The March by E.L. Doctorow book review

E.L. Doctorow The March

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You’ll have to forgive my low State College education. The following are notes a charlatan makes upon reading E.L. Doctorow’s, The March. A fabulous tale about General Sherman’s fiery march of death through the rebel South.

Men make wars.

He seemed to take up more room than he had to. His appetites were prominent, all of their appetites. It was like living with jungle creatures, the look in their eyes as they professed their gentlemanly courtesies. And it was they who made war. Women did not make war—they did not gallop off waving their swords and screaming about honor and freedom.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On believing in God and Morons

Can you hear me in this rain, God? I am standing with this boy here who thinks an army at war is a reasonable thing. He thinks a soldier is something more than the uniform he is wearing. He thinks we live in a sane life and time, which you know as well as I is not what you designed for us sinners.

E.L Doctorow, The March

On why Morons are Slaves

She heard below the music the sound of the soldiers’ footsteps all in rhythm, a soft sound, and after the band had gone down the street and the bluecoat companies kept coming all she heard now was the soft-shoe whisper of their footsteps marching, it was almost a hush, and if not for the cries of the sergeants at the side, and their pennants in the air to remind her, she would think it was so sad, these men with their rifles on their shoulders making a show of their victory but looking to her eyes like they was indentured as she once was, though maybe not born into it.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

The Old In/Out

You are talking the highest kind of survival, young Will, the survival you achieve after you are gone to your God that by the issue of your loins has created them that look like you and sound like you and think like you and are you through the generations of descendants. And you know how He fixed it: so that we turn our swords into plowshares and at the end of a day go into our houses and after a good, hot dinner we take them upstairs, these blessed creatures of God who are given to us, and pull off their dresses and their shifts and their corsets and whatever damn else they use to cover themselves till just the legs and breasts and bellies and behinds of them are in presentation to our wonderment . . . oh Lord. And when we go inside them, plum into their beings, and they cry out in our ear and we feel there is nothing softer, warmer, or more honeyed up in God’s world than what embraces our stiff tool, and we are made by God to shiver into them the issue of our loins, well, boy, don’t talk to me about what you don’t know. And if the bordello ladies you slander are not half of what I am telling you, please to remember they are as much our glorious Southern womanhood as whatever you been dreaming about that Miz Nurse Thompson, who, I can promise you, would taste no sweeter when put to the test than the uglymost whore in those houses by the waterfront.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On Wars and Morons

If there is any good reason for war, it ain’t to save Unions, and it certainly ain’t to free niggers, it ain’t to do anything but to have you a woman of your own, or even of another’s, in a bed with you at your behest.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On Morons

The experience had taught him to detest drilling and saluting and all the other hierarchical warrior nonsense.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On Being Married

And then it pained her terribly when she one day expressed hope for the future and John called her an idiot.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On Being Free

A man who owns his own land is a free man. Works for himself, not for nobody else. Sings and dances for himself, not nobody else. Puts the food on his table that he has brought from the earth. And you tell me what is better than that? At night, we will sit by the fire and you can teach me to read and write. Then we will go to sleep and wake up when the cock crows and do the very same thing tomorrow we did yesterday, under God’s warm sun. And if you don’t see the blessedness of that then I will go down to the river right now and drown myself.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On Race and Slavery

Yes, he thought, if the South were to prevail, theoretically there could be a time when whiteness alone would not guarantee the identity of a free man. Anyone might be indentured and shackled and sold on an auction block, the color black having been a temporary expedient, the idea of a slave class itself being the underlying premise.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On What Attracts to Morons

Can there be a sweeter seduction, he thought, than the one pulled off in war? He noticed the mud dried on his tunic and trousers. His boots were caked with mud. Perhaps I should clean up. He smiled. Christ no, this is just what thrills them. Not some Southern popinjay with a handkerchief in his sleeve. They want our hero’s life. That we kill and stand to be killed is what thrills them.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On a Southern Belle

He felt his crotch and contemplated the night ahead. There would be a struggle, entreaties, but finally she would not be able to resist, she would be aroused to a state of ardent curiosity even if she would not admit it to herself. He knew women. They could not admit to themselves what they wanted, but there was always a moment when their emotions took them over the threshold, as it were. Miss Boozer would at last learn the consequence of her girlish flirtations. He would answer to them on behalf of all the Southern studs who had been dying to get at her.

E.L. Doctorow, The March

On Mixed Race Marriage and Babies

And if Stephen Walsh means to marry me, he will understan that, white as she is, Pearl could someday bear him a tar baby for his trouble.

E.L. Doctorow, The March


  1. is a historical fiction novel set in late 1864 and early 1865 near the conclusion of the American Civil War. Central to the novel is the character of General William Tecumseh Sherman as he marches his 60,000 troops through the heart of the South, from Atlanta to Savannah, carving a 96 km (60 mile)-wide scar of destruction in their wake. As a result of Sherman’s order to live off the land, his soldiers sow chaos as they pillage homes, steal cattle, burn crops, and attract a nearly unmanageable population of freed slaves and refugees who have nowhere else to go. While the novel revolves around the decisions of General Sherman, the story has no specific main character. Instead, Doctorow retells Civil War history according to the individual lives of a large and diverse cast of characters—white and black, rich and poor, Union and Confederate —whose lives are caught up in the violence and trauma of the war. The character of General Sherman is an unstable strategic genius who longs for a sense of romance in the war he wages and chafes under the implications of a post-war bureaucracy. Charismatic, yet often detached, Sherman is idolized by his men and the freed slaves who follow behind in hope of a better future. Pearl is the young and attractive daughter of a black slave woman and her white master who is unsure about her future and the attention she is now receiving from the handsome Union soldiers. She must decide whether to follow the advice of other emancipated slaves or choose to seek the possibilities she hopes the conclusion of the war will bring. Colonel Wrede Sartorius is a cold yet brilliant field surgeon who is seemingly numb to the horrors of war due to his close and frequent proximity to the surgical hacksaw which he carries with him everywhere. Trained in Germany, Sartorius experiments with new techniques on his patients and is consumed with his work, leaving little time for regret, romance, or pain. Arly and Will are two Confederate soldiers who serve the roles of the Shakespearean fool, alternately offering comic relief and poignant wisdom. Their antics are wild and chaotic and include defecting to the Union, impersonation, and robbing a church in order to be able to pay for a trip to a brothel. Emily Thompson, a judge’s daughter, is a displaced southern aristocrat from Milledgeville, Georgia, which was then the state capital. She becomes the surgical assistant and lover to the cold, passionless Colonel Sartorius.

  2. The novel ends when Lincoln is assassinated after the war ends, exposing the cautious optimism of the freed slaves and beleaguered soldiers. The final scene of the novel describes the faint smell of gunpowder dissipating through a forest with the lonely image of the boot and shredded uniform of a fallen soldier lying in the dirt. While Doctorow’s characters express guarded hope now that the conflict is over, the physical and psychological toll of the war has left its scars on the people and the land and no one is quite sure what to do next.

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