History through art’s prism

Special to The Times

E.L. DOCTOROW thinks about New Orleans and sees history come full circle. In “The March,” his rich, intensely visual new novel about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War advance through Georgia and the Carolinas, Doctorow depicts Sherman’s army moving toward the sea, its ranks swollen by thousands of refugees, many of them newly freed slaves with nowhere to go.

Some 140 years later, Doctorow contemplates the thousands of poor blacks who lacked the means to escape Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. He quotes from his book, in which he has Sherman saying that the vanquished members of the Confederacy, “now embittered and awash in defeat, will have sublimed to a righteously aggrieved state that would empower them for a century.” In a sense, claims Doctorow, Sherman’s march was in vain.

“Right up to this moment, it’s possible to say that the South won the war,” says the 74-year-old author of “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and other bestsellers. “You think of the dismal history of Reconstruction, the way it was sabotaged; the years of lynchings and poll taxes; even after the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, playing the race card politically to gain strength in the South, as Reagan did, as both Bushes did. Sherman, my Sherman, is saying that the South has won the war. Very often losing is a powerful impetus to organize society.”


The man who says this is a courtly, pleasant person who thinks carefully before answering questions. He can veer toward the pedantic, and he dresses in the kind of rumpled, earth-toned clothes you’d expect from a person who has been teaching college English since the early ‘70s (he currently teaches grad students at New York University).

He has been interested in the Civil War for years but only recently came up with the idea for a novel about the period. He zeroed in on Sherman’s march -- a campaign involving 60,000 Union troops who cut a 60-mile swath of destruction through the Confederate heartland -- and the people who attached themselves to it because “the march became the only security they had,” says Doctorow, sitting in the Somerset Maugham Room of the Random House offices. “The idea of rootedness, stability, became attached to movement rather than to place. That interested me because it became another state of being for these people; their identities were all confused and challenged. That profound unsettlement is what attracted me to the idea of the march. There was something beyond war involved.”

Fair enough, but don’t ask Doctorow about any contemporary resonance here. No shock and awe, no insurgency, no cities given over to looting and brigandage -- this isn’t a metaphor for Iraq, although some facile commentators have suggested otherwise. Doctorow, who says, “I’m not prepared to say why I found myself writing the book,” adds that he doesn’t see “The March” as a historical novel but “as a kind of reality novel. I was more interested as a writer in the total number of personalities of these characters. All these stories of these different people interested me.”

‘You just follow them’

REGULAR readers of his books -- which include “The Book of Daniel,” “World’s Fair” and “The Waterworks” -- will recognize the Doctorow touch. A specific period of history when, says the author, “the national identity was most fevered” is populated with characters both real and fictional, whose lives and destinies intertwine in fascinating ways. This time out, the real generals Sherman and Grant inhabit the pages along with Pearl, a beautiful freed slave passing for white; Arly and Will, Confederate deserters who hide out in the Union army; and Emily, the dispossessed daughter of a Southern judge.

There are also characters with origins in other Doctorow novels: freed slave Coalhouse Walker is the father of the central character in “Ragtime”; and military surgeon Wrede Sartorius was a major figure in “The Waterworks.”

Their creator says fashioning these figures is “a matter of intuition. This is not a matter of intellect. They appear with a name, and they say something, and you see them. They’re suddenly alive. And you just follow them.”

After a brief period during which he was a script reader for Columbia Pictures, Doctorow became an executive in the publishing industry. His first novel, a western allegory called “Welcome to Hard Times,” came out in 1960. By the early ‘70s, he had achieved his own version of literary success. “The great moment of realizing I was a successful writer had nothing to do with money,” says Doctorow. “It was when I was able to quit my New York publishing job in 1969 and take a teaching job at UC Irvine, which allowed me to do my writing first, in the morning. The salary at Irvine was less than half what I had been earning in publishing, but I was able to do my writing first thing before I went on to the demands of making a living.”

From that followed bestsellers, movie versions (four of his books have been filmed; “Ragtime” was also made into a hit musical), critical acclaim and major literary prizes.

Although a few of his works have contemporary settings, Doctorow has gravitated toward the historical because “somewhere along the line I realized a period of time was as much an organizing principle for a novel as a sense of place.” This has also allowed him to create works that are filled with heightened emotion and indelible set pieces.

“The March,” publishing Tuesday, is filled with scenes that seem to have jumped out of a Mathew Brady photo album yet have the richness of finely wrought literature. Still, it’s this pictorial quality, the cinematic nature of the work, that seems to stand out.

“I think all of us have learned from the history of film,” says Doctorow. “We don’t write the way we wrote in the 19th century, because of film. We don’t use as much exposition. We do jump cuts. We let the reader find out as he goes along exactly what is happening. We don’t overexplain things.”

There’s been one other change in the writing scene over the years, one that Doctorow the academic has noticed with a sense of regret. He sees students coming into his classes who are looking for a career, not a calling. They’re technically proficient but write in an overly academic manner.

Worse yet, says this elder statesman of literature, who has used his books to comment on everything from racism to labor strife, “this view is very proscribed. The peripheral vision is gone; it’s very personalist writing. It doesn’t understand fiction as a way to take on the world.”