E. L. Doctorow

"The March"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2005)

"Imagine a great segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a hundred thousand feet. It is tubular in its being and tentacled to the roads and bridges over which it travels. It sends out as antennae its men on horses. It consumes everything in its path. It is an immense organism, this army, with a small brain."

As the huge Union Army of General William Tecumseh Sherman burned its way from Atlanta to the Carolinas in 1864 - 1865, it was accompanied by a motley group of freed slaves, entrepreneurs, the dispossessed wives and children of landowners, and even a few turncoats, all of whom saw this army on the march as their protection from the hostile unknown. E. L. Doctorow, in his absorbing novel of this march, focuses on all the marchers—their varied interests, conflicts, fears, and goals—instead of focusing on battles and army maneuvers, creating a powerful and panoramic vision of how civilians, as well as soldiers, responded to the devastation of this terrible war.

Through a series of dramatic vignettes, Doctorow reveals the family lives of many of these marchers, creating background and stimulating the reader's interest in the characters' futures. Mattie Jameson, the wife of a cruel slaveowner, has closed her eyes to the horrors of slavery, but when her estate is burned, her husband killed, and her 14- and 15-year-old sons conscripted to fight for the Confederacy, she has nowhere else to go but on the march. Pearl, whom Mattie identifies as "that horrible child," is the mulatto child of her husband John Jameson and one of his slaves, and the orphaned Pearl, too, becomes a marcher, disguised as a drummer boy.

Emily Thompson, the elegant daughter of a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, joins the march after her father's death to help Dr. Wrede Sartorius, a Union regimental surgeon, renowned "for removing a leg in twelve seconds [without anesthesia]. An arm took only nine." Two turncoats, the devious Arly and the naïve Will, serve as the primary comic relief, opportunistically trading their gray uniforms for blue, until it becomes more convenient to wear gray once again. They eventually meet up with Calvin Harper, the black "assistant" to photographer Josiah Culp, whose photographs of battle scenes and their participants become historical records.

As is always the case with Doctorow, real people mix with fictional characters, giving life to the narrative and a sense of immediacy to the action. General Sherman, Uncle Billy," to the troops—is the unifying force of the novel. Not vindictive by nature, he is committed to doing what is necessary (and what is he is ordered to do by his superiors) in order to win the war. Because war is not selective in its damage, Sherman's family suffers as much personal hardship as the families he meets on the march. Hot-headed and opportunistic General Judson (Kil) Kilpatrick, by contrast, loves the war—and the privileges he assumes—and he considers women among the spoils. Cameos by Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln enhance the conclusion of the novel, and even Coalhouse Walker makes an appearance when he meets with Wilma, the former servant of Emily Thompson.

The cast of characters is fluid. Some characters with whom the reader empathizes disappear during the narrative, just as they would disappear in real life as circumstances change and opportunities open and close. Doctorow is careful, however, to keep the most important continuing characters-- Pearl, Wrede Satorius, and General Sherman--compelling enough that the novel never loses momentum or direction. His eye for detail and ability to convey sense impressions—a severed leg so heavy it has to be carried by two people, a soldier catching an enemy on his bayonet and being unable to shake it free, the bizarre behavior of a man living with a spike protruding from his head—create an atmosphere in which the harsh realities of war's chaos are borne in on the reader. "This was not war as adventure, nor war for a solemn cause, it was war at its purest, a mindless mass rage severed from any cause, ideal, or moral principle."

A huge novel of the Civil War, The March differs from other Civil War novels in that it is not anchored to a particular place. By focusing on the march itself, Doctorow explores much broader themes—the human costs of this war and its aftermath thoughout the South. Though the Union ultimately won the war, Doctorow shows, it was not prepared to deal with the war's aftermath--the thousands of displaced people, the economic disaster and loss of hope for the residents, the cultural shocks, the lack of opportunities for the slaves who were freed, and their need to be taught how to be free. The Union's plan for winning the war did not include a viable plan for winning the peace.

The fact that some critics have drawn alarming parallels between the action in this novel and contemporary wars in the Middle East may be proof of the novel's universal themes and breadth of scope. As General Sherman notes, "This unmeaning inhuman planet [needs] our warring imprint to give it value, and…our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 213 reviews
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"Billy Bathgate"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 11, 1999)

This is gangster life in the 1930s. Billy Bathgate is just one of the many high school drop-outs hanging around the Bronx captivated by the world of money, sex and charismatic high life represented by infamous gangster Dutch Schultz. The trick is to get noticed, which Billy does by chance while performing a difficult juggling act. So Billy is brought into the numbers and protection racket and soon learns about the darker side of Schulz and about murder, theft and vindictiveness.  Still Billy loves gangsterdom and worships Schultz. As he explains when he returns at one point to his poor home neighborhood, he is "living in the very pulsebeat of the tabloids, distributed in printer's ink and hidden like the fox in the tree leaves on the puzzle page except that I was right in the middle of the centrally important news of our time." 

Doctorow won the 1990 Pen/Faulkner Award for this book.  It was turned into a movie, which is a fun movie, but not the same experience a reading his book.  What Doctorow does with language is the point behind reading in the first place.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 41 reviews
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"The Waterworks"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 11, 1999)

This story takes place in New York City in 1871.  The narrator is a newspaper editor, consumed with Martin Pemberton, his freelance employee.   Pemberton's father - a former slave trader who made good money during the civil war selling poor-quality equipment and clothing - is dead and buried. But Pemberton thinks he's seen him in a white horse drawn stage full of old worn looking men. It's a ghostly image but he persists on the vision.

As usual Doctorow captures the time period in great detail. I reread this book a while ago only because I wanted to see the arm of the Statute of Liberty lying in Central Park once again. I like that image. Doctorow is so good at granting the details that slip through an ordinary history book. And of course the carriage drives around the park are sensational. The story turns out to be more than a stroll in Central Park, though, and is a science fiction horror tale as good as any by Edgar Alan Poe.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 42 reviews

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About the Author:

E.L. DoctorowEdgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, received his B.A. in 1952 with honors from Kenyon College, and continued his study with graduate work at Columbia University. Since 1969, Doctorow has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He has been associated with several colleges and universities, including the University of California, Irvine; Sarah Lawrence College; Yale University Drama School; Princeton University, and New York University. In 1971, Doctorow published The Book of Daniel, a fictional work about a boy whose parents had been executed under circumstances similar to the Rosenberg case. The book was turned into a movie Daniel nearly a decade later. Doctorow's most well known works include Ragtime, published in 1975 and Billy Bathgate, published in 1989, both of which were later the basis of films.

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