“The March” by E.L. Doctorow

In this kaleidoscopic rendering of Gen. Sherman's famous March to the Sea, the characters and metaphors come and go with all the tumult of the Union Army.

Topics: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Books,

"The March" by E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow’s new novel, “The March,” is titled after its main character, not a person, but an ongoing event — or a catastrophe, depending on your perspective: Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, a scorched-earth campaign that plowed from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., in late 1864, at the end of the Civil War. (Sherman’s March is still the subject of bitter memory in the South, more proof that a war lingers longest with those who lose it.) Doctorow assembles a dozen or so characters who join in and drop out of the march at various points, each pursuing his own prize or fleeing her own nightmare.

The crowds that make up the march sometimes have wills of their own. Early on, a Union general forbears telling his soldiers not to trash a plantation house, knowing that “in the great mass of men that was an army, strange currents of willfulness and self-expression flowed within the structure of military discipline … Even the generals issued orders for the sake of the record only.” Still, the march hasn’t really got a mind, and therefore it never quite qualifies as a protagonist.

As a result, “The March” lacks a central consciousness for the story to constellate around. In a way, it’s not quite a novel, and if you come to it expecting a novel’s pleasures, you’re likely to be disappointed. Better to think of this book as a Flemish painting, something replete with the allegorical significance of forward movement, like Hieronymus Bosch’s “Haywain,” in which worldly life is depicted as an overstuffed cart from which everyone is trying to grab his or her handful, oblivious to the fact that the journey is taking them from Paradise to Hell. Doctorow hasn’t got Bosch’s hankering for apocalyptic moralizing, though, so the tone is closer to Bruegel; the novel’s wide field is studded here and there with pairs of characters, little incidents and moments, none given more weight than any other.



The march breeds metaphors like a snake sheds skins: It can stand for war itself, for history, for change, for time. You can spend a lot of time pondering these metaphors, but they have the same relation to the march Doctorow depicts as the empty, papery skins have to a handful of solid, squirming snake. Wisely, the author doesn’t attempt to point out that this is a novel of ideas. Instead, he makes it a novel of scenes, a pageant that flits from one character’s experience of the march to another’s, and mostly refrains from comment. It chafes a little to have to surrender a particularly appealing character or interesting situation when the march moves on, but that’s the point; there’s always a new one bringing up the rear.

The characters include not only the march’s leader, Sherman, and his leaders, Grant and Lincoln, but grunts and generals and camp followers. Wrede Sartorius, a German-born doctor who also appears in Doctorow’s “The Waterworks,” cold-bloodedly perfects the art of surgery on the battlefield and predicts the medical advances to come. (He’s one of the few characters who doesn’t dread the future.) The daughter of a Georgian judge becomes, for a while, his helpmeet and lover. A young girl, a freed slave with pale skin, tries to puzzle out her own identity, dressing as a boy and passing as white. Two hard-luck confederate deserters keeping changing uniforms to save the skins underneath them. A randy Northern general treats the South like his own personal erotic candy box. And so on.

It must be said that the black characters in “The March” are too uniformly noble, and this has the counterintuitive effect of depriving them of the stature of the flawed whites. The war is a mixture of grandeur and degradation, and only the characters who have sounded its depths seem to have fully grasped their experience. We see the last of Sherman as he reproaches himself for longing for the march and its “bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river into something of moral consequence.” This just before he acknowledges that the meaning he craves is fleeting at best: “our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.”

Our next pick: A misshapen boy-man, a “Pig Palace” and a girl named Holly

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>