Doctorow’s novels remind me of Hitchcock’s movies in that they’re terrific entertainments, composed with excellent craftsmanship, which do not require the reader to work very hard to understand and enjoy them. But, as with Hitchcock’s movies, if the reader chooses to think a little harder, dig a little deeper, s/he’ll find that there’s plenty more to think about than just the “and then . . . and then . . . and then” of the plot. The difference is that when you scratch the surface of Hitchcock, you find Freudian neurosis, and when you scratch the surface of Doctorow, you find a Jeffersonian commitment to democracy.
This novel’s titular march is that of General William Tecumseh Sherman across the Confederate south in 1864. As in many Doctorow novels, history and fiction are here blended; the book dramatizes actual events and major historical figures, but interweaves these episodes and personages with the stories of fictional average Joes and Janes caught up in the wheels of history. It’s plain that Doctorow wants to educate his readership about the major events of this phase of the Civil War, and that’s what the novel’s more “nonfiction” sections are for. Those scenes–such as one in which Grant and Sherman discuss with Lincoln plans for the peace–can feel a little bookish, and that’s where Doctorow’s well-drawn fictional characters come in, providing another, more down-to-earth, everyman view of the events as they unfold.
My favorite characters here are Will and Arly, two average, backwoods Confederate soliders, not unlike Vladimir and Estragon in their combination of despair and burlesque, who when we first meet them are in a Confederate prison on charges of desertion. When Sherman’s army approaches the town, they are released by their jailers on the condition that they take up the suicidal fight against the advancing Union soldiers. After the inevitable rout, they put on Union uniforms to avoid becoming prisoners of war. In this disguise, they’re put in the awkward position of guarding Confederate prisoners. And so on and on, throughout the book, Will and Arly continue to change identities, from soldier on this side to that, to prisoner on this side or that, to deserter from this side or that, until finally you realize that what they really are–as escaped Confederate soldier prisoners in Union uniforms tending to wounded Confederate deserters in a Union medical unit–is Doctorow’s shrewd metaphor for a house divided. There are many more such subtly emblematic characters here, but that should serve as an example.
Doctorow’s not much of a stylist–his sentences are pretty meat and potatoes–but no one, not even Dos Passos of blessed memory, has so consistently made such compelling American fiction out of American history and vice-versa. Anyone who comes back at me with Delillo’s Libra or Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon will be disagreed with, but respectfully.