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.
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
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11