- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005


By E. L. Doctorow

Random House, $25.95, 363 pages


If History has taught anything, it is that democracies, no matter how political pundits idealize them, always have had violent, bloody births that can last for centuries. Civil Wars are part of their development because there is usually a faction that seeks to dominate and defeat all challengers by proving its prowess on the battlefield.

In his ambitious new novel, E. L. Doctorow, one of our most important writers, gives us insights into our Civil War and its lingering effects. Readers of Mr. Doctorow’s previous fiction know they can rely on him not to shy from sensitive issues. From “Ragtime” to “World’s Fair,” from “Billy Bathgate” to “The Waterworks,” he has looked at our history, showing, through characterization, how we have become the country we are today. We have watched his characters, assailed by uncontrollable events, struggle to make sense out of their lives, to survive in the temporal flux.

In “The March,” Mr. Doctorow gives us a dynamic, though at times forced, look at Maj.-Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Many characters, including Sherman himself, react to the horrors of war and to its oddly organized chaos. Some characters have walk-ons; some play key roles in the actions; some leave the march; some are killed by it. We meet soldiers of all ranks and uniforms, freed slaves, a journalist, a photographer, doctors and nurses, and plantation owners. However, there is nothing romanticized in this novel, though there are pockets of calm. Massacres, rapes, torture, looting, and all that is a part of every war are presented.

Some of the most horrific scenes, and there are quite a few, occur in a M.A.S.H. unit of the time. One character “didn’t want to believe she was looking at a slimed heap of severed human arms and legs.” The chief surgeon, however, “a European, with a medical degree from the University of Gottingen” sees opportunity: “If there was any compensation for the barbarity of war, it was an enriched practice. The plethora of casualties accelerated the rate of learning.” (This is just one of the ways Mr. Doctorow includes other wars.)

The butchery of war is central to “The March.” Each character, including the march itself, is a lens to focus us on the beastlike nature of war, and on how we go about our lives in the midst of its randomness. A British journalist, barely tolerated by a press-leery Sherman, has “one terrifying vision of antediluvian breakout. This was war as adventure, not war for a solemn cause. It was war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal, or moral principle.”

Mr. Doctorow is at his best letting us “feel” the various tragedies, the few redemptive moments. His unique syntax, familiar to readers of his earlier fictions, controls the tempo of our reading. For example, much of the novel’s first page is, with the exception of one colon, a sentence of short and long clauses moved along by commas. The result is a sentence that, like the march, advances, retreats, pauses. Not all of the writing is as closely evocative of the book’s symbolic center, but there are very few examples of weak composition.

More than one character sees the army’s march as something more meaningful than military strategy. One observes: “But supposing we are more a nonhuman form of life. Imagine a great segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a hundred thousand feet… . It consumes everything in its path. It is an immense organism, this army, with a small brain.” Another character sees that “to someone watching the processions of men and wagons and gun carriages, broughams, buggies, and two-line shays, it became apparent that not merely an army was on the move but an uprooted civilization… .”

If there is a central character other than the march, it is Pearl, a “white Negro,” the child of a slave woman and her master. Pearl, and we should recall that other daughter of an adulterous relationship in “The Scarlet Letter,” is present at many of the novel’s key events. She is a wonderful creation who provides a disturbingly calm center as she goes about negotiating her survival. Her role in “The March” should be what readers remember.

How historically accurate is the novel? Civil War buffs will have a grand time debating this or that point. Historical figures do appear, including Lincoln and Grant and others are mentioned. One of the most interesting is Kil Kilpatrick, a swashbuckling officer who provides some dark comic relief. Kilpatrick appears in Gen. Sherman’s “Memoirs.” However, readers who seek their history in fiction are looking for trouble. Writers have been known to ignore verifiable facts to get a good story. A novel, after all, is a fiction, is a lie.

“The March” is a powerful, though at times overdone, novel, teeming with examples of the way war, often waged in some god’s name, is human insanity. It is a true war novel in that it is an indictment of war. Gen. Sherman, to answer charges — and there were many from the losing side — about his brutality, said: “if the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity-seeking. If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war.” E.L. Doctorow has given readers much to think about.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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