The march in question in EL Doctorow’s fascinating novel is that taken by 60,000 men of the Union Army led by General William Tecumseh Sherman in November and December 1864, on which he laid waste parts of Georgia, destroying Atlanta, then turned seaward, leaving behind a trail of devastation as he marched through South Carolina and into North Carolina, ending with the capture of Savannah on December 21st.
The novel is strong on character, driven as it is by a series of interlinked narratives featuring a wide range of individuals. Will and Arly, condemned men given an unexpected pardon, appear initially to be there to provide some comedic interludes but their stories become gradually dark, ultimately poignant. Southern gentility is represented by contrasting women, the grieving, Alzheimer-suffering Mattie Jameson and Emily Thompson, a prim but vibrant young woman who is a much better human being than she seems to realise. General Sherman himself is a major character, a man of irascible nature and restless movement but, increasingly, someone beset by guilt and the nature of goodness and the need for small acts of humanity amid the great act of war.
The two most important characters, for contrasting reasons, are the army surgeon, Colonel Wrede Sartorius, and the miscegenate daughter of Mattie Jameson’s landowning husband, the slave girl Pearl. Pearl, as her name suggests, is almost white and, indeed, passes as such through most of the narrative, although to do so affords her considerable angst: can she really be free, she argues to herself, when she is living such a lie. Nonetheless, Pearl is the moral compass of the novel.
Accordingly, it is only really Pearl and her husband-to-be, Stephen Walsh, a somewhat naive but likeable Irish-American, who really seem to have any future at the novel’s end. They are seen moving towards Washington, to a new life. The remaining characters, in contrast, are either dead or (in the case of Emily Thompson, who departs the narrative half-way through and doesn’t return) unresolved, or, like General Sherman, have reached the zenith of their existence and are condemned only to live out their final years in a nothingness of regret.
If a negative is to be directed at this novel, it would be that, perhaps, Pearl is just too good. There is about her characterisation the whiff of white liberal guilt. It isn’t exactly patronising, as it can be in some of the more insufferable works of leftist revisionism, but nonetheless it feels over-compensatory. No-one is as perfect as Pearl.
Certainly not perfect is Dr Wrede Sartorius, a fascinating, complex, troublesome character. He seems to be much misread by many critics of this novel, such as Stephen Amidon, who believes Sartorius is close to representing its authorial voice. Absolutely not. Or John Wray in the Washington Post, who suggests Sartorius is “almost incidental”, or Walter Kirn, who dismisses him with the single adjective “stoic”. On the contrary, Sartorius is central to the narrative, and he is a dazzling creation, neither good nor bad, but demonstrating strong characteristics of each pole. Not for nothing does prim Emily Thompson fall for him (and endure perhaps the most peculiar loss of virginity in all literature). Not for nothing does, first General Sherman, and then Abraham Lincoln himself, see in Sartorius something great. For he is great, a truly great surgeon, a man who has turned the butcher’s craft of limb amputation into a fine art. But once he has finished his work he turns, the patient is forgotten, coldness subsumes the moment. In his quest for knowledge, Sartorius becomes something other, some cold simulacrum of a man. He is a man of science, a rationalist. Notably, he is European, one of the old civilisation, a product of the Age of Reason. He finds the barbarity of war is compensated by an enriched opportunity to practice: “Apparently he was alone in considering this American Civil a practicum.” Most significantly, he takes a patient, Albion Simms, on the march although he knows it is not ethical to do so and will certainly result in his death, because he wants the opportunity of learning something about the brain. Perhaps the most telling summation of his character comes through the thoughts of the infatuated Emily: “Wrede Sartorius, the man to whom she had given herself, was not a doctor. He was a magus bent on tampering with the created universe.”
In this, there are powerful resonances with judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Sartorius is no monster, let us be clear, but he is from the same stock as the monstrous judge. Just as the judge seeks to improve his esoteric knowledge, reading “news of the earth’s origins” in ore samples or carefully drawing a Spanish suit of armour and then destroying the original so that no-one else may see it, so Sartorius seems bent on knowledge for the sake of knowledge. He is frustrated that his improvements and suggestions are ignored by the army, but still he seeks to further advance his rationalist gnosis. In so doing, without even realising it, he becomes increasingly distanced from those he is working to protect. Thus, disconnection, the removal of society from society, becomes a major motif in the novel.
This motif is most powerfully portrayed, however, by Sherman’s march itself. A massive, vital, awful thing, it is conjured in visceral detail. It is a “floating world” that consumes as it advances, leaving behind detritus and despair. It becomes a unique entity, a lifeforce in itself, the conjunction of war and society, man and death. “War is God,” said judge Holden, but in The March, war is all – life, death, love, community. War is history, the future, the present: and it is especially that, especially the everlasting present. And it is this which gives remarkable depth to the novel.
But if the march portrays the implacable universality of war’s horror, it is the fate of Albion Simms which illuminates its personal tragedy. Albion Simms is the patient whom Dr Sartorius will not leave behind because he wishes to study him. Simms is a Union soldier with a spike through his brain but apparently unaffected by it in any way other than having no absolutely no residual memory. By the time he finishes a sentence he has forgotten how it began. Take this excruciating passage:
What did you call me?
Albion. That is your name.
That is my name?
What is my name?
Albion Simms. Have you forgotten?
Yes. I have forgotten. What have I forgotten?
You knew your name yesterday.
Is this yesterday?
I have forgotten yesterday. My head hurts. What is this that hurts?
Simms becomes agitated. “Are you crying?” Sartorius asks. “Yes,” he replies. “Because it’s always now. What did I just say?” Sartortius ponders this and muses to himself, “it’s always now for all of us... But for you, a bit more so.” And this takes us to the crux of the piece: this eternal now, this hellish moment from which there is no escape. And, crucially, it is the man of science, of the enlightenment, the man who tends his patients with extreme care and skill, yet shows no emotion towards them, who elucidates this monstrous point.
Simms’ is a truly desperate situation, a living hell of the immediate present. And this is mirrored, in fact, throughout the novel, in which, unusually for a historical novel, there is sparse context: the causes of the war and the implications of slavery are loosely touched upon, but it is the catastrophe of the moment which is all-important in The March.
And this gives the chilling metaphysical drive of the novel: people, in this instance the soldiers of both armies, plus the civilians caught up in their assault and the slaves freed into a void of uncertainty, are forced to live in a perpetual moment. There is no possibility of reflection, no option to the future, no comfort of the past; only a relentless, uncaring, unwielding march of the present into the present from the present. Aboriginal Australians talk of an everywhen, a concept alien to the western, chronologically-tuned consciousness. In it, each and every moment exists concurrently. In their mythology, it is a wonderful thing, a connection through time and space between ancients and the living, something to be cherished and nourished. In The March it is Hell.
It is the same hell as that endured by the Joads and the Wilsons in The Grapes of Wrath, by Suttree in the depths of his Knoxville despair, by Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, or Dr Thomas More in Walker Percy’s Love Among The Ruins. And if that suggests a strangely ecumenical hell, so be it. Haze and More were driven by their respective authors’ strong Catholicism, while Buddy Suttree is an existential man in crisis in a world where religion exists but God does not; and the Joads and Wilsons, for all their desire for Casy’s preaching, ultimately stand aside from Christian dogma. It is hard, perhaps, to see more different characters than these. Nonetheless, they are, indeed, all bound for the same hell, to that place in human existence where the strict metre of time triumphs over the human spirit and where circumstance prevails over hope to such an extent that it might have been better never to have hoped at all. This is the trouble with eschatology: it either ends in something or it ends in nothing, and neither option seems especially desirable. In order to understand religion you have to be able to pull out from the personal into the perspective of the eternal; but to understand humanity you have to telescope straight back in, observe close up those inevitable moments that shape us, that form our own, personal eschatologies; but be able to observe, too, the memories of the past and the hopes of the future that make us what we are. This is when everywhen can become a beauteous thing. Common eschatology, meanwhile, offers nothing but a linear progression from genesis to eschaton, whatever that may be. It is the monster of Haze Motes’s madness, the Joads’ poverty, Suttree’s isolation, General Sherman’s brutal March, progressing through moments of the present, on and on, onwards, onwards, infesting the whole of the psyche until nothing exists but that brute truth, leaving no culture, no love, no memory, no hope. It is human beings losing touch with their humanity. Albion Simms, with his doleful fate, is an astonishing literary creation, and a portent of what might befall us if, in a drive for perfection, either human or divine, we lose touch with our essential humanity.
War is hell, war is god, war is all, war is what? General Sherman, at battle’s end, as he pitches his tent in the woods one last time before the journey to Washington for the victory parade, realises that their civil war, “devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.”
Moments then: moments proceeding, never ceasing, driving us to the end.