The March by E. L. Doctorow
In E. L. Doctorow’s The March, the narrator describes the sorrows of one of his many characters:
The oppressive maleness of them all unnerved her ... She realized this was a familiar feeling - a revulsion for their gender, its animality, all the more offensive because they were unconscious of it. They existed and left the sensibility of it to her.
This sentiment could just as easily describe Doctorow’s approach to the material and substance of his book. The March presents us with an account of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s last, victorious rampage through the American South at the end of the Civil War. Cities burn, plantations are pillaged, cattle and crops are stolen and devoured as an exodus of dispossessed slaves, slave-owners, refugees, rebels and unionists swarm over a ravished land, the destroyed Confederate South of the 1860’s. The perils of this nomadic mass are funneled through Doctorow’s psyche and a language-rich and passionate sensibility which sets out to subsume the novel’s plot and characters and offer more of an experimental work. The motivations of characters and their individual stories are swallowed up by the behemoth that Sherman’s warpath becomes in Doctorow’s hands. One feels the indelible mark of the beast of war on their souls and bodies. Rather than construct a conventional plot and draw portraits Doctorow creates a muscular narrative equivalent to the “march” which pushes forth, jolts, and aggresses. This is a book about a country at war with itself and it is the damage and devouring of the human soul in a general sense that Doctorow is concerned with. Many of the people in The March exist offensively - in all their animality and revolting belligerence - but often without much more than a general descriptive phrase from their author. General Sherman’s actual march was historically famous for claiming to liberate America from the inequities of slavery. It ended the bloodiest of America’s wars. The March unrolls less through a conventional plotting of twists and turns than by a hypnotic, sometimes floating, discursive narration which reflects its erupting landscape and transient historical era.
The question I had reading this mesmerizing novel was: how did Doctorow get away with all this? It would seem that every good rule of literature worked against this novel: it’s characters seldom get fleshed out - they tend to stand more as abstractions and ideas about war and race, as symbols - Doctorow’s uses an all-too-familiar Civil War backdrop which prompts the reader to be prepared for redundant lessons in good and evil, (as with the holocaust, it is nearly impossible to breath fresh air into these themes about race and freedom in the United States). And, furthermore, Doctorow often uses slogans and platitudes from current progressive politics (such as: “men make war”) to state moralistic points. It would have made perfect sense if this book had stumbled and fallen on its face as it tried to leap through every hoop raised to catch it at its own game. Yet, resoundedly, unequivocally Doctorow’s novel succeeds. The March grips and tugs at the reader and, I believe, moves its crowded cast through complex, ineffable and ambiguous moments on the page. Doctorow does not leave us with stereotypes or hollow platitudes. How he was able to do this is what fascinated me about the novel.
“He thought Pearl had some royal African blood,” Doctorow writes, describing how one of the educated white males perceives one of the black women slaves. “[O]r how else would that angry intelligence, so commanding, have come to her? She missed nothing with those cat-pale eyes. She was suspicious of him ... You white mens smell like de cow barn back at Massah’s. No worse, dat how bad.” Describing the land itself, Doctorow employs his remote narrator’s voice: “East of Millegeville the weather changed and the terrain grew swampy. A hard rain spattered on the palmettos and snapped in the muck. Pioneers had corduroyed the road with fence rails and saplings.“ There is much feeling here--as when, later he describes “a change in the sky color itself that gradually clarified as an upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside-down.“
In thinking about this, I compared The March to other historical novels, notably some written recently which, in contrast, had neither Doctorow’s lyrical use of language, nor his descriptive and exacting sense of the poetical which conjured up archetypes for his readers who were vibrantly alive on the page. What was most striking was the difference in language, both of the narrative sentences and the dialogue. It is this literary element, the poetical, that brings Doctorow’s The March to a triumph. The novel heralds not only the victory of its Yankee army but of literature and language’s ability to fill in empty places left by plot, to serve up ambiguity and meaningful irony where we might have expected only predictability. It is most fortunate that the sensibility this book filters through is masterfully able to create a prose which amply transcends its own bromides and truisms.
It is true that, in places, Doctorow’s technique is less seamless. There are also times when I had wished Doctorow wasn’t so concerned with pleasing a large audience. The prose becomes sentimental as a result. For example, in describing a former slave’s emotions, Doctorow writes “In all of this Jones felt the smallness and insignificance of her own purposes on this morning. But this is the slave still in me, she thought, I must watch my own thinking. I must be as free in my soul as I am by law.” In another section of the book, a Southern white woman, ostensibly just arriving at the realization that blacks are real people hears a slave play the piano and remarks: “Do we have no souls? What is this I hear if not a soul given as music? I am hearing a soul, she said to herself.”
But most times, the pure and quite beautiful energy force behind Doctorow’s rolling narrative is enough to compensate for these kinds of stereotyped emotions. Doctorow’s passion and compassion opens up our own, asks us to feel the consequences of war and history, especially, of a country battling itself. This has enormous relevance to our polarized America as it exists today. One is left admiring this ambitious book, haunted by its larger-than-life characters and landscape, and, at least for me, glad to have been taken inside a literary, moral sensibility so conscientious. His language is so precise and loyal to its subject, that the land and its citizens live for the reader in an exciting, new frame.