It is perhaps now a little hard to comprehend just how unsettling E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime seemed at the time of its publication (1975). Not exactly a historical novel--it seems designed to question the very utility of historical "fact" in our consideration of the past--it nevertheless produces a vivid if subjective rendition of the ragtime era by juxtaposing purely fictional characters with actual historical figures who are in turn treated as if they were fictional characters. Considerable liberty is taken with the historical record, and the result is a novel that not only fictionalizes history but suggests that, as far as the novelist is concerned, history might just as well be fiction. Whereas much of the self-reflexive, "postmodern" fiction of the time called attention to the artifice of fiction-making in order to reinforce the separation of fiction and reality, Ragtime seemed to propose that, for the literary imagination, the two realms are really quite permeable. (Robert Coover's The Public Burning would do the same thing two years later.)
Doctorow's undercutting of the reality/fiction divide has proven to be very influential, to the point that we are no longer much taken aback when a writer injects apparent "fact" into what is otherwise called a fiction--even putative facts about the author him/herself, as in Ellis's Lunar Park or Harry Mathews's My Life in CIA, in which "Brett Easton Ellis" and "Harry Mathews" are the "fictional" protagonists. Nor are we particularly struck by historical fictions that are not merely set in the past or attempt to recreate periods in the past, but use historical personages as "characters." Doctorow himself went on to write other novels more or less in this mode, such as World's Fair and Billy Bathgate, but eventually he has come to seem more interested in simply re-creating the past through what are finally the usual conventions of historical fiction.
The March, Doctorow's latest novel, is cut comfortably from these conventional patterns. Although the novel presumes to depict William Tecumseh Sherman in ways that must at times extrapolate from the historical record--what was Sherman thinking at this precise moment during his infamous March to the Sea?--it is otherwise a fairly straightforward account of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas. Although the narrative shifts kaleidoscopically among various groups of characters participating in the march, this is ultimately just a way of giving the story a properly comprehensive sense of historical realism. All of the characters portrayed in the novel are no doubt representative of the cross-section of human types involved in this important historical event.
In his review of The March, John Freeman perhaps gets at the heart of what Doctorow is trying to accomplish: "While the details of Sherman's lethal procession are well-known today, time seems to have forgotten the human angle. Sure, property was destroyed, but how were the Union troops greeted? Did they proceed with guilt? Did they pause before burning cities to the ground? Did the recently emancipated slaves really believe this fire-breathing beast was their conductor to the Promised Land?" Providing the "human angle" on Sherman's march would seem to be the novel's primary goal, answering these and many other questions that can't necessarily be resolved simply by consulting the history books. It is itself an attempt to become a history book one might ultimately consult along with all the others for that "human" touch only it can offer.
And in its way, The March achieves this goal reasonably well. It's readable enough, its fragmentary form realized with the skill one would expect of a writer of Doctorow's caliber, its characters lively enough to sustain interest over the course of a novel featuring such a large cast, although not all of the characters resist becoming merely illustrative of the category--freed slave, disillusioned plantation wife, irascible Rebel soldier--their presence is meant to personify. Perhaps it is true, as Walter Kirn says in his review of the novel, that "When the subject is as large and old as war, the pursuit of pristine originality can thin a story down to nothing" and that "To get through such tales aesthetically unscathed is a finicky, slightly cowardly objective that works against basic honesty and passion," but I, for one, find some of these portrayals to be only a few cuts above what is to be found in Gone With the Wind and especially found the novel's conclusion--in which the feisty mulatto Pearl and the Irish infantryman Stephen Walsh ride off to a life together in New York, a life in which they will presumably overcome the obvious obstacles to such a match as existed in 1865 and after--to be patently sentimental, a transparent attempt to leave us with a little democratic idealism to leaven the story of violence and destruction.
Putting aside its flaws in execution, however, I am most disappointed in The March because it does nothing to provoke me out of my indifference toward historical fiction that simply tries to "bring history to life." One can accept the axiom that such fiction is always finally about the present as much as the past--in The March, about the origins of our continuing racial conflicts, about recovery from a great national trauma--and still think that this novel at best rehearses platitudes but otherwise does very little to alter our understanding either of the Civil War or of the lingering issues whose lack of resolution has plagued American life since then. I could easily warm up to a kind of historical fiction that either upsets our established notions about historical subjects or that questions accepted practices of historical representation (as did Ragtime). Unfortunately, The March does neither. Perhaps in the long run it adds something of marginal interest to a consideration of the Doctorow oeuvre (especially by those more interested in history than in literature), but since Doctorow's sociopolitical thematic concerns are by now quite well known, the appearance of this novel seems to me, at least, mostly superfluous.