«ng>Marching Through Memory: Revising Memory in E. L. Doctorow’s The March N ear the end of E. L. Doctorow’s The March, General William Tecumseh ...»
Marching Through Memory:
Revising Memory in E. L. Doctorow’s The March
ear the end of E. L. Doctorow’s The March, General William
Tecumseh Sherman watches his army parade through Southern streets
in the aftermath of a successful “March to the Sea.” As he watches his
men pass beneath him, “somewhat less proud than usual of their shabby grooming
and dusty uniforms,” Sherman longs to return to life on the march—“not for [the] blood and death” of the violent campaign, but for its “bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon.” For Sherman, the march “made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence,” giving him and his army a sense of purpose. With the march over and the war all but won, however, Sherman cannot help but feel this sense of purpose slipping. With the onset of peace, he realizes that his lifestyle and life’s work have become fractured and morally unintelligible. What is more, he realizes that the once-morally-laden land has become “blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, [...] completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.” In a sense, Sherman looks upon the reunification of the nation not with optimism, but with sadness for the end of an ordered, purpose-driven way-of-life.
His nostalgia for the march distorts the reality of it; in his longing to recapture a life of moral purpose, Sherman forgets the disorder, lawlessness, and brutality that characterized much of his “March to the Sea.” At the same time, he also speculates that the rest of “this unmeaning inhuman planet” will follow suit, looking to his generation’s “warring imprint” for some redemptive sense of value. In doing so, Sherman endows the nation’s collective wartime experience with a moral message, thus memorializing it as the significant event in the history of the planet: “a war after a war, a war before a war.”1 In many ways, this fictional Sherman’s “bestowal of meaning” on his wartime experience illustrates one of the major problems of Civil War historiography. The Civil War generation left behind a wealth of information about the war—letters, journals, memoirs, pension records, oral histories—which attempt, in some way, to interpret their individual and collective experience. The real, historical Sherman, himself, published his controversial Memoirs in 1875, which was “so opinionated,” according to historian Michael Fellman, that it “aroused a swarm of criticism from traduced veterans” who took issue with Sherman’s version of events.2 Such controversy over the war and its legacy was perhaps inevitable. As Sherman
reasoned, in defense of his account:
In this free country every man is at perfect liberty to publish his own thoughts and impressions, and any witness who may differ from me should publish his own version of facts in the truthful narration of which he is interested. I am publishing my own memoirs, not theirs, and we all know that no three host witnesses of a simple brawl can agree on all the details. How much more likely will be the difference in a great battle covering a vast space of broken ground, when each division, brigade, regiment, and even company naturally and honestly believes that it was the focus of the whole affair!3 For Sherman, it seems, the events of the Civil War are subject to the “thoughts and impressions” of their witnesses. Therefore, the task of setting down a “version of facts” in a “truthful narration” is subject to individual memory. Much of history, he seems to suggest, is relative—a construct of an “honestly [believing]” imagination.
For this reason, perhaps, he felt that “no satisfactory history” of the war had been published in the years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. For him, the prospect of a “satisfactory history” lay in “the abundant materials that are buried in the War Department at Washington” and the fresh perspective of a new generation of historians.4 Several generations of historians since then, however, have had no easy time sifting through the conflicting “[versions] of facts” that Sherman and his contemporaries left behind. Not surprisingly, rival interpretive schools of Civil An International Journal of the Humanities 147 War historiography have emerged over the years. In Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War, historian David W. Blight explores trends in recent Civil War historiography, specifically certain “attitudes” on the value of “memory” in serious historical studies. According to Blight, the meaning of the term “history” varies depending on the historiographical philosophy of the user. For professional historians in the academy, for example, “history” connotes “a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research” that “asserts the authority of academic training and recognizes canons of evidence.” As a field of study, it scrutinizes contexts and cause and effect relationships, interpreting the past both skeptically and secularly. What is more, it is revisionary; it views concepts like “change” and “progress” as relative notions that are “contingent upon place, chronology, and scale.” For both popular historians and the general public, however, the term “history” usually suggests something stronger, more sacred, and absolute—a conception of the past that Blight defines as “memory.” For him, “memory” is what inspires the need for monuments, site preservations, and historical reenactments. It is a retelling of the past that “is usually invoked in the name of nation, ethnicity, race, religion, or someone’s felt need for peoplehood.” Memory has the potential to gather individuals into communities, assert a society’s primacy or power, and create legends by “[thriving] on grievance and on the elaborate invention of traditions.”5 Predictably, historians who draw upon “memory” often have a popular appeal alien to most academic historians, whose work is often frustratingly overlooked by popular markets.6 In many ways, historical fiction complicates these conflicting conceptualizations of “history” even further. Avrom Fleishman, in his study of the English historical novel, argues that “[t]he historical novel is distinguished among novels by the presence of a specific link to history,” such as an actual historical figure who interacts “among the fictitious ones.”7 This “specific link,” however, harbors the potential to confuse inexperienced or naïve readers, who fail to discern fact from fiction.
Consider, for instance, journalist Tony Horwitz’s account of readers of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind who decide to vacation in Georgia in order to seek out the graves of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler and snap pictures of the “real” Tara.8 Such readers, in a sense, know that “historical fiction, like all art, tells some kind of truth,” yet they fail to realize that it “does not tell it straight.”9 Historical fiction, therefore, often works to strengthen its readers historical consciousness and memory through narratives of imagined history—at the expense, of course, of actual historical fact.
148 War, Literature & the Arts Like Gone with the Wind, E. L. Doctorow’s The March blends fact with fiction for a disorienting effect. As with his earlier novels—Ragtime and The Waterworks, for example—Doctorow weaves historical figures and events seamlessly into the fictional narrative of the novel. He hardly feels bound by history, however; as critic Matthew A. Henry points out, Doctorow’s “novels are filled with historical circumstances and personages fleshed out to meet the standards of his fiction and facilitate his interrogation, and subsequent rewriting, of the past.” In a sense, he subordinates historical figures and events to fictional narrative, and manipulates them according to the demands of art.10 At one point in The March, for example, he depicts a bizarre assassination attempt on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s life. While the incident seems historically plausible—assassinations are not unheard of in wartime—it is, nonetheless, entirely fictitious. In fact, the fictional assassination scene has very little to do with Sherman or any of its other actual historical elements. Rather, it is a climactic moment in the part of the narrative involving two secondary characters: Arly, an AWOL confederate soldier, and Calvin Harper, his hostage. While Sherman is important for the scene as a type of historical reference point, Doctorow’s primary concern is with Arly and Calvin and their progress as characters within a fictional framework. In this regard, Doctorow merely exploits Sherman’s place in American memory in order to ground the narrative in a recognizable past and lend added significance to his fictional characters’ actions.
In many ways, such casual negotiation of fact and fiction places The March and other works of historical fiction in a unique position to comment on the history and memory of the war. Like his fictional Sherman, Doctorow remembers the Civil War as a defining moment in American history. In an interview with Time shortly after the publication of The March, Doctorow argues that the war has “an epic quality to it” that makes it impossible for one to “think seriously about [the United States] without pondering” it.11 Indeed, the “epic quality” of the Civil War has inspired countless literary interpretation. In fact, in 2005, the same year The March was published, two other literary treatments of the war appeared to similarly popular and critical acclaim: Geraldine Brooks’s March and Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South. Such works have always played an important part in negotiating Civil War history and memory. As David W. Blight points out, “literature was a powerful medium” immediately after the war “for reuniting the interests of Americans from both North and South.”12 Much of it, not surprisingly, was of the “sentimental reconciliationist” school, which pushed aside “the ideological character of the war”—particularly Emancipation—in favor of
This “reconciliationist” push is still alive today, particularly in the Civil War novels of Jeff Shaara and other popular historical novelists. In many ways, their work is the continuation of a genre that has never really died out.
Unlike their predecessors, however, novelists like Shaara can partly attribute their success to Ken Burns’s popular nine-hour documentary The Civil War, which aired on public television in the early 1990s. Burns’s film was simultaneously influential and controversial. Predictably, its storyteller’s approach to the Civil War, along with Burns’s own unabashed antagonism toward academic historiography, irritated some professional Civil War historians, many of whom scoffed at Burns’s tidy narrative-driven film. What is more, they derided the fact that Burns’s principal authority on the war—Shelby Foote—was not a professional historian, but a novelist. In many ways, the notion that a filmmaker and novelist could “[reach] more people than any contemporary academic” of the Civil War—an assertion Jim Cullen makes in his book Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past—was particularly insulting to university-trained historians.14 No where is this more evident than in Robert Brent Toblin’s book Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, a collection of essays written about the film by academic historians. In his review of the collection, David W. Blight points out that much of the academy’s reaction to the film was perhaps too critical, particularly Reconstruction historian Leon Litwack’s “overzealous comparison” of Burns’ film to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.15 Nevertheless, Blight cannot help agreeing with many of his colleagues.
His critique suggests the overall academic dismay over Burns’s neo-reconciliationist
interpretation of the war:
At heart, Burns loves the epic qualities in history; he embraces the heroic, both in individuals and in the sagas of nations [....] But this view of history has a name, and such an outlook lends itself to certain kinds of interpretations. As a historian, Burns [...] wants to be some combination of our Homer and Macauley, perhaps our Carl Sandburg with a camera.
The stories he tells, therefore, are epic in form: they are going somewhere;
150 War, Literature & the Arts they are imbued with the doctrine of progress and they will reach resolution.16 Blight goes on to state that these “certain kinds of interpretations” of history lead to a “hackneyed, sentimental, and appealing theory” about the Civil War— one that suggests that “no matter how terrible our conflicts nor how profound our tragedies, Americans solve their problems and reconcile their differences like a troubled family destined for reunion.”17 The result of such an interpretation, according to Blight, is an incomplete story—essentially, a mythological retelling of the past—in which “something deep inside the horror and transformation in this civil war” is ignored “in order to sustain an ultimate story of [the nation’s] reconciliation.”18 In a sense, what Blight and much of the academy object to in Burns’s film is its irresponsible perpetuation of the same reconciliationist “history” first put forth by sentimental Reconstruction-era authors.