The Free[d] Slaves of The March
Amir Riahi Nouri
English Language and Literature,
University of Tehran,
Tehran, I.R. Iran
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures,
University of Tehran,
E. L. Doctorow's The March (2005) illustrates the final days of the American Civil war in which General William Tecumseh Sherman marched his armed troops to the sea in November and December 1864. Annihilation, as recorded in historical documents, was a tactical mission of Sherman's troops and they left a trail of devastation in their wake. The occupation of Savannah on December 21st put a halt to the Union Army's march. Doctorow begins his novel as a large number of war refugees including the former black slaves and displaced slave-owners join the march leaving their fate in the hands of the Union Forces. Not surprisingly, the newly free slaves follow Sherman's march oblivious of the future awaits them after the Union Army's conquest. The present article endeavors to elucidate the likely fate and place of the free black slaves of The March in the new era. In this regard, The March is surveyed in the light of the Cultural Materialist modality of "disidentification" manifest in Michael Bristol's adoption of Bakhtin's concept of Carnivalesque. Then, the paper surveys the novel in accordance with Michel Foucault's "Dividing Practices" and Stephen Greenblatt's "Cultural Mobility". Finally, the research comes to the conclusion that which viewpoint has been corroborated by E. L. Doctorow's The March.
Keywords: The March, carnival, dividing practices, cultural mobility
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born on January 6, 1931 in the Bronx, New York City. His parents, David Richard and Rose Doctorow, were second-generation of Russian Jewish immigrants. Doctorow was given the name Edgar because his "father loved the work of Edgar Allan Poe" (Doctorow, 2003, p. 9). His grandfather, who was a printer, had a small library of books. He was said to be a great book reader and "it was from [his] grandfather that [he] heard the name Tolstoy" (Ibid, p. 20).
Doctorow went to the Bronx High School of Science where he wrote his first literary publication, a short story entitled "The Beetle", in which he was inspired by his reading of prominent Czech writer Franz Kafka. Doctorow studied philosophy in Kenyon College in Ohio, where he enjoyed the company of eminent poet and New Critic John Crowe Ransom. He graduated from Kenyon College in 1952 and studied a year of graduate course majored in English drama at Columbia University.
After serving his military service, he came back to New York and found a job with a motion picture company as a reader. His first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was alleged to be inspired by his reader's job since he mentioned he was obliged to read a myriad of Westerns in his job. In 1960, he left his job with the motion picture company and worked as an editor at the New American Library (NAL) and several other publishers. E. L. Doctorow left his publishing job so as to work as a writer. He worked as a Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine and wrote his highly-admired novel, The Book of Daniel (1971), which was lauded as a "masterpiece" by The Guardian.
E. L. Doctorow has taught at such universities as Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale School of Drama, the University of Utah, the University of California, Irvine, and Princeton University. Numerous awards have been bestowed to Doctorow including National Humanities Medal (1998), Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award from the Tulsa Library Trust (1998), PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction (2012) , Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2013), and The Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction (2014).
This article wishes to survey E.L. Doctorow's The March (2005), which has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner award and was a finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, so as to illuminate the part and place of the newly free black slaves in the new era after the cessation of the American Civil War. This reading, therefore, is intended to review E. L. Doctorow's The March with respect to British Cultural Materialism and American New Historicism. In this regard, the novel is examined in the light of Michael Bristol's Cultural Materialist adoption of Bakhtin's notion of carnival to draw a more open and sanguine picture of the novel. Then, Foucault's "dividing practices" and Stephen Greenblatt's "cultural mobility" are applied to the novel to proffer the other possible facet of the novel. Last but not least, the article strives to discover which point of view is more applicable to Doctorow's political concerns delineated in The March.
2. The March: A Ground for Discussion
E.L. Doctorow's The March depicts the 1864 Union Army's march to the sea commanded by General William Tecumseh Sherman in November and December 1864 in which "Sherman rode out of Atlanta on November 16" (Rhodes, 1917, p. 533). His army comprises fourteen corps and 62000 "able-bodied, experienced soldiers, well armed, well equipped and provided, as far as human foresight could, with all the essentials of life, strength and vigorous action” (Ibid). The novel begins as Sherman marches his men to raze the Confederate lands to the ground. Needless to say that devastation constituted a significant part of the mission of Sherman's march. The Union Forces, according to Rhodes, annihilated the railroad station, machine shops, and different edifices while they were marching through Atlanta and destroyed bridges and burned trestles by the time they reached the state of Georgia. The march ended with the occupation of Savannah on December 21st.
Sherman's troops are accompanied by a great entourage of war refugees ranging from free black slaves to white refugees. E. L. Doctorow's The March contains such individuals from all walks of life as a beautiful fifteen-year-old white Negro, a former slave-owner's wife, the daughter of Georgie Supreme Court Justice, a German-born surgeon, a war correspondent for the London Times, and a photographer from Baltimore, and others of that ilk. However, the presence of a coterie of former black slaves in the march cannot be left unobtrusive.
By now the last of the troops were straggling by, and behind them the parade of black folks who had chosen to follow the army. There were hundreds—men, women, and children—walking, riding in wagons, some limping along, and the sound of them was different from the sound of army men (Doctorow, 2005, p. 33).
Perusing history, it has been argued that the Negroes accosted the 1864 march with considerable optimism and exultation. For instance, a Negro told General Sherman that he "had been looking for the angel of the Lord ever since he was knee-high and he supposed that the success of the Northern army would bring him freedom" (Rhodes, 1917, p. 538). Nonetheless, E. L. Doctorow is reputed to portray a more personal picture of Sherman's historic march. That is to say there is a great deal of uncertainty about the novel's delineation of the significance of General William Sherman's march and the future of its entourage, especially, the black slaves. For instance, mentioning the historical importance of General Sherman's march and referring to the publication of E.L. Doctorow's the March in post-September 11 era, an inordinate number of critics such as Christopher Benfey have raised the question that "why Sherman, and why now" (Benfey, 2008, p. 228)?
Some Doctorow scholars, on the one hand, have shown a propensity for a more sanguine facet of E. L. Doctorow's novels. Michael Robertson, as an instance, sets out to dispense with the vestige of Louis Althusser's "interpellation" or "the hailing" in his Cultural Materialistic reading of Doctorow's World Fair (1985) and argues that the visitors of the New York World's Fair are able to "resist and subvert its planners' intentions" (Robertson, 1992, p. 38). Therefore, in accordance with Robertson's reading of E. L. Doctorow's discourse, the mass of people have the potential to exercise the third modality and, as a consequence, "participate in mass culture and at the same time transform it, making it their own" (Ibid, p. 42) instead of either "passively accepting its messages or rejecting it whole" (Ibid).
Some other critics' penchant, nevertheless, is for a more pessimistic reading of Doctorow's discourse. Not only do they eschew _ in the case of The March as an illustration_ eulogizing General William Sherman's March, but they endeavor to compare William Sherman with such devastating forces as Hurricane Katrina. From this perspective, Hurricane Katrina can be identified with Doctorow's General Sherman, "a force of nature, a natural disaster, even, then a new Sherman-like force [which] had struck the south again" (Caudill & Ashdown, 2008, p. 118).
Equally important, the future of theses disadvantaged "black folks" is not crystal clear in the novel and an atmosphere of vagueness dominates Doctorow's The March. Intriguingly, the Negroes of The March are oblivious of their fate and how their future would be like.
But these folks had heard they were going somewhere else than on the march with General Sherman, and they didn’t know where that was or what they would find or if it was possible to be free men and women without the army to protect them (Doctorow, 2005, p. 254).
Not only are the black slaves of the march uncertain about the future that awaits them, but even the white refugees_ including the deposed slave owners and other people following their fortune in the march_ are not fully cognizant of their fate after the Union Army's victory. Mattie Jameson, the wife of a former slave owner, shattered by war cannot "imagine how to live except in her own home, with her own things, and the Georgian world arranged to provide her and her family what their station demanded" (Doctorow, 2005, p. 6), or Dr. Colonel Wrede Sartorius, a German-born physician, joins the Union Army hoping to find his place in the new era, or as Doctorow puts it "had come to America, as everyone else did, to be free" (Doctorow, 2005, p. 273); however, he perceived that "Americans lacked something" (Ibid). As a result, Sartorius finds his place in doing science.
Based on above, the significance of William Sherman's march itself, the destination of its followers in general, and the future and the place of the free black slaves in particular in the new epoch remain an open question throughout the novel, and therefore, the discussion is thrown open for critical discussion. This article, hence, wishes to explicate the likely fate of the free black slaves of The March examining different critical theories.
3. The March/Carnival
As it was mentioned before, individuals from different races follow General Sherman's soldiers as they march to the sea. On the one hand, a more sanguine reading of the novel is inclined to convince the reader to make Doctorow's The March germane to British Cultural Materialism observable in Michael Bristol's Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (1985), which adopts Bakhtin's concept of 'carnival' so as to introduce a more optimistic and open model of cultural production in comparison with that of his American counterparts.
British Cultural Materialism is more radical and optimistic about political changes than American New Historicism. They tend to emphasize the possibility through which the marginalized subject is capable of not only repudiating the identity proffered by the elites, but they can form a new identity. From this standpoint, Michael Bristol, borrowing Bakhtin's concept of Carnivalesque, presents a different cultural model to that of New Historicists'. It should be noted that Bakhtin directly delineates the "freedom" and the "universality" carnival instigates, i.e. "Carnival ignores spatial boundaries or limits" (Mihailovic, 1997, p. 186). Carnival to Mikhail Bakhtin is a "second life" or a "second culture" which was maintained by common People or in Bristol's words "plebeian Community in the Middle Ages and well into the early modern period" (Bristol, 1985, p. 22). This culture, in accordance with Michael Bristol, can openly defy the "official culture". Bristol feels that American New Historicists have been negligent to concede the viability and power of popular culture. Making use of Bakhtin's Carnival, Michael Bristol asserts that
By bringing privileged symbols and officially authorized concepts into a crudely familiar relationship with common everyday experience, Carnival achieves a transformation downward or “uncrowning” of de jure relations of dependency, expropriation and social discipline. The basic principle of grotesque or carnival realism is to represent everything socially and spiritually exalted on the material, bodily level (Bristol, 1985, p.22).
Thus, the appearance of common people and marginalized races and classes in the march can, therefore, be associated with the presence of a second culture in Bristol's adoption of Mikhail Bakhtin's Carnivalesque. In this regard, the march/carnival_ similar to Middle Ages_ can form a "second culture" which openly opposes the official culture of the official elites. In other words, the presence of the cultural minorities and oppressed individuals in the march can be interpreted as the formation of Bakhtinian "second culture" corollary of the 1864 march/carnival so as to oppose the identity (black slave) imposed by the official culture of the South and define a new identity (free person) through Michel Pêcheux' "third modality" of "disidentification" (Pêcheux, 1982, p. 157).
Pearl, for instance, glorifies her freedom and declares that she is free corollary of the arrival of the Union Army. "I free. You tole me, Mah chile, my darlin Porhl, you will be free. So dey gone and I is. I free, I free like no one else in de whole worl but me" (Doctorow, 2005, p. 8). It can be claimed that what the march promises the former slaves is freedom and a prosperous life. As a result, not only can the black slaves flout the identity and position which had been imposed on them by their owners, but also they can conquer their former masters and produce a new identity and position. Thus, this march can be interpreted as a march towards freedom for the Negroes in which they are proffered freedom and a more promising future.
From this prospect, one should not be remiss in ignoring common people's viability of challenging and even overthrowing the official culture. As a consequence, it would not be impossible to envision that the black people existed in the 1864 March are capable of forming a 'second culture' to challenge and even subvert the official power prevailing in the South. By this I mean that the free black slaves _empowered by the released energies of the march / carnival_ have the potential to respond to the dominant discourse of slavery and exploitation through the modalities of British cultural materialist of disidentification.
4. The March: A Harbinger of a New Epoch
From this standpoint, a further reading of the novel and a careful scrutiny of E.L. Doctorow's other novels, especially Ragtime (1975), can prove otherwise. That is to say, it does not seem entirely justifiable to assert that the 1864 March is a harbinger of a new identity and place tendered to the former black slaves. Even if the march is claimed to be associated with Bakhtin's carnival, one should not be remiss in the fact that it is officially allowed and tolerated by another official power, namely the Union Government. As it has already been mentioned, Sherman's march, at the beginning, seems nebulous to the Negroes as they tend to perceive it "as an upward-streaming brown cloud risen from the earth, as if the world was turned upside down"(Doctorow, 2005, p. 9).
On the contrary, Sherman's march is merely a series of oscillation in power as a result of reaching a new epoch in which the Negroes take the part of nonentities. In this regard, the March foreshadows a shift in the prevailing ideology from the traditional American aristocracy to the burgeoning bourgeois capitalism. Nevertheless, the commerce of the march can be interpreted as the advent of a new era mentioned by Michel Foucault and Stephen Greenblatt.
4.1. Dividing Practices and Cultural Mobility
Michel Foucault repudiates to deem discourse a "general text" (Selden, et al, 2005, p. 178). Instead, he is intrigued by discursive change, i.e. a particular discourse which is inclined to be replaced by another discourse as we move from one epoch to another. Foucault's Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The order of Things (1966), Discipline and Punish (1975), and The History of Sexuality (1976) are replete with examples of how a form of knowledge has substituted or reshaped another form. Foucault's books are fraught with instances of numerous forms of knowledge such as sex, crime, psychiatry and medicine which have arisen and replaced. Foucault concentrates his studies on the fundamental transformations occurring between epochs. He stipulates that the purpose of his recent studies have "been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects" (Foucault, 1982, p. 208). A noteworthy fashion of this objectification of human beings is "dividing practices" through which "the subject has been constituted as an object of research and of techniques of power" (Smart, 2002, p. 104).
Assessing Foucault's "dividing practices" is particularly beneficial to grasp the potential future and place of the free black slaves of Sherman's march in the new epoch. In his Civilization and Madness (1961), as an instance, Michel Foucault promulgates the leper as the apotheosis of exclusion during the Middle Ages. These people were divided from the rest of people and kept in "Lazar Houses". For example, "England and Scotland alone had opened 220 lazar houses for a million and a half inhabitants in the twelfth century" (Foucault, 1973, p. 5). He further argues that the dividing practices did not become extinct in the west by the time leprosy was obliterated corollary to segregation policies and a dearth of interaction with the Eastern causes of infection after the Crusades. Therefore, societies were in need of another scapegoat to replace the Middle Ages leper. In the Renaissance, the fool, the poor, and the vagabond took the place of the leper of the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, the lunatic was said to be put in the "ship of fools", which was "a strange 'drunken boat' that glides along the calm rivers of the Rhineland and the Flemish canals" (Ibid, p. 7). Foucault alludes to 1656 as a historic year when the Hôpital Général was established in Paris to confine the poor, the mad, and vagabonds "of both sexes, of all ages and from all localities, of whatever breeding and birth, in whatever state they may be, able-bodied or invalid, sick or convalescent, curable or incurable" (Ibid, p. 39). Thus, madness became the symbol of exclusion and otherness in the Age of Reason.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the prisoner and the sexual pervert replaced the insane of the Enlightenment and prisons and clinics took the place of 'houses of confinement' as a consequence of "new classifications of disease and the associated practices of clinical medicine in early-nineteenth-century France [, and] the rise of modern psychiatry and its entry into the hospitals, prisons, and clinics" (Rabinow, 1984, p. 8).
Similarly, Stephen Greenblatt, in a recent project, takes issue with conventional "analytical tools" (Greenblatt, 2010, p. 3) which have presupposed cultural fixities and argues that "cultural mobility", as he calls it, can eventuate in both acute pleasure and acute tension. He refers to two influential cultural mobility models. The first model is "the account that historians and ideologues developed for describing the translatio imperii, the “translation” of power and authority from the Persians to the Greeks, from Greece to Rome, and then from imperial Rome to a succession of ambitious regimes in nascent nation states" (Ibid). The second model is developed by theologians and endeavors to depict how Christianity "fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures" (Ibid) and converted Torah into the Old Testament. Both models are fraught with a plethora of instances of how one cultural system replaces or remodels another. From this standpoint, having subjugated a cultural system, the vanquisher appropriates all symbols of the trounced culture such as the gods, riches, slaves, weapons, and other properties. Likewise, the displacement of Judaism by Christianity was tantamount to the "appropriation of figures and imagery from the Hebrew Bible" (Ibid, p. 13-14).
Based on above, just as individuals' mind substituted the body, and science and reason as the Enlightenment par excellence replaced the "spiritual purity" as the "central…ideology of Medieval Catholicism" (Booker, 1996, P.121), Foucault's dividing practices and Stephen Greenblatt's cultural mobility can be extended to the nineteenth century's slavery practiced in the south of the United States and the twentieth century's racial discrimination. From this standpoint, The Union Forces endeavor to appropriate the subjugated Confederate's culture. What is more, Foucault's dividing practices can be identified as domination practices applied by the official elites to the marginalized people and should not be inhibited to the leper, the poor, and the vagabonds. Accordingly, it can be argued that after the appropriation of the symbols of the vanquished culture_ not excluding slavery_ as a consequence of the Union Army's conquest, the Negroes, who had formerly taken the part of "others" in the dichotomy of slaves and masters, resumed their role in the twentieth century in a new dichotomy of blacks and whites in a burgeoning male dominated White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American society.
4.2. The Free[d] Black Slaves of The March
As mentioned above, the mission of the 1864 march is not terminating slavery; it aims at obliterating all symbols of the defeated culture. The free[d] black slaves of E. L. Doctorow's The March follow Sherman's troops oblivious of the identity and place which awaits them in the new era. Pearl exults her freedom; however, neither knowing what freedom is nor what it is like to be free, she solicits God to teach her "to be free" (Doctorow, 2005, p. 8). The lines below from the final scene of the novel can be evocative of E. L. Doctorow's incredulity towards the outcome of the new era which is tantamount of the replacement of slave-owners with newly arrived "little foxes".
A boot lay in the pine needles, and the shreds of a discolored uniform. Behind a fallen log, a small pile of cartridge shells. There was still a scent of gunfire in the trees (Ibid, p. 363).
It is, therefore, alleged that the Union Army's justification of war against slavery in the name of justice and freedom is only a flimsy pretext to alter and gain power as a result of the advent of a new era or in Foucault's words "the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power" (Chomsky & Foucault, 2005, p. 54). Therefore, such words as freedom and justice are only excuses exploited by the North, and its subsequent attempt to fight against the Confederate in the name of the fight against slavery is merely the liquidation of one culture to form a new one.
It is worth mentioning that E. L. Doctorow provides us with a brief encounter with Coalhouse Walker Sr. It is remarkable that his brief appearance in the novel should undoubtedly be regarded as more than a mere coincidence. Nor is it perfectly justifiable to assert that he performs a small role in the novel. His appearance is due to a duty assigned by Doctorow to remind the reader of the subsequent racial discrimination against the Negroes by the segregationists and the concomitant non-violent protests and violent riots of 1967 in the "black ghettos" of the United States which were the "greatest urban riots of American history" (Zinn, 2005, p. 429). Coalhouse Walker Sr. is reminiscent of his son's non-violent resistance in Ragtime against the prevailing ideology leading to his violent rebellion manifest in his takeover of the library _ wonderfully evocative of the riots of the 60s_ which eventuates in his subversion and silence.
A meticulous examination of Coalhouse Walker junior's protest in Ragtime demonstrates the historical circumstances in which the opposition between whites and blacks became one of the fundamental dichotomies of the American society in the twentieth century. To be more precise, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were afflicted by the existence of the Negros and regarded them as an alien force in the society of whites. Coalhouse's attempt in Ragtime to have his car returned in its original shape is not merely a simple demand; conversely, it is a protest to resist the prevailing ideology so as to fashion his identity. It is redolent of the radical movements of the latter part of the twentieth century in the United States. Coalhouse's later violent turmoil discernible in his occupation of Morgan's library is an alternative to Martin Luther King's non-violence doctrine. Nevertheless, his resistance is doomed to subversion and appropriation by the power structure.
Consequently, just as a form of knowledge replaces or reshapes another, the racial discrimination of the 20th century_ not denounced by the dominant bourgeois materialists_ substitutes the 19th century slavery which was introduced by slave owners. Contrary to what a cultural materialist reading may claim, The March does not connote common people's resistance against the dominant culture of slavery so as to make a superior identity and place for the Negroes. Nor does the Union Army strive to promise freedom and hope for the marginalized slaves of the South. The novel foreshadows a new trend in slavery and exploitation through a new form of power, namely capitalism in which common people have to remain docile to the rules and procedures defined by the society's inchoate elites in order not to be appropriated to silence. They will not be allowed to think or speak without obeying the unspoken "archive of rules and constraints" (Selden, et al, 2005, p. 179).
Indeed, the Negroes' identity, either as slaves or second-class citizens, is not dependent on themselves. Nor is it an objective reality. In other words, they cannot possess any fixed identity. On the contrary, their identity is determined by the official elites of their age; first, by the slave-owners of the South, and then, by the bourgeois capitalists of the North.
The March, hence, is the replacement of slave-owners with bourgeois capitalists on account of the beginning of a new epoch. Not surprisingly, such a transformation will not provide the Negroes with a new identity and place in the incipient modern American society. Neither can they refuse the position offered by the official culture, nor will they be able to specify a new one. The Negroes are obliged to remain "others" in the dichotomy of blacks and whites, namely the chief image of the otherness in white Anglo-Saxon American society.
In conclusion, it is observable throughout the novel that the Negroes' future is a mystery after the Union Army's subjugation of the Confederate Forces. Although General William Tecumseh Sherman's 1864 march_ bringing a halt to slavery_ liberates the black slaves, there is little evidence in the novel to corroborate it a forerunner of hope and freedom to these marginalized and oppressed individuals. Sherman's march at the end of the century is symptomatic of the devastation of an old culture, namely slavery and the succession of a new culture, i.e. exploitation corollary of the advent of a new epoch in which the Negros have no place. In other words, the black people are not capable of possessing an independent identity since their identity is doomed to be determined by the official elites of the age.
As it has already been stated, the Union Forces' raid against the Confederate States in the name of justice and freedom is merely a sham to seize power. Consequently, the victor razes the properties and symbols of the vanquished culture to the ground. The March, therefore, portrays a transfer of power from the Southern slave owners to the Northern bourgeois capitalists, and common people_ not excluding the Negroes_ take the part of nonentities in this power struggle.
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