In Doctorow’s Brilliant March, Writer Finds Humanity in War

091905 article book siegel In Doctorow’s Brilliant March, Writer Finds Humanity in WarA great blessing in life is that most people can get used to anything. And a great curse in life is that most people can get used to anything. At home and on the battlefield, the most peaceful, decent men and women get used to war.

At one point in E.L. Doctorow’s brilliant and compulsively readable new novel, set in the final months of the Civil War, there appears an injured soldier with an iron spike stuck in his head who cannot remember what he said seconds after he said it. He exists in an eternal present. “It’s always now,” he mutters, again and again. War is like that, Mr. Doctorow seems to be saying. There is no before or after—or inside or outside—to escape to. War’s eternal now imposes a new normalcy by default.

The gradual assimilation of what was once a shock to the system applies to civilian life, too. Your accustomed world might slip into overseas strife under your very nose—the alien place-name “Falluja” might start tripping comfortably off your tongue like the name “Metro-North”—and despite all your moral strength, your original horror would relax into your old routine. But what you thought were your cozy home-front precincts would really be the suburbs of that overseas hell.

In novels like The Book of Daniel, Ragtime and Billy Bathgate—to name the best-known—Mr. Doctorow reimagined a historical period the way a jazz pianist reinterprets a standard tune. Just as there is a sonorous difference between “Autumn Leaves” played at a wedding and “Autumn Leaves” performed by Keith Jarrett, there is the textbook version of the Roaring 20’s, and there is Ragtime. And Mr. Doctorow’s improvisations swing both ways. They newly configure the past, and they modify perceptions of the present.

Something profoundly American animates these tales. Mr. Doctorow is re-enacting the very promise of America itself: the promise of not just escaping the past, but choosing how you want to treat it. You can laugh at history; revere it; sentimentalize it; (try to) forget it; piss on it; hallow its forgotten niches or burlesque its sacred moments. Such flouting of official stories is something like making your own way in life, and that’s probably why some of Mr. Doctorow’s protagonists are poor urban kids embarked on the adventure of rising in society. Thumbing your nose at the official record is also a way of thumbing your nose at authority, and that’s also probably why Mr. Doctorow reacts so sharply to bad politics. He has been very outspoken about what he regards as Bush and Co.’s fire sale of America’s promise.

The March never mentions George W. Bush or the conflict in Iraq, dealing as it does with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous savage procession through Georgia and the Carolinas, which brought the war to an end. But the novel’s subject makes all the more present the absent situation, and this steady allusiveness imparts to The March a provocative resonance.

The March, in fact, resembles another American work of literature, written in an equally allusive and radical spirit: Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. Wilson conceived of his collection of biographical sketches as a protest against the Cold War. The Civil War wasn’t the Armageddon-like battle between good and evil portrayed in America’s official history, Wilson argued, somewhat intemperately. It was an example of one group of people—Northerners—using the high-sounding rhetoric of anti-slavery to swallow the land and wealth of another group of people. Just as, in Wilson’s vehement perspective, American anti-communism was a pretext for profitable wars abroad, and for political and cultural parochialism at home.

Poetic, subtle, psychologically astute, paced and evoked with Mr. Doctorow’s customary storytelling power, The March lacks Wilson’s polemical undercurrent, though it is gently suffused with Wilson’s air of dissent. The novel leaves its purposes suspended vaguely in the atmosphere, like “the wind blowing tufts of cotton through the alleys” in Mr. Doctorow’s portrayal of a Savannah bustling with occupying Union soldiers as they make preparations to move on toward South Carolina. You have to divine Mr. Doctorow’s intentions rising through layers of characters, and scenes, and images, as the novel’s elements slowly build Sherman’s march into a presiding metaphor.

Sherman, who died quietly in 1891 in a rocking chair with Great Expectations in his lap, made terrorizing civilians a standard tactic in modern war. In 1864, after burning most of Atlanta to the ground, he cut a fatal swath through the South, destroying, looting and, when necessary, unleashing his troops on civilians who stood in his way, or killing them as examples to Confederate soldiers, whenever their ruthlessness matched his own. Sherman himself was not a bloodthirsty brute. He was, as Mr. Doctorow coolly portrays him, fiercely contradictory. A warrior commanded to wage war, he did his job as efficiently and quickly as possible. After the conflict ended, the terms of surrender he extended to the South were so magnanimous that Edward Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, had to withdraw them.

The idea behind Sherman’s new strategy was the by-now-familiar one of disheartening enemy soldiers by despoiling and humiliating the enemy’s civilian population—“living off the land” also allowed Sherman’s men to travel light and fast, unencumbered by caravans of supplies. Programmatically bringing war to everyday life made war seamless with everyday life. (Islamic terrorists have been, in some sense, spawned by the totalizing strategy Sherman created; so too Western politicians who use Islamic jihad to carve out their own terrorizing space inside the public psyche.) Thus, as the novel proceeds, Sherman’s march grows into a demonstration of how war’s totalizing violence and absurdity can, by imperceptible stages, encompass ordinary reality until war becomes a universal condition. Through the eyes of various characters with contrasting perspectives, The March’s expanding bellicosity is characterized in less and less warlike terms.

Sherman’s march begins, in the eyes of slaves, as “an upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside down.” For highborn Emily Thompson, the daughter of a dying Georgia Supreme Court Justice, “[t]his was not an army, it was an infestation.” Soon newly liberated blacks fall in behind the soldiers; in the eyes of Emily’s servant Wilma, the crowd of former slaves makes “the sound of a collective excitement, as if these people were on some sort of holiday …. ” Step by step, the march takes the place of ordinary reality, as Emily observes with Wrede Sartorius (you may have encountered him in Mr. Doctorow’s The Waterworks), a Northern doctor to whom the despairing and destitute Southern belle has surrendered herself emotionally and sexually. Sartorius tells Emily, “I confess I no longer find it strange to have no habitation, to wake up each morning in a different place ….

“You carry your world with you, Emily said.

“Yes, we have everything that defines a civilization, Wrede said. We have engineers, quartermasters, commissars, cooks, musicians, doctors, carpenters, servants, and guns. You are impressed?

“I don’t know what to think. I’ve lost everything to this war. And I see steadfastness not in the rooted mansions of a city but in what has no roots, what is itinerant. A floating world.

“It dominates, Wrede said.

“Yes.

“And in its midst you are secure.

“Yes …. ”

Or as the narrator strikingly puts it elsewhere: “The invading army, when it camped, sat on the land as owners, with all the elements of domesticity, including women, enlarging the purely martial function of their social order.” This is how extremes refashion reality.

Sherman’s lethal advance takes on the aspect of a new kind of peacefulness for some of the characters. “On the march is the new way to live,” says the Confederate lay-about Arly, a philosophically inclined, psychopathic rogue straight out of Beckett, whose shifting alliances—he and his Estragon-like sidekick Will change uniforms several times—embody the essential spirit of war, which is pure survivalist madness, beyond nation or ideology.

And so the march goes, finally encompassing rapacious Union soldiers, freed blacks and white Southern refugees. Sherman’s endless column sweeps up, among others, Pearl, a beautiful mulatto child; Stephen Walsh, one of Mr. Doctorow’s cagily heroic poor urban kids; Calvin Harper, a Northern black photographer bent on documenting history (Mr. Doctorow’s telling of his story slyly puts you in mind of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine eyes have seen the glory … ”); and Hugh Pryce, a British journalist whose comical misapprehensions of American reality recall not a few of his contemporary descendants currently at pontificating work on these shores. It is “as if all humanity had taken to the road,” the narrator writes. All these characters—and they don’t all survive—try to preserve themselves, their hopes, their sanity, even as war shapes in its inhuman image their attempts at staying human.

Yet for all its depiction of darkness, this is not a dark novel. As an artist, Mr. Doctorow, you might say, is fatally decent. His sentences are so rational, calm and temperate—i.e., so modern and liberal—that they sometimes carry their barbarous meanings anachronistically. And he seems to have an involuntary reflex to deploy the Hollywood situation, the histrionic harmonizing of opposites in a moment of sentimental closure. But such qualities do not spoil the pleasure of reading his fiction. Rather, they are part of what makes Mr. Doctorow’s stories so addictive, in the old sitting-in-the-cave-around-the-fire sense. Hollywood learned from Homer, after all.

And such minor imperfections barely intrude on this novel. By the end of The March, it’s not really war you come to hate. You despise what seems like the secret complicity between war and everyday life. In The March, atrocity and the quotidian co-exist so harmoniously that it’s as if people’s attempts at work and love were, like Wilson’s disreputable “high” principles, mere pretexts for war to sow its seeds in hearts and minds. Buried deep within the rich folds of The March is a warning about the fragility of civil life. Mr. Doctorow’s decency might paradoxically be a mild curse on his art. But it is a blessing on the reader’s humanity.

Lee Siegel is the book critic for The Nation, TV critic for The New Republic and art critic for Slate.