Doctorow fans are familiar with this author’s habit of creating “fanciful” events involving famous personages and creating colorful characters who show up in other novels. Most notable is Ragtime which became a highly successful Milos Foreman film. Doctorow blends actual and fictional history with memorable results.
For example, Emma Goldman, the political activist, probably never met Evelyn Nesbitt, the beautiful socialite who was having an affair with Alfred White while she was married to Harry Thaw. But in Doctorow’s fanciful world, all these characters not only meet, they ignite in a series of steamy episodes.
Using characters and their descendants in different works is evident in The March. For example, Coal House Walker Jr., the African-American musician in Ragtime, is the grandson of the Coal House Walker in The March who saves Wilma Jones from drowning. Most notable is the strange and emotionally cold Army surgeon, Col. Wrede Sartorius, who shows up in another Doctorow work, The Waterworks.
Basically, The March deals with the tragic consequences of the infamous march of William Tecumseh Sherman and his 62,000 Union soldiers through Georgia and up into North Carolina. The cast of characters is huge and includes Southern plantation owners, thousands of freed slaves and entire households, who find themselves homeless and having no other option, join the march. Many find their way into the hospital wagons where they watch Wrede Satorius amputate arms and legs with terrifying speed (a leg in 12 minutes, an arm in nine).
This is the fate of Mattie and Emily Jameson, a disenfranchised mother and daughter who struggle to make themselves necessary. Mattie becomes Satorius’ assistant, standing at the operating table passing the surgeon his tools. In time she finds herself in Satorius’ bed. When Satorius discovers that she is a virgin, he offers to “deflower her” with a medical instrument, assuring her that this act will make her future sexual experiences less painful. The operation is successful, but Mattie finds Wrede repugnant and decides to face the future on her own.
As Sherman advances, he witnesses acts of amazing brutality as slave owners struggle to deal with his presence. Often, they drown their own mules and horses to avoid giving them to the invaders. Silverware and antiques are buried. Often, family members load a wagon with food and valuables and simply join the march. An astonishing number of homes are burned; however, Sherman and his officers often occupy the most impressive structures and even carry out an ongoing social life in which they entertain their friends. Cooks are readily given employment and are encouraged to travel with the Army. When Sherman turns his march toward North Carolina, he announces that there will be less destruction since North Carolina withdrew from the Union “reluctantly.”
Doctorow describes the march as a great dust cloud that engulfs the million-legged marchers and emits the odor of death and destruction that can be smelled for a five-miles radius. The rotting stench of dead horses, mules and human kind is pervasive and all of the nearby rivers and streams are clogged with the dead. It was disconcerting to learn that armies customarily “purged” their horses and mules as “used up” and were readily replaced by new animals. Fresh food was usually obtained by the “bummers,” foraging units that raided farms for eggs, poultry, pigs and milk.
Sherman and his officers are not depicted as especially bloodthirsty and cruel; however Doctorow implies that the blood lust of the invader is easily awakened. Some plantations are quickly subdued while others turn into shameful episodes of slaughter and pillage, usually sparked by ill-advised resistance. Soldiers often pillage and loot, carrying away costly heirlooms, much of which is abandoned on the march, or traded to the bands of prostitutes that travel in Sherman’s wake.
Much of the war is seen through the eyes of two “white-trash rebels,” Will Kirkland and Arley Wilcox, who were waiting execution in a Confederate prison (desertion and sleeping on picket duty) who learn to survive by changing sides by simply changing uniforms. In their most outlandish ruse, they become a part of a traveling photographer who, with the assistance of an African-American named Luke, is “immortalizing” the war by filming corpse-littered battlefields. The unfortunate Will ends up as a corpse in one of the photographer’s “posed scenes,” and Arly hatches an ill-conceived plan to assassinate Sherman while taking his photograph.
When John Updike reviewed The March, he noted that the novel did not contain a single African-American character who was cruel, brutish or filled with righteous anger. Such traits were given to such characters as Gen. Kirkpatrick, who develops a love-sick yearning for a prostitute that destroys his career. Certainly, Sherman’s ambition is so intense, it becomes the driving power that fuels the march.
However, this novel contains a generous number of anomalies: characters who are unique due to their radical difference from the norm. Consider Pearl, the black child who is born with white skin and therefore able to pass as white. Her life and her soul are those of an African slave, but her “whiteness” protects her as she masquerades as a Union “drummer boy.” Although she is a child, her experiences in Sherman’s march causes her to ponder her condition, and what it means to be a slave, even as she seems destined to marry a young, white officer.
But, most deviate of all of Doctorow’s anomalies is Albion Simms, a wounded soldier who has a steel spike in his head. The surgeon, Webde Satorius, is fascinated by the grotesque wound and is determined to learn why Albion is still alive ... although he frequently begs for death. Satorious keeps Albion tied in an upright position with the poor man’s hands bound so he cannot commit suicide. And so they travel through the night, with Albion begging the African child, David, the child who tends him, to untie his hands ... and so eventually, he does.