||Monolith on the Move
by David H. Evans
The history of the Historical Novel has itself been somewhat novelistic in its vicissitudes. The opening chapters make sensational reading: Sir Walter Scott's Jacobite thrillers burst with spectacular effect onto the stage of a European imagination that, as Georg Luk▀cs pointed out, had been primed for their reception by the turmoil of the Napoleonic era, during which history seemed to be taking place right under one's nose. Well launched on his career, young HN found the going rather more difficult in the later 19th century, as the classic realist novel consolidated its central position. The historical novel was now just one among many competitors in the literary marketplace. Most of the great realists-Flaubert, Dickens, George Eliot-tried their hand at it, but the works of the few who devoted themselves to narratives of the past, like Victor Hugo, look rather juvenile from a modern perspective. The modernists, almost by definition, were still less interested in a genre that seemed hopelessly dated. But rumours of its death proved exaggerated. In the latter part of the 20th century, the HN experienced an unexpected revival at the hands of such writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie. This latter-day popularity has come at some cost to its youthful ambitions, however; where the early historical novel aspired to recover the truth of the past, the vision of history offered by its postmodern versions is as often as not heavily tinged by elements of myth and magic, and thoroughly embued with a consciousness of the fictional nature of all attempts at historical reconstruction.
From this point of view, E. L. Doctorow, the most devoted contemporary practitioner of the historical novel, could easily be seen as something of a throwback. In a series of major novels, he has dedicated himself to recovering the meaning of the American past, comparatively untroubled by the puzzling problematics of representation. His latest novel, The March, tackles the most important historical episode in 19th century American history, the Civil War, by focusing on the climactic event of that struggle, Sherman's march to the sea and the final and fatal blow to the South's traditional way of life.
I have called the march an event, but this is far too precise a designation. In fact, part of Doctorow's point is that the march, like all historical revolutions, is in reality something vague, multifaceted and muddled, which only in retrospect takes on the tidy appearance of a discrete historical turning point. In Doctorow's novel, as Sherman's forces make their first marvellously imagined appearance, they are more like a weather system than an army:
"At this, all the others stood up and came away from the trees: what they saw in the distance was smoke spouting from different points in the landscape, first here, then there. But in the middle of all this was a change in the sky color itself that gradually clarified as an upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside down.
And as they watched, the brown cloud took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front and then widening like the furrow from the plow. It was moving across the sky to the south of them. When the sound of this cloud reached them, it was like nothing they had ever heard in their lives."
The March is a novel without a hero, or better, with so many that no single character is charged with the exclusive burden of embodying the course of historical change. Instead, The March is made up of multiple tales, intersecting and interacting, and all contributing to the symphonic effect of the whole. In this, Doctorow is applying the lesson of his truest master, William James (the philosopher, as opposed to the novelist, Henry, his brother). It was the pluralist William who was not only fond of describing the world in narrative terms, but who insisted that no single story could encompass the whole: "The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one anther, beginning and ending at odd times. They mutually interlace at points, but we can not unify them completely in our minds. In following your life-history, I must temporarily turn my attention from my own . . . It follows that whoever says that the whole world tells one story utters another of those monistic dogmas that a man believes at his risk." This might serve as the structural principle of Doctorow's novel. The March is constantly turning its attention from one "life-history" to another. Among the characters who attach themselves to the Union forces are Pearl, the enterprising and confidently sassy young "white negro"; Arly Wilcox, the rascally Southern cracker and serial turncoat; Wrede Sartorius, the cooly scientific German doctor, who is disgusted by the ineptitude of his medical colleagues; Emily Thompson, the daughter of a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, who senses in the energy of the Union advance a way out of her social and sexual repression; Hugh Pryce, correspondent for the London Times, for whom the whole affair is an exhilarating pageant mounted by a cast of thousands of "provincials"; and Sherman himself, exhausted but driven, made vain by his sudden fame but haunted by a melancholic sense of the futility of his endeavours.
Doctorow repeatedly describes Sherman's military strategy as one of indirection and multiple lines of approach: one wing of the army feints in one direction, distracting the enemy, while another moves surreptitiously towards its real objective. It is not long before it becomes clear to the reader that such tactics are also part of Doctorow's strategy. One aspect of his narrative mastery is that he is able to keep all of these "partial stories" in play, like the separate melodic lines of a fugue. Subplots disappear temporarily from sight, but never die out. He's able to create full characters despite the fact that they never make more than a brief appearance on stage, and to pick up their stories immediately as they reappear. Above all, the characters are creations of speech and tone, and all are instantly identifiable by their distinctive voices. Here, for example, is Arly giving his young companion Will a lecture worthy of one of Mark Twain's high-minded scallywags:
"Yes, we are wet and cold and hungry on this dark November, but alive, which is a sight better than the dead falling to the ground every minute in every state of the Confederacy. And that we are alive by shifting our way about from one side t'other as the situation demands shows we already have something gifted about us. I feel the intention, all right, and I am sorry you don't. And I will pray He don't task you for being ungrateful. Or take it out on me."
And here, at the other end of the scale, is young Pryce of the Times, bubbling with the ingenuous enthusiasm of a schoolboy, and thrilled to be present at one of history's grand spectacles:
"England, of course, had a great and bloody history of civil wars, but they were ancient matters to be studied in public school. This in America was to be seen with one's own eyes. And as bloody and brutal were the contests of Lancaster and York, they were hand to hand-battle-axes, pikes, maces. These chaps were industrial-age killers . . . Their war was so impersonally murderous as to make quaint anything that had gone on before."
The verbal patterns are as distinctive as thumbprints.
The novel, one might say, is designed to give each of the characters the freedom to have a "partial story" that is not simply subsumed by the monolithic master narrative. And indeed the question of freedom, not surprisingly, is at the thematic core of this tale of the destruction of a slave society. The opening scene depicts the chaotic departure of the Jameson family from their ancestral home. They leave behind their slaves, among them Pearl, who watches their departure "as if the plantation were her own". But freedom takes many forms; the scene is parodied by the episode that immediately follows, in which Arly schemes to escape from the cell where he's awaiting execution for, as he blandly puts it, "coming afoul of military legalisms of one sort or another". And real liberation, Doctorow suggests, is a more complicated matter than simply proclaiming one's own emancipation, as the development of Pearl through the novel serves to demonstrate. "Dear God Jesus," she prays in the first chapter, "teach me to be free." Her need to insist on her independence is itself a kind of imprisonment, warping her own most human instincts. When she awakes to find Stephen Walsh, her young Union lover, embracing her in his sleep, she can only respond to it as if this was another kind of servitude: "Who was this white man who felt privileged to put his arm around her? . . . Her mama had lain with Pap Jameson as she had this night next to Stephen Walsh and, surely that arm of Pap's was as heavy around my mama as Stephen's is around me. So how is I free? Never as a black girl, and not now as a white." Only in the final pages is she able to give herself unreservedly to Stephen, and to begin to understand that the bonds of love are not the same as those of slavery.
Doctorow hints at a still more problematic aspect of the emancipation brought by Sherman's army. Whatever its political significance, the victory of the forces of the North also represents an economic transformation, the triumph of the new industrial order. Wrede Sartorius at one point describes the army as a kind of superhuman organism, in which any individual liberty and agency disappears: "Any one of the sixty thousand of us has no identity but as a cell in the body of this giant creature's function, which is to move forward and consume all before it." The use of the word "cell" here is no doubt significant; the Union forces may be destroying the prison cells of plantation slavery, but they are also in a real sense the advance guard of the social forces that were laying the foundations for what Max Weber would famously describe as the Iron Cage of modernity.
But if Doctorow gestures toward this overcast future, he chooses to end on a sunnier note-indeed, "sun" is the second-last word in the novel. One cannot deny an author the right to conclude his work with a vista of promise, but it is possible to feel that the ending is a bit of a disappointment, particularly in its treatment of Pearl's postwar prospects. Stephen declares that he will study law, and then, improbably, that he will bring a court case to make Pearl the first female medical graduate. One hopes the earth will lie lightly on the fallen soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic, knowing they have died to make our heroes America's first yuppies. It is difficult not to feel that Doctorow is working overtime at this point to satisfy the opinions of the ER generation, for whom the prospect of a medical degree and a comfortable professional life represents the height of earthly aspiration. Despite this bathetic lapse, however, The March deserves to be declared a major victory on almost all fronts.