The March: A Novel
In 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his sixty thousand troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces and lived off the land, pillaging the Southern plantations, taking cattle and crops for their own, demolishing cities, and accumulating a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the uprooted, the dispossessed, and the triumphant. Only a master novelist could so powerfully and compassionately render the lives of those who marched.
The author of Ragtime, City of God, and The Book of Daniel has given us a magisterial work with an enormous cast of unforgettable characters–white and black, men, women, and children, unionists and rebels, generals and privates, freed slaves and slave owners. At the center is General Sherman himself; a beautiful freed slave girl named Pearl; a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius; Emily Thompson, the dispossessed daughter of a Southern judge; and Arly and Will, two misfit soldiers.
Almost hypnotic in its narrative drive, The March stunningly renders the countless lives swept up in the violence of a country at war with itself. The great march in E. L. Doctorow’s hands becomes something more–a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.
As the Civil War was moving toward its inevitable conclusion, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched 60,000 Union troops through Georgia and the Carolinas, leaving a 60-mile-wide trail of death, destruction, looting, thievery and chaos. In The March, E.L. Doctorow has put his unique stamp on these events by staying close to historical fact, naming real people and places and then imagining the rest, as he did in Ragtime.
Recently, the Civil War has been the subject of novels by Howard Bahr, Michael Shaara, Charles Frazier, and Robert Hicks, to name a few. Its perennial appeal is due not only to the fact that it was fought on our own soil, but also that it captures perfectly our long-time and ongoing ambivalence about race. Doctorow examines this question extensively, chronicling the dislocation of both southern whites and Negroes as Sherman burned and destroyed all that they had ever known. Sherman is a well-drawn character, pictured as a crazy tactical genius pitted against his West Point counterparts. Doctorow creates a context for the march: “The brutal romance of war was still possible in the taking of spoils. Each town the army overran was a prize…There was something undeniably classical about it, for how else did the armies of Greece and Rome supply themselves?”
The characters depicted on the march are those people high and low, white and black, whose lives are forever changed by war: Pearl, the newly free daughter of a white plantation owner and one of his slaves, Colonel Sartorius, a competent, remote, almost robotic surgeon; several officers, both Union and Confederate; two soldiers, Arly and Will, who provide comic relief in the manner of Shakespeare’s fools until, suddenly, their roles are not funny anymore.
Doctorow has captured the madness of war in his description of the condition of a dispossessed Southern white woman: “What was clear at this moment was that Mattie Jameson’s mental state befitted the situation in which she found herself. The world at war had risen to her affliction and made it indistinguishable.” And later, ” This was not war as adventure, nor war for a solemn cause, it was war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal, or moral principle.”
As we have come to expect, Doctorow puts the reader in the picture; never more so than in recalling “The March” and letting us see it as a cautionary tale for our times. —Valerie Ryan