In his career-long effort to map the genome of this mongrel nation, E.L. Doctorow was bound to meet William Tecumseh Sherman sooner or later. The thrilling result is The March, a vast yet compact, contemplative yet unfailingly urgent chronicle of the great and hated general's scorched-earth campaign across the collapsing Confederacy. This event, Doctorow demonstrates without decree, was the 19th century's atom bomb, its Sept. 11: an experiment in Total War that signaled a tectonic shift in the rules of combat. It rewrote the social contract, and it did so in front of camera lenses, for the world to see. Pomp shriveled. War outgrew both duty and glory and became phenomenon, heartless and headless. Many have linked Sherman's March to the onset of modernity itself. Doctorow does them one better: The march, he asserts, is modernity, and The March is nothing less than a national creation myth.
''A great segmented body moving in contractions and dilations'' is field surgeon Wrede Sartorius' description of Sherman's army. (Sartorius, Doctorow fans will note, is already sharpening the ideological scalpel he'll take to 1871 New York in The Waterworks.) He might as well have been describing the book itself, which travels, like an infantry, on its belly, consuming the dramas and comedies in its path and recalling the beautifully recombinant, nested narratives of Ragtime. The historical campaign was a slog, but Doctorow's currents are brisk, and even his contemplative eddies are dizzily exciting. We ride with Pearl white-skinned offspring of a planter, a slave, and, in terms of literary DNA, Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson as her powerful will strives to preserve uneasy union in a bifurcated self. We hunker down with Rebel tricksters Arly and Will, whose motto might be ''rations first, rationales later,'' as they float osmotically, not treacherously, from army to army, seeking survival foremost and applying ad hoc meaning after the fact. There's Dr. Sartorius whose idea of gallantry is surgically removing a refugee belle's hymen before deflowering her nursing an obsession with Albion Simms, a soldier relieved of memory by an iron spike in his skull. Even Coalhouse Walker (sire of Ragtime's firebrand, Coalhouse Walker Jr.) turns up this is, after all, the root of everything, including the Doctorovian family tree.
Finally, there's Sherman himself, by turns grand and ravaged, a willing but wary instrument of history who reflects on his march ''with longing not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence.'' He bemoans the end of it, ''the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere or fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.'' The Faulknerian pastiche is altogether appropriate, for Doctorow frames The March as something of a reply to Faulkner's assertion that ''the past is never dead. It's not even past'': ''It's always now,'' cries memoryless Albion Simms. ''That's what hurts.''