In 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his 60,000 troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into ...Show synopsisIn 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his 60,000 troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. Only a master novelist could so powerfully and compassionately render the lives of those who marched.Hide synopsis
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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.
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.
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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