The March, by E.L. Doctorow, Read by Joe Morton, Books on Tape, 2005
When the last Harry Potter book was released, an event celebrated around the world with bookstores open to midnight and beyond, many tsk-tsked the very notion of parents keeping their young children up so late just for a mere piffle of a book. For the life of me I can’t quite see how you could justify an argument suggesting that arbitrary enforcement of bedtimes for one night is more important than fostering a love of reading. Any celebration in publishing is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.
The publication of a new novel by renowned author E.L. Doctorow is considered something of a literary event. It’s not on par with the alluring, teasing, never fulfilled promises that Salinger will one day publish something new, but nonetheless there is a celebration when such things occur.
This is just as it should be for Mr. Doctorow and many other novelists as well. While I’m certain there will be a hoopla and banner advertising when Dan Brown’s latest (previewed here) is unveiled, I won’t clamor over the fuss. Given the chance, I will settle for subways and planes filled with people reading Dan Brown unable to put the book down when they get home rather than those same folks couch potato-ing out with Vanna and Pat.
Of course, the exact nature of celebrating Doctorow would almost have one thinking that the man published with the rarity of Pynchon, which is certainly not the case. In this new millenium, the author of 2005’s The March has published no less than four books, two novels and an essay and a short story collection. Compare that with Pynchon’s banner decade, the 90s which saw two whole novels separated by seven years — and that’s it.
Doctorow’s latest is something of a treat in his usual style, a historical novel that occasionally focuses on real people living then but mostly centered around people who come into brief contact with them. Harry Houdini, who popped up throughout Ragtime to link various other parts of the story, claimed the bulk of the famous people quotient though Freud and Jung, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, and Booker T. Washington also passed through that novel’s pages.
The March follows General William Tecumseh Sherman after the fall of Atlanta in the Civil War as his army marched in their scorched earth campaign from Atlanta to Savannah and up through the Carolina’s destroying everything in its path. Strategically correct, Sherman’s logic concluded that the South would surrender only if he broke its back decisively, though the brutality of the march and its indifference to antebellum architecture and society as Sherman’s troops burned the Confederacy to the ground has left bitter resentment towards the General in the south, with the most vituperation in Georgia.
While there are other historical personages from the Civil War, most notably Abraham Lincoln, as is usual, Doctorow’s focus for the book is on the little people, a sort of novelistic A People’s History of the United States. The two characters most in his focus are newly freed slave Pearl, who doubly passes in the novel as a boy and as white, so pale is her skin, and the stoic to the point of near emotionally catatonic Colonel Wrede Sartorius. For delightful comic relief we are introduced to the serial deserters and imposters, Will and Arly, recently released convicts compelled into the Georgia state militia who abandon that body for the Union, then when a battle turns decisively for the Confederacy jump ship once more. Between these two tricksters and Pearl, Doctorow effectively demonstrates both the positive and negative aspects of the possibility of change.
The novel’s travelling conscience rests with Pearl who, due to her ability to pass for what she is not, is able to move in and out of the various circles within the book. Part allusion to Hawthorne’s Pearl in The Scarlet Letter (her white slave-owner father too refuses to claim her), Doctorow’s character is also a sort of wild free spirit is for a while Sherman’s drummer then later a nurse under Colonel Sartorius. She is an example of striking originality capable of at times great heroism and personal sacrifice, the only two decent human possibilities on display in war. At the same time, there is a weakness to Doctorow’s depiction of Pearl whose transformations conflict with her centrality to the degree that as a character she rarely feels less than overtly symbolic.
Nor can one find much warmth or depth in Sartorius whose mechanistic personality reads like restrained amorality. Sherman himself provides a surprising humanity and its here where Doctorow lives up to his reputation, showing us the fearsome warrior in little details, his diminutive steed, his insecure worries about his reputation, his rather sloppy manner of attire and composure in an era of assumed nobility and courtly gentleman-like behavior in war. In the midst of his campaign, when he hears of a Confederate officer’s son’s death, Sherman takes the time to write to his old West Point comrade in commiseration.
For entertainment value, no other characters hold our attention so strongly as the Reb deserter and double-deserter Arly. As he leads Will along on their madcap path along Sherman’s march, alternately in the Union Army and fighting it, Arly is a kind of low-rent Pangloss, constantly opining that whatever current circumstances he and his companion find themselves in is part of the Divine Plan and the best of all possible outcomes. Arly rolls with every punch, seeing no contradiction in his obedience to this Revealed Will and his filching money from a church offering plate for a trip to a whorehouse. His darker turn in the book’s final third is part of his chameleon nature yet remains rather chilling.
With so many intertwined tales on a journey, Doctorow’s book resembles nothing so much at times as a martial Canterbury Tales. At times poignant, profane, and profound, The March never falters or fails to provoke on a very human level, engaging the reader in history in a way scholastic works rarely accomplish. Stories like this, stories of long journeys, are often tales of losing and finding—and nowhere is such activity on greater display than in the midst of war. While the novel only peripherally addresses the central point and focus of the Civil War — race relations in America and slavery’ contingent horrors — Doctorow only chillingly brings it home in one instance.
In this strange country down here, after generations of its hideous ways, slaves were no longer simply black, they were degrees of white. Yes, he thought, if the South were to prevail, theoretically there could be a time when whiteness alone would not guarantee the identity of a free man. Anyone might be indentured and shackled and sold on an auction block, the color black having been a temporary expedient, the idea of a slave class itself being the underlying premise.
And in that simple dystopian vision, Doctorow neatly sums up a reason to oppose slavery that goes beyond morality straight down into the heart of every individual. It is more exact than this man is a man like yourself; this woman shares your humanity. Instead, this too, could be you.
Actor Joe Morton delivers a clear, crisp reading with plenty of adroit and varied dialect, a trick at which you either succeed or fail. He succeeds brilliantly. If there is a weakness to his reading, his pausing and phrasing suggests he's reading a nonametric verse narrative consisting of anapests followed by double dactyls. There are also small portions of the reading, clearly second or third takes, in which suddenly Morton's voice goes tinny and higher pitched, as though he were reading in a different studio for the additional material to be pasted in later. At times, it feels, along with the metered cadence, as though a chorus is chiming in bits of the story. This patchwork quality distracts at times, though thankfully it is rare.