E.L. Doctorow was born in 1931, John Updike in 1932 and Philip Roth in 1933. Joan Didion was born only a year later, in 1934, and Don DeLillo in 1936. While only five years separate the eldest from the youngest of these writers, one senses a distinct generational split between them. Doctorow’s new novel, The March, for example, is an intricate and melancholy re-creation of the final months of the Civil War, following Sherman’s Army from Atlanta to Savannah and up through the Carolinas until the war’s end. An imaginative attempt to grapple with the history of our country, its callused nobility and tendency to find redemption in blowing things up, this is the kind of historical project Roth or Updike might have undertaken (as, in a sense, they have in The Plot Against America and Memories of the Ford Administration), but never Didion or DeLillo, nor any of the politically inclined American writers born later. What lies beneath Doctorow’s historical novels (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, World’s Fair and now The March) is a romantic love of his country, its history of democracy and violence, and its layered identity of individualism, religiosity, struggle and plenty.
Doctorow’s complex brand of patriotism does not prevent him from exploring the abuses of power that mark our history. He did so from his earliest work, as in The Book of Daniel and later in Ragtime, and he does so again here. Yet his sadness and outrage are different from the cold contempt of DeLillo. Encountering Doctorow’s sadness at the scars of our past, younger writers might ask, What did you expect?
Something much better, might be the reply. In their fictional re-creations, Doctorow, Roth and Updike seek to understand and re-experience America, to re-examine the possibilities of what was, in their childhoods, still a young and second-tier nation; they are able to lose themselves in the color and flavor of a past that is certainly not innocent but lacks the corrosive cynicism and corruption we would be forced to recognize in ourselves later. These writers are fed, perhaps, by their knowledge of an America their younger peers never saw, their experience of a brief period when Americanism and justice were not the antithetical concepts they later became; when progressivism had a foothold; when the labor movement became an established and significant force; when the United States achieved a kind of honorable strength in World War II. I suspect these realities allowed certain writers, like Roth and Doctorow, to internalize an enduring view of their country that younger writers simply do not have. The actual experience of America as a nation in which justice is possible was, for people born later, profoundly undermined. The point of view of later writers is more caustic, and so is their language: more skeptical, less elegant, more ironic, less lavish, more queasy, less fundamentally hopeful. Walker Percy, though born earlier, is one of them: He began writing late in life and as a landed Southerner was untouched by the Northern working-class experience that Doctorow, Roth and Updike share. Cormac McCarthy, interestingly enough, was born in 1933 and has a little of both worlds in his work. You might say that everything he wrote through Blood Meridian (1985) allies him to the younger, darker camp; the Border Trilogy, which followed, places him with the older and more sentimental one. We would be wise to remember that while the earlier books earned him a great reputation among other writers, the later ones have made him a fortune. Blood Meridian comes to mind in a few passages in The March, long adjectival sentences describing blood and viscera and shock and death, but the similarity is likely accidental. Of course, everybody gets a little Faulknerian when the blood starts to flow on Southern ground.
It is probably artificial and false to argue that this fundamental difference in outlook is generational; it might simply be a reflection of two inclinations in the genetics of American prose, dating back to the time of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and James and evolving down through Hemingway, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, until the American novel can be classified as a set of subspecies all mixing nostalgia and horror in various degrees. Yet having recently read Roth’s The Plot Against America and having re-read his American Pastoral and The Human Stain, and now reading The March, I couldn’t escape the sense that the patriotism of Roth and Doctorow, the elegiac embrace they give to the whole vivid ball of the American past, is fascinating and alien: It utterly lacks the ambivalence, paralysis and psychosis of postmodern fiction.