Saturday, November 28, 2015

The March by E. L. Doctorow

I’ll admit it. I picked this up because I’ve written a novel on the same subject, and I wanted to see how a published novelist handled the material.

The subject? General Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864-65 during the American Civil War.

Like my novel, Doctorow tells the story through the eyes of multiple fictional characters, jumping around much more frequently (and deftly) than I managed to do.

Two of the best are Will and Arly, two unenthusiastic Southern soldiers who disguise themselves as Northerners to say alive and wind up trucking along with Sherman’s columns for a while. Arly is a man, and Will is not much more than a boy, and Arly is always lecturing Will, taking the younger one under his wing, teaching him the ways of the world.

Will watched the setting sun glimmer through the moss hanging off an oak tree. Arly said: 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. 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.

And it’s that voice--much more than the specifics of what that voice is saying--that I find myself envying. Wishing that I could have had more of that voice in my own novel.

Because Arly’s voice, like many of the uneducated ones in literature, contains wisdom. And it is wisdom that will go on, much in the way that Arly continues to speak to Will after Will has died. Speaking not because anyone is listening, but speaking because certain things need to be said.

I didn’t tell you before, son Will, but though God has given me his signs, he’s always meant ‘em for the both of us, as we have been together since the morning they put you into the penitentiary across from me. That was God’s doing too, as you must know. And I swear to you I feel the mystery of his ways beginning to come clearer. Any day now, I b’lieve we will hear what God has meant for you and me to do in this sad war and what his reason was to take us out of Milledgeville and set us to traveling with the wrong army. There is a mighty purpose that we are meant to fulfill. And if you think I am being too high and mighty--I mean, I know yo’re inclined to the skeptical--need I remind you that God’s messengers in the Bible tended not to be of the upper classes, and Moses himself had even killed a man. So if God now chooses us poor excuses for soldiers, well that’s his way, maybe he thinks if he can redeem us he can redeem everyone. I mean, even you would agree the human race is something of a disappointment to him, ‘cepting, of course, such angels as your Miz Thompson and perhaps that bucktooth whore you cuddled with in Savannah. But for the most part God had so much expectations for us and we have not turned out right. We are his chief blunder. I mean, bats are his blunder, and ticks and horseflies and leeches and moles, and cottonmouths--they are all his blunders, but the greatest of those is us. So when I tell you that I feel the moment is almost upon us when his intention for us is revealed, I want you to believe me. In fact, I already have some idea of the kind of thing he is thinking. You want to know what it is? Willie? You want to know finally what we may be called upon to do?

The human race as God’s greatest blunder. It’s hard to study the history of the American Civil War and not come to the same conclusion.

One character that appears in both of our novels in General Sherman himself. That’s probably not surprising, given the subject Doctorow and I have chosen. What was surprising was how much I liked my own Sherman better than his.

His troops were everywhere drunk. Some stood in front of burning houses cheering, others lurched along, arms linked, looking to Sherman like a mockery of the soldierly bond. It was all in hideous accord, the urban inferno and the moral dismantlement of his army. These veterans of so many campaigns, who had marched with him hundreds of miles, fought stoutly with nothing less than honor, overcoming every conceivable obstacle that nature and the Rebs could put in their way--they were not soldiers now, they were demons laughing at the sight of entire families standing stunned in the street while their houses burned.

Contrast that to the attitude of my Sherman, exemplified in this excerpt from my novel’s climactic scene, where he interacts with a Catholic nun named Sophia and the novel’s main protagonist, a Union soldier named Theodore Lomax.

“Sister,” Sherman said for a third time, his tone taking on a finality, as if he had reached the limit of some predetermined boundary. “I care a great deal. About your safety but more especially his. Sergeant Lomax is part of my army, he is a soldier under my command, and I care more about the life of one of my soldiers than I do about an entire city of Southerners. Until this war is over, that’s the only accounting that means anything to me.”

Sophia spat at him. “You’re a beast, General Sherman. You and all these men you’re so proud of. Theo is right, they’re all animals and you are the vilest animal of them all. Those crimes I’ve accused you of—destruction, murder, rape and desecration—your men did all those things, but they did them because you allowed them to. You gave the orders that allowed them the liberty to plumb the depths of their own wickedness. I wonder if you would be so arrogant this morning if you had been with us last night and had seen your demons plying their craft. If you had seen the fire in their eyes and the blood on their hands I wonder if you wouldn’t better realize your own culpability in all of this.”

Sherman lifted the latching mechanism of the cemetery gate and took several steps backward as he pulled one side of the iron portal open. “I’ve seen them in action, Sister,” he said after a few moments of breathless silence. “Have no concerns about that. In Atlanta, in Savannah, in Columbia, and in a thousand other places along the way. I have seen atrocities like the ones you describe and some that are even worse. But I have also seen the atrocities committed by our enemy, atrocities that go beyond damage to property and people, atrocities that cut to the core of our hearts and minds, to the very fabric of our nation. And I know the only way for us to win this war is to similarly tear out the heart of the Confederacy. Not its armies, not its politicians, not even its cities. To win we must destroy the idea of the Confederacy itself, the glue that holds it together. That means destroying everything its people hold sacred. We must injure their society and the institutions that sustain it to such a degree that it can never be made whole again.”

For Sherman, I believe, understood better than anyone what his men would do if turned loose, and he saw it as the most bitterest of necessities, in many ways like the brutal mathematical logic his friend and commander Ulysses Grant used to pour Union regiment after Union regiment into the meatgrinder of entrenched Confederate positions. Sister Sophia may call the Union troops on Sherman’s march demons, but General Sherman never would. He understood the enemy he was actually fighting.

My book, by the way, is called Columbia, and can be purchased here, just in case any one is interested.

But since this post is supposed to be about Doctorow’s book, let me get back to that, and conclude with my reaction to its most interesting, and most unfulfilled character--Wrede Sartorius.

In the early hours of the morning, Emily Thompson was called to assist when a black woman was brought in unconscious on a stretcher. The woman’s garments were half torn off and she had bruises on her chest and arms. One eye was swollen shut. Her face was battered. She was lifted to the table and what remained of her clothing was removed. After examination, Wrede decided first to repair a vesico-vaginal fistula, and directed the nurses to position her on her knees with her head and shoulders lowered. ...

Wrede Sartorius is a physician, a German immigrant, tending to the Union and Confederate wounded alike in his moving field hospital. And for much of the novel, we see him primarily through the eyes of a displaced Southern woman turned nurse, Emily Thompson.

… Emily had to both hold up a lantern and pass to Sartorius the instruments he called for. She was made queasy by the awful procedure. Wrede’s hands were bloody, his eyes unblinking in their concentration. She looked for some recognizable emotion from him. Was it to be expressed only in the work of his hands? Must it be deduced? God knows what horrors this girl had endured. Emily could not bear to look. But not even the most private regions of the human body were beyond this doctor’s blunt investigation. …

And this is invariably as Emily sees Wrede. A scientist, fundamentally uninterested in the subjective emotions that make life, to her, so rich. It fascinates Emily, this distance that Wrede maintains, but it also, at times, horrifies her.

… Emily supposed the modern world was fortunate in the progress of science. But she could not help but feel at this moment the impropriety of male invasiveness. She knew he was working to save this poor woman, but in her mind, too, was a sense of Wrede’s science as adding to the abuse committed by his fellow soldiers. He said not a word. It was as if the girl were no more than the surgical challenge she offered.

The operation concluded, one of the sergeants said, Uh-oh. The woman was expiring. Terrible sounds came from her throat. They held her, and she stiffened and slumped in their arms.

Wrede shook his head and, with a gesture indicating that they should remove the body, threw off his apron and, with barely a glance at Emily, left the room. His departure, having given her the clear impression that death was a state that did not interest him, left her openmouthed with shock.

Emily fled to an unoccupied alcove window on the top floor. She sat there to regain her composure. She told herself the man was overburdened, a brilliant doctor working week after week in the field. His nerves were strained--how could they not be? The responsibilities of every day on the march were bound to affect anyone. But another thought occurred to her that she would attribute to her own exhaustion, to the hours of unremitting work and the horror of a city burning. It was that Wrede Sartorius, the man to whom she had given herself, was not a doctor. He was a magus bent on tampering with the created universe.

Indeed. Doctorow often portrays Wrede as a kind of sorcerer--a Timelord, to borrow a phrase, here only to observe until some pre-ordained intervention becomes necessary to keep the inscrutable flow of the universe in its channel.

He smiled and shook his head. We know so little. Our medical service is no less barbarous than the war that requires it. Someday we will have other means. We will have found botanical molds to reverse infection. We will replace lost blood. We will photograph through the body to the bones. And so on.

And when it comes to the spirituality that so infused the age--Wrede Sartorius would have nothing to do with it.

At one camp, Emily asked Wrede to examine Mattie. He did, and discussed the condition afterward. This is dementia, he had said. Yet if you were to see into her brain I am sure you would find no pathology. Some mental diseases, you do the autopsy and diagram the lesions. There are crystallized growths. Suppurating tumors. You see changes of color, soft yellow deposits, narrow canyons of eaten-away matter. But with some diseases there is no sign at all--the brain is in physical health.

Emily said, Then it's not the brain but her mind that's afflicted?

The mind is the work of the brain. It is not something in itself.

Then an affliction of the soul, perhaps.

Wrede had looked at her, regretting her remark. The soul? A poetic fancy, it had no basis in fact, he said, as if he shouldn't have had to tell her.

How disappointing, then (at least to this reader) to see the metaphysical ends to which Doctorow directs this character. Near the end of the novel, Wrede finds himself reassigned to an Army hospital in Washington, where he meets both General Sherman and President Lincoln, and then, is present during Lincoln’s death scene in the Petersen House across the street from Ford’s Theater.

Sartorius pushed his way in somewhat rudely and knelt to examine the wound, a small hole behind the left ear. Mrs. Lincoln sat at the side of the bed, holding the President’s hands and weeping. A hand reached past Sartorius and lifted away a blood clot, not the first, that had formed in the wound. This and the mistaken application of brandy to the President’s lips, causing him almost to choke, and the placing of hot-water bottles at his feet, and the keeping of charts recording his vital signs, were all that these many doctors in attendance were able to do. ...

The best of medical science at the time. But none already attending have the skills and vision of Wrede Sartorius.

… The President’s shirt had been removed. As Wrede knelt there, he observed spasmodic pectoral contractions causing pronation of the forearms, a cessation of breath, and then a forcible expiration immediately after. One pupil was conscised to a pinpoint, the other widely dilated. Wrede stood and was suddenly enraged at the numbers of doctors in the small room. The President’s breathing was becoming more labored. Mrs. Lincoln, hearing the rasp, screamed, Oh Abe, Abe, and she fell across the bed. Wrede said loudly to the hushed assemblage, He is finished, he will not last the hour. Your medicine is useless. You should all get out. Leave him alone--he does not need an audience for his death. And, unhearing of the shocked responses of his colleagues, Wrede pushed his way past them down the hall to the front door, and strode off down the street. He had no idea where he was going. The night air was wet, the gas lamps flaring and dimming in the fog.

Wrede’s colleagues weren’t the only ones shocked by this temper tantrum, so blatantly out of character for this uber-clinician, for whom approaching death is but another variable in his clockwork understanding of the human vessel. Except a clue to this uncharacteristic reaction comes a few pages earlier, as Wrede reflects on his first meeting with the President.

He could not stop thinking of the President. Something of his feeling was turning to awe. In retrospect, Mr. Lincoln’s humility, which Wrede had descried as weakness, now seemed to have been like a favor to his guests, that they would not see the darkling plain where he dwelled. Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the dock. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company. To explain how bad he looked, the public care on his brow, you would have to account for more than an inherited syndrome. A proper diagnosis was not in the realm of science. His affliction might, after all, be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.

Ugh. Far better for Nurse Emily Thompson to be called on to play this role, the sentimentality that Doctorow seems determined to imbue into his narrative far better aligned with her natural Southern predilections and her transforming sympathies for the Northern soldiers she is, at first, forced to minister to. Far better that than to use the materialist Wrede Sartorius as a kind of marionette, leveraging his manufactured transformation to mysticism only, as I see it, to further elevate the power of this mass-appealing Lincoln mythology. Where, I wonder, is Wrede’s clinical eye, and the vision it offers for the future of medical understanding and practice, when faced with this most illustrious, but still most unusual of cases? Lincoln could not be saved, just as the poor woman with the vesico-vaginal fistula could not be saved, but is there still not something to be learned from the bullet in Lincoln’s brain? Something more practical than the metaphor of the dying savior?

I thought so. And so should have Wrede Sartorius.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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