On The March with E. L. Doctorow

Civil War and Pop Culture

Take a look for a moment at the opening sentence of E. L. Doctorow’s The March:

Doctorow March-coverAt five in the morning, someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out of bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the back-house, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her rob, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight, at the steps of the portico, the two horses, steam rising from their flanks, their heads lifting, their eyes wild, the driver a young darkie with rounded shoulders, showing stolid patience even in this, and the woman standing in her carriage no one but her aunt Letitia Pettibone of McDonough, her elderly face drawn in anguish, her hair a straggled mess, this woman of such fine grooming, this dowager who practically ruled the season in Atlanta standing in the equipage like some hag of doom, which indeed she would prove to be.

At 167 words, it can be a daunting sentence. Fortunately, it has an internal rhythm that pulls a reader onward, particularly if one reads the punctuation carefully (punctuation serves as signposts to help guide a reader through a sentence). While I don’t love the sentence, I do admire it because it serves as  the perfect metaphor for The March itself.

Published in 2005, The March follows William T. Sherman’s armies as they move from Atlanta to Savannah, then up through the Carolinas and eventually to Bennett Place. Just as the armies wove across the countryside, Doctorow’s fictionalized account weaves across a narrative landscape populated by soldiers, slaves, civilians, surgeons, officers, enlisted men, immigrants, the noble, and the notorious.

Some characters start in Atlanta and move all the way through the book while others drop out—killed, left behind, deserted, reassigned—or suddenly appear—emancipated, rescued, reassigned—along the way. Sherman’s actual march lost and picked up people in the same exact way. The result is like a rope made up with many small threads and a few long ones, all interwoven into a single long interrelated narrative.

And all the while, the march continues. Sherman’s armies move forward. “This was not an army, it was an infestation,” one character muses.

The inexorableness of the march becomes the new normal. “I confess,” one of Doctorow’s characters says, “I no longer find it strange to have no habitation, to wake up each morning in a different place…. To march and camp and march again. To meet resistance at a river or a hamlet and engage in combat. And then to bury our dead and resume the march.”

At the center of it all, Sherman feels like a stone rising from the middle of a stream. The armies flow around him in constant motion, with constant energy, while he exudes solidity. Ironically, Sherman as portrayed by Doctorow has none of the kinetic agitation that characterized the real Sherman, who was an infamous pacer in conference, who gesticulated wildly in conversation. Doctorow’s Sherman is a warrior-philosopher in the tradition of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

In a particularly poignant passage, Sherman reflects on the grim arithmetic of war, and how the sheer numbers seem to make life and death meaningless—but, if that was true, then what sense should he make of the recent death of his son Willie? That certainly wasn’t meaningless. To believe that would be to give in to madness.

Doctorow spends a lot of time in Sherman’s head, but the result is a more enigmatic, inaccessible figure than an illuminated one. We see none of the traits that make him “Uncle Billy” to his men, nor do we see those that make Southerners detest him.

The most realized character of the story is Pearl, a 14-year-old slave with skin so light she can pass for white. The march passes by the plantation where Pearl had been kept in bondage, and the enslaved population suddenly finds itself liberated. Pearl pays a quick visit to her mother’s graveside before tagging along with the army. “I free,” she tells her mother, “I free like no one else in de whole worl but me. Das how free.”

The March was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the winner that year was, as it happened, another Civil War novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks). I wouldn’t put it on par with, say, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels or MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville, but reading The March was time well spent.

“Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing—” Sherman reflects near the end of the book, “not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence….” Indeed, The March helps us see Sherman’s march in just such a way.


4 Responses to On The March with E. L. Doctorow

  1. Nice observation Chris. It always makes me chuckle when I find accomplished writers getting away with breaking rules we first learn about in early grade school. In my humble opinion though, writing, like language, can be fluid. Sometimes if it sounds good, you’ve just got to go with it.
    As for the book, I bought it years ago but believe it or not I never even got halfway through it, which is surprising considering all the research I’ve done on Sherman’s campaigns of 1864 and 1865. Not to mention, tackling a novel of my own that has a 3rd of its length devoted to the Atlanta Campaign. One would think it’d be one of my favorites, but not even close. Perhaps, if I am ever able to get my novel edited and published, wink, wink, ha! ha!, I may pick it up again and give it another try.

  2. An interesting read especially about Kilpatrick but the Pearl character seemed too modern and out of place.

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