Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The March

The March by E.L. Doctorow was generally well-reviewed. However, if the few reviews I read are any indication, those who liked the book didn’t have any better idea of what Doctorow was about than did the reviewer on NPR (National Public Radio) who was disappointed in it because there was no overarching narrative arc.

The March is about Sherman’s march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina during America’s Civil War. In several places, Doctorow describes the march as though it were a living creature crawling across the landscape. He follows more than a dozen characters who are swept up in the march. All but a few of them, like Sherman himself, are fictional, and most do not survive the experience. There is no one character that one could say that the novel is about, nor are there two or three.

All of Doctorow’s characters have their own attitudes, desires and personality traits, and each is striving to achieve his own goals. However, it is the circumstances of Sherman’s march that define the opportunities and possibilities in which their striving takes place. This is not just a stylistic decision on Doctorow’s part. It’s a philosophical one. Given that our American culture is so individualistic, if not downright narcissistic, most of our novels feature protagonists who make their own destinies, or perhaps fail in the trying. That’s because they are grounded in the notion that individuals make history. Doctorow believes the opposite, namely, that history makes the individual. That doesn’t mean that the individual has no freedom and can make no choices, but that his freedom is circumscribed and his choices limited by historical circumstance. It’s a more realistic understanding of how the world works, though it runs counter to the prejudices inherent in American culture.

I read one enthused New York reviewer who said that The March was the definitive novel about the American Civil War. My initial reaction to that was that, though it’s a good book, it is by no means definitive. I then asked myself what the definitive novel about the Civil War would be. The Red Badge of Courage perhaps? I don’t think so. It isn’t so much about the Civil War itself as it is about the experience of war and the nature of courage in a more general sense. God love them, there are probably plenty of fools down here in the South who think that Gone With The Wind is that novel. Come to think of it though, there isn’t really a definitive novel about the Civil War.

After thinking about this some more, I found myself wondering if there were indeed any American novels about war that are definitive in the sense of grasping the nature and collective experience of that particular war. I can think of some good war novels, but I can’t think of a single one that could be called definitive. Perhaps that is just the nature of war, that there is nothing really profound that one can say about it, that it is just killing and slaughter, killing and slaughter, and usually to no worthwhile end at all.


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