Magazine article The Spectator

Rampaging through Georgia

Magazine article The Spectator

Rampaging through Georgia

Article excerpt

THE MARCH by E. L. Doctorow Little, Brown, £11.99, pp. 367, ISBN 0316731986 . £9.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

E. L. Doctorow tackles mighty themes. He started out by revisiting the Western for his first book Welcome to Hard Times. This was by way of limbering up. He took on the Rosenbergs with The Book of Daniel, and 20th-century celebrity, adventure and injustice in Ragtime, which featured such luminaries of the time as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and J. P. Morgan. These historical characters were effectively ventriloquised by Doctorow, a procedure which has made some queasy. He has defended his practice as a way of writing bigger fiction than many of his contemporaries, and frequently invokes Tolstoy as a forebear. He's not easily intimidated, as he showed when writing about gangsterism in Billy Bathgate, much of which was based on Dutch Schultz. He even dramatised the perennial issue of dogma versus vibrant spirituality in City of God. Like our own Michael Moorcock, he takes on the grand issues of modern life with virtuosity and gusto.

He is named Edgar after Edgar Allan Poe, but his genealogy takes him outside America too. His grandparents fled the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. And Doctorow's sensitivity to injustice has never waned. He has been eloquent in his denunciations of George W. Bush, a man he believes is unfit to send young men to die, since he was so keen on saving his own skin when his chance came to serve his country. The President of the United States, he tells us, is the product of wealth and privilege, and all the prattle of his sincerity cannot disguise his separation from common humanity. He simply doesn't know what it's like out there and, as his obliviousness to the initial ravages of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, he's not greatly driven to find out. He'd rather cycle round his ranch in Texas.

A vivid sense of the morality and immorality of war informs Doctorow's latest novel. The march here is that of General Sherman and his troops through Georgia and the Carolinas during the American Civil War. Whatever the benefits of emancipation, it is the sheer destructiveness of the battles that captures Doctorow's imagination. As the character Old Thompson puts it, 'The wretched war had destroyed not only their country but all their presumptions of self-regard. What a scant, foolish pretense was a family, a culture, a place in history, when it was all so easily defamed.' That was one way to look at it, a way that many did look at it.

Doctorow portrays a large array of characters, dispersed out of whatever social cohesion they once knew into the anarchic possibilities of war. There is a black girl who can pass for white. Pearl is protected by a Union officer. This elicits some derision; the men suspect his motives. He even suspects them a little himself: 'Pearl wasn't the first freed black girl to get special treatment. The lighter-coloured, especially, were being picked up all along the march and ensconced in the wagons.' In capturing Pearl's speech the prose initially goes into black-face: 'You white mens smell like de cow barn back at Massah's.

No worse, dat how bad.' But as the novel progresses her speech is itself emancipated from this minstrel dialect.

Sixty thousand troops kept marching, looting, living off the land. Ever larger numbers of hangers-on attached themselves to this body, including freed slaves and white supporters in the South, who were fearful of rebel retaliation against them. At times the army did their best to rid themselves of these attachments, since it made their own progress harder. …

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