoral has called this his ?Russian? novel for the breadth of theme and the large cast of characters. The story, however, is quintessentially American in its theme and character. As in previous novels, he explores the gray area where culture and subculture meet that is uniquely American.

Those readers expecting a civil war novel steeped in military strategy will likely be disappointed. Fans of American literature, however, will rejoice at another outstanding novel from Mr. Doctoral.


Feb 1, 2008

Memory of the First Water

In the distant Seventies, my father and I might find ourselves watching the same movie on television. He felt compelled to ask me at some point if the story was real, or made up. At stake, I would guess, was the choice to commit himself emotionally, and he had half-convinced himself whatever it was had to have actually happened to do that. I wanted to give him the right answer, so I told him that if it hadn't happened in exactly this way, something had happened that was virtually the same, what with there being four billion people on the planet and a few thousand years of social organization behind us.

So it's all true, in short. It still seems to me the right formula. Everything has happened, or is happening. You can't make anything up.

Why would we want anything from historical fiction, then? History?s dates, at best, are a series of widely separated, dated lamposts casting circles of light into the blackness left by the departure of things. The historical novelist, if he or she is any good- a Marguerite Yourcenar or a Gore Vidal- can have us convinced they have it right, even though we've no way to prove it, or anything to back us up on the hunch. They must contrive what seems a memory of the first water, not a memory of a memory. Because of what abides of the sensual, the writer can extrapolate. The template it seems, is the present, not less than the past.

E.L. Doctorow's "The March" allows the reader complete confidence moving through this dark. We know we won't be cast into a limbo of disbelief, much less see the structural machinery turning, catch a glimpse of boom mike receding from the scene in Brechtian fashion, or a length of extension cord, or an extra with a band-aid.

Doctorow's retelling begins with Sherman just before Savannah and ends two states north in North Carolina, with Lincoln (here, almost folded and pulverized by sadness) dead, the war over, and characters we've come to care for in less than a few pages either moving on to another life or already moldering under the pines and swamps of the devastated South. The structure is like a water tight roof-- imbricate. Over the panoramic central roof beam?Sherman's March to Savannah? are more or less regularly revisited characters who peak and flare out, whose narratives collide and overlap. The narrative eye moves from one to the next, revisits someone again later on with a invisible logic and a measureless and unflagging pace. The surprise, beauty and brutality of incident never makes you pause, except briefly, a little breathless. It's as though the narrative had absorbed Goethe's nostrum "never hurry, never rest."

Though much that occurs is hateful, nothing here is melodrama, which has no rigor because it lets you out of identification with the worst of it. Melodrama puts Judas on the other side of the table, but his novel, like all good novels, has him occasionally in your lap. Like one of the Oliver Sacks-like wartime wounds we will read about, every character is a clean, multi-sided penetration into your consciousness, fully realized in a few quick swipes, instantly seen in dimension and full perspective. A given scene can begin in uneasy pastoral, open up into a semi-comic power struggle under the elements and conclude in rape, murder, escape and tenderness. Each scene opens on the next with only the scrim of the elements-curtains of rain or sudden floods of sunlight, or pitch dark sleep, as seam.

"The March" bears comparison to Fraser's "Cold Mountain ." It's a picaresque, the brutal army and the complex, difficult Sherman, an improbable Quixote meeting this or that stubborn plantation patriarch or charging sescesh rearguard. But the canvas here is at the same time both larger and more detailed, more telling in both the macro and the micro. And it's funnier. We eavesdrop on the musings of the hunched buffoon General Judson Kilpatrick, a historical personage known as "kill cavalry" for his devil-may-care charges. He plans to seduce and mount, both in one night, a pair of conniving Southern adventuresses, a mother and daughter team, with the help of a runaway slave gourmet chef who's attached himself. He's nearly struck by lightning while reconnoitering that day, and the morning after is run off the front porch of a commandeered house in his long johns by a Confederate raid. In between, the seduction of the daughter hadn't gone as planned, dissolved his fantasies of having his commanding way with demure southern womanhood.

"In the bedroom she had slammed the door, dropped her outer garments with a swish, then the petticoats, and then the hoop, which collapsed jingling to a circle on the floor. His trembling, spatulate fingers were enlisted to untie the stays of her corset. Then, pink and prominent in her undershift and stockings, Miss Boozer had pressed against him, mashing his mouth, opening his fly, and grabbing his dingus for a quick assessment. She had practically flung him onto to the bed, and in the moonlight, as she dove down on him he saw her white neck curl, like a swan's."

We eavesdrop on the complicated Sherman at the end of the war, taking an elegiacal breather from his usual mania.

'Though this march is done and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing--not for it's blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit or darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.'

In what mode does this prose sing? Some might punctuate it differently, and Doctorow is a careful prose stylist, but look at the music fade, watch it clunk, if done a little more Strunk and Whiteish.

'I think of it now, God help me, with longing--not for it's blood and death, but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon-- how it made every swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence. Whereas now, as the march dissolves, so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into isolated intentions of diffuse private life, the terrain thereby left blank, and also diffuse and ineffable. It is a thing once again, victoriously, without reason, and whether diurnally lit or darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.'

The first version, while no less correct, captures the roll and ripple of thought, and my emended version the sound of dictation. This is how, without lineation, a novelist captures some of the poet's freedom without having to vacate his big canvas for the short lyric. (If lyric poetry is sounding too much like prose for the comfort of some these days, it might have more to do more with the freedoms prose has borrowed from it rather than the other way around.)

Over some of the same terrain and separated by centuries are the black sooty rivers and cold rains of McCarthy's, "The Road." With Doctorow, lightning cracks blindingly illuminates dripping cathedrals of pine, horses are utterly swallowed by muck, troops hold their muskets aloft in a flood, birds skirl remotely as though sensible to the carnage about to take place. Post-millennium, fiction takes up the task of weighing our choices in a boundless universe on a disrespected planet seemingly about to kill us. It's not necessary to distance oneself from the chirping, shattering reality reassembled with such a fine grain in "The March" to see the ways a book will, in the end, be of its own time.


Sep 3, 2007

Looting and Burning

If there are virtues to the small novel of dailiness and domestic life, it's heartening to see a novel of ambition, epic scope, pacing, concision, and a multitude of characters such as E.L. Doctorow's The March, which reimagines General Sherman's infamous campaign during the Civil War. Remarkably even-handed, the novel reveals the high costs exacted to the South, and it is exquisitely structured in its episodic chapters and Dickensian coincidences. Like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, there are also black-white pairings that show both the intimacy and distance between the races in the South. As with any novel of war, The March includes harrowing events, but there are comic interludes as well. If Ragtime had a gorgeous surface, Doctorow's novel The March plumbs deep into our national history.

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