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.

Let it be said, after these ruminations, that The March is a very fine, robust and deeply intelligent novel. The only novels of the Civil War that rank with it, to my knowledge, are Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is set in the years after the war but is suffused with its violent implications and its wandering, marauding ex-soldiers. Doctorow’s plot finds its structure in a matrix of geography and time: From the late summer of 1864 to the spring of 1865, Sherman’s armies gathered in Chattanooga, made their way to northeast Georgia, attacked Atlanta and then commenced the famous “march to the sea” in Savannah, destroying almost all that they touched along the way. From Shelby Foote’s monumental history of the war we know that Grant’s orders to Sherman were blunt: “Get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”

Sherman interpreted “resources” as broadly as possible, and his armies burned down whole towns, emptied every storehouse and killed plenty of civilians along the way. The March follows them from just after Atlanta to the end of the war, moving among a collection of representative characters: Sherman himself, who is small and moody and strange; a number of his senior officers; an Army surgeon named Wrede Sartorius, who is the most complex and interesting of the book’s many complex and interesting characters; several regular soldiers on both sides, including a mad Southern boy who masquerades first as a Union soldier and then as a Northern photographer, using the camera he’s hijacked from its real owner as a bluff in order to get close to Sherman and attempt to shoot him; and a host of women and blacks who end up displaced and following the Army. Doctorow’s depictions are meticulous and lush. This is a large novel, in human scope as well as in physical size.

Doctorow is particularly fascinated by the shifting psychologies of men at war, the powerful combinations of spirituality and atavism it engenders in its participants. You see this especially in the passages momentarily focusing on particular soldiers in the battle scenes; you see it too when the novel moves to the fighting’s aftermath, in the sections dealing with Sartorius, the women and few men who assist him and the blank-eyed near-dead to whom they attend. Sartorius is a strange and compelling figure in the novel: a European-born surgeon, rather cold, intellectually far ahead of his fellow doctors at the time. He thinks, while others, even the generals, intuit and feel, in typically American fashion. It has long been known that many of the treatments applied to wounded men in the Civil War did more to kill than to heal them, and Sartorius is Doctorow’s Enlightenment Man, fighting these barbarous practices with new science, largely, it seems, of his own devising. There is a brief love story between him and the daughter of one of the Southern gentry who has died and left her basically itinerant. But the book refuses to sustain such a romance, as surely the war refused to do. Such moments come in war with great intensity and fade away like yesterday’s battle. That Sartorius is German-born, and his name so evocative of Carlyle’s paean to German Romanticism, Sartor Resartus, must have some meaning for Doctorow: His Sartorius is peculiar and scientific in the way of Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle’s mad “philosopher of clothes,” and perhaps too Doctorow sees Sartorius’s eventual redemption in Carlyle’s prescriptive combination of suffering, love and affirmation; but since his love affair hardly overwhelms him and he seems immune to suffering, the idea is not highly developed. If there is a main character in The March, Sartorius is it. He appeared in The Waterworks, an earlier Doctorow book set after the war, yet I still finished The March with a curious longing to know what became of him and his ideas, where he went and what he went on to do, which I did not feel for any of the other characters, certainly not Sherman or Grant, much less–entertaining though they often are–the noble, struggling regular folks, two of whom, the biracial Pearl and the white soldier with whom she has fallen in love, Doctorow honors with a highly sentimental closing.

The March‘s second unifying concern is with the political implications for blacks and whites in the months when the South’s defeat became a certainty and emancipation was a vivid if not entirely comprehensible fact. As Sherman’s army marched through Georgia and the Carolinas, ravaging farmhouses, burning down plantations and leveling its major cities, it was eventually trailed by some 25,000 or more freed blacks, who, having nothing left behind them, simply followed along like Israelites meandering behind a hell of a lot of gunpowder toward the promised land. It’s a promised land that, alas, we know to have been a mirage. Doctorow captures distinct and intriguing personalities among his black characters, but his depiction of black vernacular of the nineteenth-century South can make you squirm a little. It is a difficult task for any white writer to capture whatever he believes that tone and language to be, without going over the line and capturing instead the sound of a minstrel show. The politics, however, Doctorow gets just right, down to a very personal level, from the lifting of the veil of freedom to the changes of perception that unfold even as black slaves continued to serve white masters after the armies of the North had already arrived. The reaction of the whites Doctorow renders with clarity and a hint of steely sympathy. While the blacks dare to envision a future in which they own land beside their former oppressors, or work for decent wages, the whites understand that Sherman’s primary goal is to destroy the South’s productive capacities and its various local economies, emancipation being a merely incidental part of this project. (Indeed, Lincoln, who wasn’t so scrupulous about the Constitution while suspending the writ of habeas corpus, nevertheless believed he had no legitimate constitutional power to free the slaves except as a contingent military order.) One old gentleman, near death and traveling to see his brother for the last time, sees the devastation along the way and tries to instruct his housemaid on the facts:

You best not tire yourself with all this frettin, Sophie said.
   She was right. He sat back down, closed his eyes, and said a prayer to calm himself. With his eyes closed, he smelled a dead country.
   Sophie, he said, am I the Pharaoh?
   She shook her head. She never knew what would come out of that mouth. You jes yerself, she said.
   Because if I’m the Pharaoh I’m convinced. I don’t need no frogs, nor no locusts, I’m letting you go. You want your freedom, I grant it to you. And this, he said, waving his hand about, is what goes along with it. This is what you get with your nigger freedom.

The near-maudlin ending of the book– Lincoln’s assassination, the romantic scene between Pearl and her soldier-lover–softens the blow of Doctorow’s larger message, which is that the war in the end was a tragedy of high technology and bad ideas all around, a specifically American kind of tragedy full of seers and self-invented monarchs, an outburst of madness that completely destroyed the South and displaced thousands of its residents, both white and black. The “union” that Lincoln held so sacred was an idea more romantic than constitutional and, we have seen as recently as 2000 and 2004, has proved to be far more tenuous in reality than he ever permitted it to be in his imagination and his rhetoric. The vaunted way of life the Southerners fought to preserve was vicious, and they replaced it with something almost as vicious in short order. We’re still paying the price of this war, with its well-armed religiosity and its strong pull toward disintegration. This understanding seeps into every line of Doctorow’s prose and is part of what provides the writing with its vivid color and radiating implications.