Until the invention of photography, war was predominantly lied about. Not intentionally, mind you; but technology simply hadn’t advanced enough to expose the virulent myth of glory. There are only 50 years separating picture A from picture B:
These are two very different portrayals of death, aren’t they? Until the American Civil War, it was artists who had to mediate between civilians and battlefield corpses, and no matter how honest they tried to be, they always erred on the side of art. After photography, literature had to change as well. The camera, and later cinema, made it so that Lord Tennyson became a lot less credible than Wilfred Owen. Photography didn’t horrify people out of war, but it helped strip it of sweetness and decorum in the eyes of all but the youngest and most susceptible of recruits.
In E. L. Doctorow’s Civil War novel “The March,” (about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous Southern swath of devastation), technology makes it so that reporting war with honesty is a duty. Here’s freeman photographer Calvin Harper, taking stock of the momentousness of his task as a witness:
“Making photographs is sacred work. It is fixing time in its moments and making memory for the future (…) Nobody in history before now has ever been able to do that. There is no higher calling than to make pictures that show you the true world.”
“The March” is about witnesses, human cameras set about as General Sherman’s eastward progression nearly decides the Civil War in late 1864 – early 65. As usual with Doctorow’s historical work, the real and novelistic blends seamlessly. On the real side, we get a cutting portrait of Sherman itself, decisive and vexed by the emancipated men and women who follow his army, and for whom he has no purpose.
There’s also Judson Kilpatrick, who was known as KilCavalry for his decidedly reckless practices, and gets a lively caricature as as a hunchbacked lecher.
Among Doctorow’s many invention are “Reb” confederate soldiers Will and Arly, who are passing for Union bluecoats; Coalhouse Walker, (who will become father to the Coalhouse Walker Jr. from Doctorow’s masterful “Ragtime”); Pearl, a “white Negro girl” whose melodramatic adventures might have been taken from an abandoned Margaret Mitchell draft; Hugh Pryce, a British journalist who picks up an African-American child; Emily Thompson, a Southern lady who finds herself as liberated by the advancing army as any of her ex-servants; and Wrede Sartorious, a detached surgeon who can complete an impromptu amputation in ninety seconds, never showing other emotion than a clinical interest on battlefield curiosities (for instance, a soldier who’s had a railroad spike driven through his skull and continues to live, albeit now prone to amnesia.) There is no genealogical evidence to suggest that the Sartorius in “The March” is in any way related to the decaying Southerners in William Faulkner’s “Sartoris” but I can almost imagine him in a distant, reviled corner of a Sartorial family portrait, clinically detached from the others, fading in sepia.
Doctorow deftly keeps all his diverse observers – male, female, black, white, rich, poor, Union and Confederate- distinct, although they’re not all equally developed. Pearl certainly gets most of the attention. No Civil War buffyness is needed to follow, and indeed buffs will find no particular wealth of historical revelations here.
“The March” was published in 2005, at the height of the second Iraq War, but it is really a classical historical romance whose ancestry could easily be traced to Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas. It knows about the camera, and the less glorious aspects of warfare, of course, but it still prefers the picturesque to the graphic picture. Luckily, we have all those photographs of Sherman’s march to the sea. They are witness enough.
RATING : COOL!