Friday, February 29, 2008

The March, by E. L. Doctorow

In The March (2005), E. L. Doctorow follows the 1864 movement of Northern troops commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman from just north of Milledgeville, Georgia, down through Savannah, and up through Columbia, South Carolina, into North Carolina. Since many tend to think of Sherman's march in terms of the city of Atlanta, Doctorow's approach covers less familiar territory. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and of the Pen/Faulkner Award for 2007, The March is beautifully written, always interesting, and somewhat pointless—though pointlessness is not necessarily a defect.

The narrative method in The March is reminiscent to that in Ragtime. Using what appears to be meticulous historical research and a narrative method that interweaves without unifying the lives of various individuals involved, Doctorow creates a panoramic sense of the march and of what the times must have been like as Sherman's forces passed through Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina.

A number of characters emerge as important: the slave girl Pearl who follow the Northern troops as they leave Macon; Emily Thompson, the young daughter of a Southern patriarch who dies as the Northern soldiers occupy his house; a Northern officer; Dr. Sartorius, a brilliant field surgeon devoid of feeling, a British reporter, a photographer, two no-count Confederate soldiers who change allegiance from North to South and back depending on the needs of the moment. And of course there is Sherman himself. Some of these characters we follow from beginning to end. Others enter for a time and are killed or simply fall out of view. All engage in a continual process of personal redefinition—as their circumstances change, especially as the war brings about such change. For the Southern characters this may mean adjustment to the dissolution of their familiar world—they often become entirely different people, engaging in behaviors they would never have considered prior to Sherman's arrival. To the Northern characters this may mean confronting personal successes and failures, the disappointment of personal ambitions, as the war progresses. The two Confederate soldiers Arly and Will, constantly changing their allegiances and, essentially, shifting their shapes in response to the demands of a particular moment, are good examples of this forced redefinition.

Doctorow portrays the march as loosely organized anarchy. Sherman has some control over the direction in which his troops move, but little if any control over their individual behavior (especially evident when they violate his orders and run amok in Columbia, burning the city). He is an interesting character. He desires greatness, wants to be acknowledged for his military achievements, and feels overlooked, especially when he is blamed for a disastrous battle over which he had little control. Although I wish Doctorow had paid him more attention, to have done so would have violated the essential premise and structure of the novel, which gives none of its characters prominence over the others.

War is evil. It changes people's lives. It causes their deaths. It's a naturalistic force that destroys landscapes and nations. It roils on in chaos and disrepute, and people caught up in it, voluntarily or not, as in a landslide or avalanche, become part of its surging mass. This seems to be Doctorow's point. Although he occasionally acknowledges the political and historical causes of the war—such as slavery—more often than not he shows war as an event that has little linkage to historical causes and political movements.

It was interesting to read this novel shortly after reading Phil Williams' A Distant Flame, which concerns Sherman's march as it approaches Atlanta. The books are quite different from each other, yet also complementary. Williams writes more or less from a Southern viewpoint. Doctorow writes from a Northern viewpoint (though he pays attention to Southerners as well). Both novels offer graphic, powerful battle scenes. Williams seems more effective in his portrayal of battle, especially from the individual soldier's point of view, while Doctorow gives a deeper, broader sense of war as a movement and phenomenon.

No comments: