Synopses & Reviews
In 1864, after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he marched his sixty thousand troops east through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces and lived off the land, pillaging the Southern plantations, taking cattle and crops for their own, demolishing cities, and accumulating a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the uprooted, the dispossessed, and the triumphant. Only a master novelist could so powerfully and compassionately render the lives of those who marched.
The author of Ragtime, City of God, and The Book of Daniel has given us a magisterial work with an enormous cast of unforgettable characters white and black, men, women, and children, unionists and rebels, generals and privates, freed slaves and slave owners. At the center is General Sherman himself; a beautiful freed slave girl named Pearl; a Union regimental surgeon, Colonel Sartorius; Emily Thompson, the dispossessed daughter of a Southern judge; and Arly and Will, two misfit soldiers.
Almost hypnotic in its narrative drive, The March stunningly renders the countless lives swept up in the violence of a country at war with itself. The great march in E. L. Doctorow's hands becomes something more a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.
"Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold collateral damage. In this powerful novel, Doctorow gets deep inside the pillage, cruelty and destruction as well as the care and burgeoning love that sprung up in their wake. William Tecumseh Sherman ('Uncle Billy' to his troops) is depicted as a man of complex moods and varying abilities, whose need for glory sometimes obscures his military acumen. Most of the many characters are equally well-drawn and psychologically deep, but the two most engaging are Pearl, a plantation owner's despised daughter who is passing as a drummer boy, and Arly, a cocksure Reb soldier whose belief that God dictates the events in his life is combined with the cunning of a wily opportunist. Their lives provide irony, humor and strange coincidences. Though his lyrical prose sometimes shades into sentimentality when it strays from what people are feeling or saying, Doctorow's gift for getting into the heads of a remarkable variety of characters, famous or ordinary, makes this a kind of grim Civil War Canterbury Tales. On reaching the novel's last pages, the reader feels wonder that this nation was ever able to heal after so brutal, and personal, a conflict. 7-city author tour. (Sept. 20)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[N]ever before has [Doctorow] so fully occupied the past, or so gorgeously evoked its generation of the forces that seeded our times....Doctorow's masterpiece uncovers the roots of today's racial and political conundrums..." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Doctorow patiently weaves...several...stories together, while presenting military strategies...with exemplary clarity....Doctorow's previous novels have earned multiple major literary awards. The March should do so as well." Kirkus Reviews
"Although the novel is less inventive, less innovative than his 1975 classic Ragtime, it showcases the author's bravura storytelling talents and instinctive ability to empathize with his characters..." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"A serious novel that is at the same time entrancing fun....The March is jangly, loose-jointed and an almost unqualified triumph; it is closer in spirit to Ragtime...than to the author's other novels." Los Angeles Times
"Doctorow's fictional re-creation of the event lacks compelling characters, forceful structure, and dominant themes and so fails to make it much more than a romp in the park....[T]his effort simply fails to engage." Library Journal
"It is to the credit of this fine book, that Doctorow's words, his language, bring to life the terrible consequences of what happens when words fail and the fighting begins." Rocky Mountain News
"A connivingly understated work that at times suggests a meeting of Catch-22 and The Red Badge of Courage, The March arises from that special place in our collective sensibility where the human drama meets the human comedy..." Chicago Sun-Times
"Though his prose shimmers here and there, it is more given to catching precisely the sun's glint on a bayonet or the awful moment when death is near....[L]ike Ragtime, [The March] should enjoy an equally long, equally respected shelf life." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] swift, page-turner narrative pace....Doctorow's novel is a must-read for anyone with an interest in these issues, and anyone with a penchant for serious and lasting literature." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Like the bloody and brilliant general who gave him his subject, Doctorow has refused to play it safe and for that we may all be grateful." Newsday
"The book does not just put us in the thick of battle, bullets whizzing by heads, the stench of dead fouling the air. It uses this cataclysm as a powerful metaphor for the dangerous and unstoppable way we humans move through the world." Minneapolis Star Tribune
In the last years of the Civil War, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched 60,000 Union troops through Georgia and the Carolinas, cutting a 60-mile wide swath of pillage and destruction. That event comes back in this magisterial novel.
About the Author
E. L. Doctorow's work has been published in thirty languages. His novels include City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, and The Waterworks. Among his honors are the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. Doctorow lives in New York.
Reading Group Guide
1. In the opening chapter of the novel, Pearl prays, "Dear God Jesus . . . teach me to be free." To what extent is her prayer answered? How does she come to understand the difference between freedom and independence?
2. Is Arly, the Southern Rebel, simply a wily individual who takes advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, or is there more to him than that? What do you think motivated his final actions? Discuss both of the misfit soldiers: What redeeming qualities did Arly and Will have? Did each of them deserve the ending he had? Why?
3. General Sherman's description of death as "first and foremost, a numerical disadvantage" is very unemotional. Do you believe he was truly that unfeeling? What other places in the story does this "coldness" show itself? Where is his humanity evident?
4. Discuss Sherman's leadership style. Would you characterize it as paternal, moral, charismatic? Why do you think Sherman was successful (or not successful)? Are there other characteristics you would assign to General Sherman? List a few and discuss.
5. Sherman's destruction of everything in his path left nothing with which to rebuild, or to help the freed slaves to begin their new lives. What was the purpose of the pillage and destruction along Sherman's march? Were these acts of opportunity, desperation, or both? Give an example of similar behavior from current events, and discuss the complexity of human reaction when confronted with such serious conflict.
6. Before Shermans soldiers marched upon Milledgeville, Emily Thompson could not fathom the possibility of the war destroying her comfortable lifestyle. What changes her mind? What compels Emily to link up with “the enemy” and seek protection with the Union army?
7. Describe Emilys attraction to Wrede Sartorius, and what tests her faith in him. How does Emily transform during the course of the novel?
8. Wrede Sartorius cares for his patients in a dispassionate manner. Does he excel as a battlefield surgeon because of, or in spite of, this outlook? How does this behavior affect his relationship with Emily?
9. Discuss Wrede Sartoriuss medical ethics. Do you think they would have been different in peacetime? Give positive and negative examples of his bedside manner. What do you think his true feelings were for Emily?
10. At the end of the novel, Pearl and David are no longer slaves, but are they free? Has Calvin, who has never lived as a slave, ever lived freely? Are any characters free during the war? Colonel Sartorius, Stephen, Sherman, even Lincoln, live under constraints caused by their situations, commitments, and responsibilities. What is freedom? What makes us free? In 2005, has "the world [caught] up" yet?
11. Lt. Clark of the Union army is in charge of a foraging party. Clark has "always believed in reason, that it was the controlling force in his life." How do events in the novel refute this belief-for him and for many others?
12. What does "It's always now" mean in the novel? Why do some characters find that to be an obvious truth, while others find it terrifying? Why might that idea be especially meaningful to a soldier who is living from battle to battle?
13. Historians have debated whether Sherman's march to the sea was simply a particularly brutal act of war or whether it was a war crime. Do you think Sherman's march was justified? Why or why not? Did E. L. Doctorow's novel help you to understand Sherman's belief that this was not only a war between armies but also a war between societies? How did the unspoken orders of the rank and file shape the outcome of the march?
14. What insights does Doctorow give as to the reasons why the average Rebel soldier was fighting? The average Yankee?
15. Sartorius first views Lincoln as weak or diseased, but when he meets the President near the end of the war, his disdain turns to awe. Discuss the reasons you believe he had this change of heart.
16. The romance between Stephen Walsh and Pearl Jameson stands in stark contrast to the war and destruction surrounding them. Describe their relationship. Were you surprised that their connection lasted throughout the war? What do you think happened to them?
17. Hugh Pryce, the English journalist, was stunned to overhear ordinary soldiers discussing moral issues of the war. He believed their concern with substantive moral issues showed "quintessential American genius" and could never imagine Her Majesty's rank and file having such a discussion. Do you agree that this type of questioning and rationalization is uniquely American? Why or why not?
18. From the shrewd analytical mind of General Sherman, the stoicism of Wrede Sartorius, the compassion of Emily Thompson, the feistiness of Pearl and the comic relief of Arly, Doctorow show us the minds of his characters as they struggle to survive the cruelty of war. Which of these or other characters in the book do you think you would be most like in a time of crisis and why?
19. Describe your feelings as you read Sherman's Special Field Order to himself at the end of the war-to pitch a tent in the forest and spend one last night beneath the stars. Have you ever known someone in the military who found it difficult to transition back into civilian life?
20. There were many survivors in The March. Some survived with integrity and honor. What characteristics did these characters hold that helped them maintain their civility during war?