By E. L. Doctorow
You can’t avoid the metaphor. In E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel, General Sherman’s famous Civil War march – first to the sea and then through the Carolinas – isn’t just historical data, it is history itself: an all-powerful, impersonal, forward-movement, sweeping up lives and destinies in its path, and carelessly casting them aside in its wake.
The way Doctorow introduces the march is pure genius. A slave stands in the middle of a road for a while listening. There is no sound but the “mild stirring of the air.” Then he hears something, though it isn’t exactly a sound. The staff he holds in his hand begins to point to the west like a divining rod (Doctorow describes this action so that we can’t be sure if the slave is directing the staff himself or if it really is acting like a kind of divining rod). Other slaves gaze in the direction the rod points and see smoke spouting from different point in the landscape, with the central point being a change in the sky colour itself, “an upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside down.” Which is, in fact, what is happening. And from there it just gets better:
And, as they watched, the brown cloud took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front and widening like the furrow from the plow. It was moving across the sky to the south of them. When the sound of this cloud reached them it was like nothing they had ever heard in their lives. It was not fearsomely heaven-made, like thunder or lightning or howling wind, but something felt through their feet, a resonance, as if the earth was humming. Then, carried on a gust of wind, the sound became for moments a rhythmic tromp that relieved them as the human reason for the great cloud of dust. And then, at the edges of this sound of a trompled-upon earth, they heard the voices of living men shouting, finally. And the lowing of cattle. And the creaking of wheels. But they saw nothing. Involuntarily, they walked down toward the road but still saw nothing. The symphonic clamor was everywhere, filling the sky like the cloud of red dust that arrowed past them to the south and left the sky dim, it was the great processional of the Union armies, but of no more substance than an army of ghosts.
This is great writing, evoking the “human reason” that is the march indirectly through its giant atmospheric effects. Effects that seem to take on a supernatural force all their own, making the earth hum, the divining rod bend, and even drawing the listeners “involuntarily” towards it.
It isn’t all as good as this, there’s no way it could be, but The March is a smooth-as-silk performance, turning one of the more famous episodes of America’s national epic into a multifaceted historical fiction.
There is a large cast of characters, including important historical personages like Generals Sherman and Grant (and even a Lincoln cameo), as well as members of the rank-and-file, displaced civilians, and other average people caught up in the army’s progress. A union doctor, an escaped rebel prisoner, and (the only false note) a freed slave girl who can pass for white and so goes by the name of Pearl, are chief among these. It is the march itself though that contains and controls all of them: the march as main character, the march as history, the march as narrative. As Sherman recognizes it is the march that gives meaning and moral purpose to everything. But this is a general’s point of view, seeing only the mass. From the point of view of any of the participants it is something more chaotic, thrilling, comic, and suspenseful: a constant struggle filled with the “isolated intentions of diffuse private life.”
Doctorow is a master at modulating a voice which can be immediate and direct yet distant and impersonal at the same time. He can also be cool and sentimental, lyrical and concise. But it his handling of the structure of the novel that is most impressive, judging when its march needs to be redirected, and where cut short. As the novel’s general he can reveal a moral purpose behind the events he describes, and just as easily deny that meaning by injecting random acts of violence and blind coincidence into the mix. Which has the effect of making it all the more realistic. History is open to just such a range of interpretation.
Review first published November 12, 2005.