Friday, April 21, 2006

“The March” by E.L. Doctorow – A Review

I agree with the reviewer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who called Doctorow “a national treasure.” From the time when I had read the first few pages of “Ragtime,” I have been a huge fan of his writing. Doctorow has a way of evoking an era that reminds me of another of my favorite authors: Charles Dickens. Both authors write with gritty and amusing details about characters, places and events that allow me to imagine sights, sounds and smells as if I had been transported back to the time and scene of the action. Dickens and Doctorow are both gifted and elegant wordsmiths who take fictional characters and weave them into historical settings in such a way as to throw new light on familiar history.

In “The March,” Doctorow drags us through the mud, slime, blood, ash, smoke, detritus and chaos that defined Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” He also invites us to view the action and trek through the eyes of a variety of participant observers – slaves, plantation owners, generals, privates, surgeons, amputees, heroes, traitors, survivors and victims of the juggernaut that was Sherman’s Army on the march. The overall result was that for the first time, I feel as if I have some understanding of what this significant chapter in the Civil War saga was all about.

I never really felt I had a grasp on the Battle of Gettysburg until I had walked the battlefield several times and had stood on Little Roundtop and imagined Chamberlain’s forces laying their lives onthe line in protecting the Union flank. Having been led by Doctorow through the pages of “The March,” I feel as if I have walked the virtual battlefield. One need not be a “Civil War buff” to enjoy this brilliant bit of writing. One need only bring to the table an appreciation for good literature and keen insight into human interactions under immense pressure.

Doctorow describes the burning of Columbia, South Carolina:

"It seemed to him an exemplary justice come to this state that had led the South to war. Earlier in the day he had seen a company of Union soldiers who had been among the hundreds imprisoned right here in the city’s insane asylum. The condition they were in appalled him. Filthy, foul-smelling, their skin scabrous, they were hollow-eyes creatures shambling to parade in a pathetic imitation of soldiering. You saw the structures of them through the skin, the bony residue of their half-human life, and you didn’t want to look at them. The capital city of the Confederacy had treated these soldiers not as prisoners of war but as dogs in a cage. General Sherman had seen these men and had wept and now all he could think of was the Southern belles he had kissed.” (Pages 184-185)

As the March – and the War – neared their end, Sherman muses in Faulkneresque run-on loquacity about the meaning of it all:

“Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing – 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, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into the isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own."

"And why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement except he knows this unmeaning inhuman planet will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.”
(Pages 358-359)

While you are in a Doctorow mood, I can also recommend his other works that I have feasted upon and digested: Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, and City of God.


No comments: