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BookBrowse Reviews The March by E.L. Doctorow

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The March

by E.L. Doctorow

The March by E.L. Doctorow X
The March by E.L. Doctorow
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 384 pages

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A richly textured portrait of Sherman's March to the Sea. Historical Fiction

From the book jacket: In 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his sixty thousand troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces and lived off the land, pillaging the Southern plantations, taking cattle and crops for their own, demolishing cities, and accumulating a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the uprooted, the dispossessed, and the triumphant. Only a master novelist could so powerfully and compassionately render the lives of those who marched.

A magisterial work with an enormous cast of unforgettable characters– white and black, men, women, and children, unionists and rebels, generals and privates, freed slaves and slave owners. At the center is General Sherman himself; a beautiful freed slave girl named Pearl; a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius; Emily Thompson, the dispossessed daughter of a Southern judge; and Arly and Will, two misfit soldiers. Almost hypnotic in its narrative drive, The March stunningly renders the countless lives swept up in the violence of a country at war with itself.

Comment: Sherman's memory has been much reviled over the years, particularly in the Southern states.  As the man who led the infamous "March to the Sea" and solved the problem of the hostile Plains Indians by advising that the buffalo be killed off - thus destroying the way of life for the Plains Indians, it's easy to see why.  However, it would seem that he was no lover of war - in fact, in the early days of the Civil war he fell into a depression so severe that he was relieved of his command and rumors spread of his insanity.  Perhaps he had the foresight to see that the South would inevitably lose, but that the North would only be able to win at a terrible cost but that cost was necessary if America was to stay as one country - and, indeed, it appears that he did not come into his own as a commander until the powers that be recognized that extreme measures would be required to win the war.  

His position (shared by Grant) is clearly stated in a number of historical records including his letter to the Mayor of Atlanta:

"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war."

When researching the background to The March, the thing that struck me most were the photographs of the Civil War; or to be more specific, the fact that the war is so recent that it is possible to have a photographic record of it!   

With the Civil War such a core part of the American psyche, you would have thought that a high-profile fictional interpretation would raise controversy, but in fact, the mainstream reviewers are overwhelmingly in favor of The March, with a few minor nitpicks here and there. I'm not sufficiently familiar with Civil War history to cast an opinion on whether Sherman has been accurately portrayed or not, but it seems that most who know these things, feel that Doctorow's representation of him as a moody, complex character of varying ability is well done. Having said that, although Sherman is obviously an essential part of the tale, he is just one of a large cast of, mostly fictional, characters from all walks of live - characters that most reviewers feel have been well-drawn, although one questioned the modern day bias of the groups as a whole (as a general rule, Doctorow's freed slaves tend to be honorable fellows, his white Southern men are corrupt and their women a tad clueless). 

Reviewers also compliment Doctorow on his familiarity with the military logistics and tactics of the period and his ability to portray the traveling army in all its gory sights, sounds and smells.
"It is Mr. Doctorow's achievement in these pages that in recounting Sherman's march, he manages to weld the personal and the mythic into a thrilling and poignant story. He not only conveys the consequences of that campaign for soldiers and civilians in harrowingly intimate detail, but also creates an Iliad-like portrait of war as a primeval human affliction - "not war as adventure, nor war for a solemn cause," but "war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal, or moral principle," a "characterless entanglement of brainless forces" as God's answer "to the human presumption." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times.

About the Author:  Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in New York City in 1931; he graduated with honors from Kenyon College in 1952 and did graduate work at Columbia University before serving in the US Army, stationed in Germany.  He married Helen Setzer in 1954 and they have three children.  He was senior editor for New American Library from 1959 to 1964 and then served as editor in chief at Dial Press until 1969. Since then, he has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University and over the years has taught at several institutions, including Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Irvine.

Bibliography of Novels
Welcome to Hard Times (1960), Big as Life (1966), The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1974), Drinks Before Dinner (1979), Loon Lake (1980), American Anthem (1982), World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), Waterworks (1994), City of God(2000), The March (2005).

This review first ran in the October 5, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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