I'm very pleased that Miriam Burstein (The Little Professor) has agreed to join me in a "dueling review" of E.L. Doctorow's The March. Miriam is a specialist in historical fiction, so I offer my own take on the novel in all due deference to Miriam's expertise and wide reading in the genre. Readers are invited to discuss the issues raised here in the Comments section.
Man of Sorrows
by Miriam Burstein
While historical novels about the Revolution and the Civil War are equal, no doubt, when it comes to sheer tonnage, it’s still arguably the case that novelists today treat the Civil War with greater urgency than they do the Revolution . In part, this sense of urgency derives from ongoing battles over the Civil War’s origins, meaning, and relevance; in part, it derives from the sense that the war poses formal problems for the historical novelist. How, that is, does the novelist integrate this rupture in the nation’s fabric into the narrative’s structure? To what extent should the war play itself out in figurative language, characterization, imagery, and so forth? The answers to these questions have been as multitudinous as the novels themselves, whether the author turns to romance (Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind), to the “Great Man” school of historical fiction (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln), or to the multiplot novel (Thomas Keneally’s Confederates).
At first glance, the form of E. L. Doctorow’s The March looks remarkably familiar—in fact, just like that of his most famous novel, Ragtime. Like Ragtime, The March is a multiplot novel, in which a dizzying array of characters criss-cross their varying paths while following General Sherman’s train. And, like Ragtime, characters wander onstage and then wander off again, leaving as abruptly as they came. (Think, for example, of the disappearance of Tateh’s wife—understandably erased from the recent musical adaptation.) Again, both novels link the multiplot form to the problem of representing American culture’s racial, ethnic, and cultural mix.
But the link to Ragtime extends beyond the formal similarities, and not just because one of The March’s minor characters is Coalhouse Walker, Sr. In Ragtime’s conclusion, Tateh--now self-transformed into Baron Ashkenazy, married to the very WASP Mother, and in charge of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.’s son--imagines what are clearly the “Our Gang” films: “A bunch of children who were pals, white black, fat thin, rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of ragamuffins, like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again” . Doctorow wryly undercuts Tateh’s optimistic, cinematic vision of the American melting pot, but it’s nevertheless the case that Tateh represents, in a small way, the immigrant’s American Dream made real. Similarly, The March concludes with Stephen Walsh, an Irish Union soldier, imagining his own idealized future with Pearl, daughter of a plantation owner and a slave. While Pearl offers up a series of worries both pragmatic (unlike her, her children may not be able to “pass”) and existential (“If I live white, how free am I?” ), Stephen confidently argues that “You will have to let the world catch up to you” (362). In playing off present compromise against future liberation, Stephen imagines a utopia of racial equality that will be conspicuously missing from Ragtime—a novel in which things have still not “caught up.”
As it happens, the process of Tateh’s grandiose self-invention dominates The March. Yet Tateh’s performance takes on a new meaning here, for the war fractures identities as much as it fractures the country. The characters change shape in order to survive, but they have little choice in the matter: the very ground of their earlier existence has melted into air. Pearl, for example, not only passes for white, but also temporarily passes as a drummer boy. Emily Thompson, initially proud of her standing as “Georgia Supreme Court Justice Horace Thompson’s daughter” (24), winds up working as a Union army nurse. Sherman constantly needs public adulation to assuage his internal demons, and does his best to project an image of “gallantry” when required (115). And, in the novel’s most extended example of black humor, two Confederate soldiers on the make, Arly and Will, rapidly change sides and occupations—all culminating in Arly’s theft of a photographer’s identity. As Calvin Harper, the photographer’s black assistant, notes, “He [Arly] was like an actor in the theater where the costume you wear is the person you are” (302). Harper’s simile unintentionally highlights something important: the characters are frequently and uncomfortably aware that they are acting, that their new “role” is not them. Thus, Pearl frequently ruminates on passing as just a new form of slavery, while Emily finally abandons the army once she realizes that she has betrayed herself in her pursuit of the doctor, Wrede Sartorius.
Two minor characters, however, embody the extremes of the war’s effects on individual identity and, by extension, national identity. At the one extreme lies Albion Simms, “physically unimpaired but for an iron spike in the skull” (269), who suffers from near-total amnesia. An increasingly empty vessel, Simms exists in an eternal present: “It’s always now, he said. It’s always now” (274). While the novel’s shapeshifters remake themselves in order to stave off the threat of death, consciously or unconsciously, Simms is unable to conceptualize a “self,” let alone futurity or consequences. Sherman admits to himself that “[i]t is in fear of my own death, whatever it is, that I would wrest immortality from the killing war I wage” (90), but Simms’ own suicide (intentional or not) is terribly bereft of meaning or historical value.
But where Simms empties out, Abraham Lincoln seems just as horribly full:
…Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the dock. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company. To explain how bad he looked, the public care on his brow, you would have to account for more than an inherited syndrome. A proper diagnosis was not in the realm of science. His affliction might, after all, be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate. (335)
Sartorius—and, it seems, Doctorow—sees Lincoln as a secular Man of Sorrows, his pain-wracked mind the necessary sacrifice to redeem the shattered nation. Although we need to bear in mind that we perceive Lincoln through Sartorius’ POV, it’s nevertheless significant that, in this reading, Lincoln is the only character to consciously embrace suffering . Unlike Simms, obliterated into virtual unconsciousness, Lincoln seeks out and takes on the full measure of the country’s pain. Moreover, Doctorow repeatedly removes Lincoln from the realm of performance: Calvin Harper remembers that, according to Josiah Culp, Lincoln is not one of those “famous people who think that they are not getting enough of the world’s attention” (307), and Sartorius angrily tells a group of helpless physicians that Lincoln “does not need an audience for his death” (351). In identifying himself with his country’s agony, Lincoln—unlike Sherman—seeks not his own immortality, but that of the nation.
 But see Benjamin Lawson, Rereading the Revolution: The Turn-Of-The-Century American Revolutionary War Novel (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 2000) for the state of affairs at the beginning of the twentieth century.
 E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1974; New York: Plume, 1996), 269-70.
 Like Vidal, who includes only one scene from Lincoln’s POV, Doctorow keeps us out of the President’s head.
The Human Angle
by Daniel Green
It is perhaps now a little hard to comprehend just how unsettling E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime seemed at the time of its publication (1975). Not exactly a historical novel--it seems designed to question the very utility of historical "fact" in our consideration of the past--it nevertheless produces a vivid if subjective rendition of the ragtime era by juxtaposing purely fictional characters with actual historical figures who are in turn treated as if they were fictional characters. Considerable liberty is taken with the historical record, and the result is a novel that not only fictionalizes history but suggests that, as far as the novelist is concerned, history might just as well be fiction. Whereas much of the self-reflexive, "postmodern" fiction of the time called attention to the artifice of fiction-making in order to reinforce the separation of fiction and reality, Ragtime seemed to propose that, for the literary imagination, the two realms are really quite permeable. (Robert Coover's The Public Burning would do the same thing two years later.)
Doctorow's undercutting of the reality/fiction divide has proven to be very influential, to the point that we are no longer much taken aback when a writer injects apparent "fact" into what is otherwise called a fiction--even putative facts about the author him/herself, as in Ellis's Lunar Park or Harry Mathews's My Life in CIA, in which "Brett Easton Ellis" and "Harry Mathews" are the "fictional" protagonists. Nor are we particularly struck by historical fictions that are not merely set in the past or attempt to recreate periods in the past, but use historical personages as "characters." Doctorow himself went on to write other novels more or less in this mode, such as World's Fair and Billy Bathgate, but eventually he has come to seem more interested in simply re-creating the past through what are finally the usual conventions of historical fiction.
The March, Doctorow's latest novel, is cut comfortably from these conventional patterns. Although the novel presumes to depict William Tecumseh Sherman in ways that must at times extrapolate from the historical record--what was Sherman thinking at this precise moment during his infamous March to the Sea?--it is otherwise a fairly straightforward account of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas. Although the narrative shifts kaleidoscopically among various groups of characters participating in the march, this is ultimately just a way of giving the story a properly comprehensive sense of historical realism. All of the characters portrayed in the novel are no doubt representative of the cross-section of human types involved in this important historical event.
In his review of The March, John Freeman perhaps gets at the heart of what Doctorow is trying to accomplish: "While the details of Sherman's lethal procession are well-known today, time seems to have forgotten the human angle. Sure, property was destroyed, but how were the Union troops greeted? Did they proceed with guilt? Did they pause before burning cities to the ground? Did the recently emancipated slaves really believe this fire-breathing beast was their conductor to the Promised Land?" Providing the "human angle" on Sherman's march would seem to be the novel's primary goal, answering these and many other questions that can't necessarily be resolved simply by consulting the history books. It is itself an attempt to become a history book one might ultimately consult along with all the others for that "human" touch only it can offer.
And in its way, The March achieves this goal reasonably well. It's readable enough, its fragmentary form realized with the skill one would expect of a writer of Doctorow's caliber, its characters lively enough to sustain interest over the course of a novel featuring such a large cast, although not all of the characters resist becoming merely illustrative of the category--freed slave, disillusioned plantation wife, irascible Rebel soldier--their presence is meant to personify. Perhaps it is true, as Walter Kirn says in his review of the novel, that "When the subject is as large and old as war, the pursuit of pristine originality can thin a story down to nothing" and that "To get through such tales aesthetically unscathed is a finicky, slightly cowardly objective that works against basic honesty and passion," but I, for one, find some of these portrayals to be only a few cuts above what is to be found in Gone With the Wind and especially found the novel's conclusion--in which the feisty mulatto Pearl and the Irish infantryman Stephen Walsh ride off to a life together in New York, a life in which they will presumably overcome the obvious obstacles to such a match as existed in 1865 and after--to be patently sentimental, a transparent attempt to leave us with a little democratic idealism to leaven the story of violence and destruction.
Putting aside its flaws in execution, however, I am most disappointed in The March because it does nothing to provoke me out of my indifference toward historical fiction that simply tries to "bring history to life." One can accept the axiom that such fiction is always finally about the present as much as the past--in The March, about the origins of our continuing racial conflicts, about recovery from a great national trauma--and still think that this novel at best rehearses platitudes but otherwise does very little to alter our understanding either of the Civil War or of the lingering issues whose lack of resolution has plagued American life since then. I could easily warm up to a kind of historical fiction that either upsets our established notions about historical subjects or that questions accepted practices of historical representation (as did Ragtime). Unfortunately, The March does neither. Perhaps in the long run it adds something of marginal interest to a consideration of the Doctorow oeuvre (especially by those more interested in history than in literature), but since Doctorow's sociopolitical thematic concerns are by now quite well known, the appearance of this novel seems to me, at least, mostly superfluous.