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Reviews of The March by E.L. Doctorow

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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About this Book

Book Summary

Stunningly renders the countless lives swept up in the violence of a country at war with itself. The "Great March" in E. L. Doctorow's hands becomes something more – a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.

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.

The author of Ragtime, City of God, and The Book of Daniel has given us 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. The great march in E. L. Doctorow's hands becomes something more–a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.

Chapter 1

I

 

At 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 backhouse, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, 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 up in the equipage like some ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. In the opening chapter of the novel, Pearl prays, "Dear God Jesus ... teach me to be free." To what extent is her prayer answered? How does she come to understand the difference between freedom and independence?
  2. Is Arly, the Southern Rebel, simply a wily individual who takes advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, or is there more to him than that? What do you think motivated his final actions? Discuss both of the misfit soldiers: What redeeming qualities did Arly and Will have? Did each of them deserve the ending he had? Why?
  3. General Sherman's description of death as "first and foremost, a numerical disadvantage" is very unemotional. Do ...
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  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Awards
    2005

  • award image

    PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
    2006

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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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.
..continued

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post - John Wray
The March conjures up the War of Secession -- also known as the War Between the States and the War of Northern Aggression -- as vividly as any contemporary account I've read, and more plausibly than most. Devotees of our nation's darkest hour, as well as that subset of Confederacy buffs willing to entertain the possibility that all may not have been roses in the antebellum South, will find a great deal to admire in its pages.

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
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."

Booklist - Donna Seaman
Starred Review. Heir to Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Doctorow's masterpiece uncovers the roots of today's racial and political conundrums, and taps into the deep and abiding realm of myth in its illumination of sorrow and beauty, the continuity of human existence, and the transcendence of tenacity, compassion, and love.

Kirkus Reviews
Doctorow's previous novels have earned multiple major literary awards. The March should do so as well.

Library Journal - Henry L. Carrigan
Doctorow paints his canvas with his typical attention to period detail, but he is no Shelby Foote (Shiloh), Howard Bahr (The Black Flower), or Madison Jones (Nashville 1864), and this effort simply fails to engage. Still, his fans will be clamoring for it; be prepared.

Reader Reviews

Marcia Fine

Another Perspective on the Civil War
Doctorow does a great job weaving Sherman's march with some memorable characters. He made it an easy history lesson with great literary style. It's clear who's side he's on; however, he elicits sympathy for the Southern point of view. We chose it for...   Read More
Peter

well worth the walk
I normally avoid "faction" - fact mixed with fiction - but having come across "The March" in a hotels library of left behind books I thought I,d give it a go, especially as I´ve been a Civil War buff for a long time and been ...   Read More
jerrod

Slow
An interesting look on the civil war's participants. It's full of emotions, sometimes leaving the reader feeling empathetic. However, it was incapable of making me want to read more which made it confusing and a slow read.
Jane

Lacks depth
Doctorow's reading style is clear, but that's about the best thing I'd say about The March. The book is filled with cliches, the characters are unremarkable, and the plot predictable. A saving grace is the comic relief provided by the characters ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Savannah Campaign

The Savannah Campaign, more commonly known as The March to the Sea, took place between November 15th 1864, when Sherman's 62,000 troops left the captured city of Atlanta, and ended on December 22nd with the capture of Savannah.   Sherman and Grant were in agreement that the way to end the war was to inflict a devastating defeat that would destroy not only the South strategically but break them psychologically and economically as well.  To that end Sherman initiated a "scorched earth" policy throughout the march (which had the added advantage that it reduced the need for traditional supply lines).

The following is edited from his orders issued on November 9th. 

IV. The army will forage liberally on the country ...

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