Well past seventy years of age, E.L. Doctorow tends to have his books read in a manner befitting his age. So while John Updike might allude in the New Yorker to "dialogue shorn, in avant-garde fashion, of quotation marks," or mildly protest the appearance of real-life humans played for puppets in his books, Doctorow's work is rarely dragged back to the present. Even as the only slightly younger Don DeLillo's Lee Harvey Oswald, protagonist of Libra, is read carefully by younger critics for links between the novel and terrorism in the modern world, Doctorow's own Dutch Schultz, the gangster and murder protagonist of Billy Bathgate, is left to rest in peace in New Jersey's 1935 Newark City Hospital. This dichotomy, however, is more of a critic's distinction than Doctorow's own.
Take the "The Leather Man," a story from E.L. Doctorow's 1984 Lives of the Poets, which imagines a one-hundred year old Sasquatch-like figure who roams the countryside, completely set apart from the world in which he lives but available, in the right place, for an otherworldly conversation. "Unlearned of course, with no reference to current events," but "genial" nonetheless, there for some unknown purpose. In his story, Doctorow asks
What is the essential act of the Leather Man? He makes the world foreign. He distances it. He is estranged. Our perceptions are sharpest when we're estranged. We can see the shape of things.
The March, Doctorow's newest novel, is the search for a Leather Man writ large. Part of an ongoing attempt to discover that denaturing force that makes the familiar world alien and, consequently, significant, he has found it in General William Tecumseh Sherman's march. The chaotic, obliterating cloud of the Union's 1864-64 march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, is as strange as any mythic creature, "a great segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a hundred thousand feet." So huge it defies humanity ("It is life when it can no longer tolerate itself,"), the march completely re-imagines what it is to live.
Normality and custom are perverted, as Sherman "burns where he has ridden to lunch, he fires the city in whose clubs he once gave toasts," forcing as he goes the unnatural logic of his march onto the land. The city of Columbia accidentally catches fire as Sherman and his army occupy it, and the contingency of a city burned in chaos becomes the a postieri rationale of the men who were there: "I did not visit this Pompeii upon them," writes Sherman to his superiors, "But if I am to be the Foul Fiend I don the costume readily if it will quake them in their boots and cow their traitorous hearts."
The march writes its own moment, mile after mile. Sherman's flowery language is one sort of camouflage; the European-born surgeon Wrede Sartorious provides another. The best doctor in the Union army, his immersion in his work is so complete that it excludes all humanity, mirroring the state of the march as a whole. "He lived in the present as if there were no future, or in such a state of resolution that when the future came it would find him as he was now, as finished in his soul as he was at this very moment." Though he saves lives, he is completely indifferent to suffering, going so far as to keep a brain damaged soldier alive, shrapnel lodged in his skull, in order to study the "miracle" of his slow undoing: "Albion Simms would deteriorate under study."