E L Doctorow: The national enquirer

E L Doctorow's new novel about the American Civil War is hotly tipped for a Pulitzer. John Freeman talks to a literary veteran with a virtuoso touch
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The Independent Culture

E L Doctorow may not cotton on to the term "historical novelist", but there remains something spooky about how tangible the past is to him. "Sherman was a wonderful writer," says the 74-year-old novelist, as if the American Civil War general had sent him a postcard just yesterday. The moment is even odder because Doctorow is sitting in his publisher's glass-and-steel Manhattan office tower, the traffic murmuring 19 storeys below. "He was almost as good a writer as Grant. They were the best writing generals in American history. They were incredible writers. He got a lot of detail, the value of specific detail."

Over the past three decades, Doctorow has proven himself a master at tuning out the modern world, and, like Grant and Sherman, at channelling the details of American history onto the page. In 1975, he did it in his breakout bestseller Ragtime, and he has done it again with his latest novel, The March (Little, Brown, £10.99). It tracks the Union army's march of destruction from Atlanta to the Carolinas in 1865. "The march was actually Sherman's idea," says Doctorow, making a typical interjection - not so much to elucidate as to correct the record. "But he didn't invent the idea of total war; that is, living off the land and pillaging. That was actually done in Mississippi by Grant. But Sherman made it epic in size."

Doctorow knows this because he reads history, but he is not what they call a civil war buff. In fact, as with his other novels about history, from Billy Bathgate to Ragtime, he composed The March in an improvisational style and did the research later. Asked once by the novelist Russell Banks how much research he did for a novel, he replied: "Just enough."

And yet to sit with him feels like speaking with someone who stepped out of a time machine from the year 1865, fresh with eye-witness accounts. "I didn't think of napalm," says Doctorow, referring to what the destruction wrought by a column of soldiers a mile wide and several deep might look like. "I was thinking of a certain amount of pressure; if you see 60,000 men tramping across the land, it creates its own weather system."

Caught within this storm are an array of men and women, running for their lives. In addition to Sherman, there is a freed slave masquerading as a white drummer boy, and a doctor who later becomes the first Surgeon General of the United States. Comic relief arrives occasionally at the expense of two bumbling soldiers who resemble Rosencrantz and Guilderstern - as Tom Stoppard imagined them.

This racial mix seems strange from a contemporary vantage-point, but Doctorow says that the chaos of the movement put the country into a kind of fugue state of devastation, where unusual bargains were made out of necessity. "It wasn't only the troops, but the freed slaves who attached themselves to the columns," says the novelist. "So their safety and movement came from attaching themselves to the army. Everything was transformed, including their identities."

This comet trail of slaves hoping to march with Sherman to the Promised Land pushed the general into the role of an emancipator, says Doctorow. He correctly reflects the record by having his Sherman - the fictional one - being none too thrilled about this.

"I have marched an army intact for four hundred miles," says Doctorow's Sherman in one scene. "I have gutted Johnny Reb's railroads. I have burned his cities, his forges, his armories, his machine shops, his cotton gins. I have eaten out his crops, I have consumed his livestock and appropriated ten thousand of his horses and mules... And that is not enough for the Secretary of War. I must abase myself to the slaves."

Another American writer might have blanched at the prospect of putting words into the mouth of so storied a historical figure, but not Doctorow. Ever since he published Ragtime, with its historical montage of early 20th-century Manhattan, Doctorow has entered a zone where boundaries don't seem to exist. His novels read not like researched books but restored originals, recently rediscovered. The Book of Daniel (1971) revolved around the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage, while Billy Bathgate (1989), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, involved the Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz.

Although Doctorow admits that time and its passage has been his key framing device, he has trouble with the term "historical novelist". "I don't think of myself as writing historical novels," he says, bristling. "There is such a genre, of course. But I don't think I participate in it. My idea of an historical novel is a novel that makes literary history."

This is something Doctorow knows a thing or two about. For the past 30 years he has taught literature and writing, 23 of them spent at New York University. He often answers questions with examples from the work of great writers, delivered with the folksy charm of an afternoon radio host whose ease with his role makes everything he says seem matter-of-fact. "You know," he says during one such interruption, "when Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he set those novels 30, 40 years before the time of the writing. The Scarlet Letter is set 150 years before Hawthorne's own life. We don't think of it as a historical novel."

Growing up a boy in the Bronx during the Depression, Doctorow came upon these writers early and often. Although his father ran a music store, he was a fan of books and named his son after the poet Edgar Allen Poe. Doctorow's mother was a pianist. By third grade, Doctorow once told an interviewer, he already knew he wanted to write for a living. First would come Kenyon College in Gambier, graduate study at Columbia University, service in the US Army Signal Corps, and then a job reading film scripts for Columbia pictures.

His first book, Welcome to the Hard Times (1960), grew out of the experience of reading so many bad Western scripts. "It occurred to me that I could lie about the West in a much more interesting way than any of these people were lying," Doctorow once said. For his second novel, Doctorow switched to the genre of science fiction, telling the story of two human giants who show up nude in New York harbour. Needless to say, the book got poor reviews and Doctorow has not allowed it to be reprinted. "It took me three novels to figure out how to do it," he says now.

During this time, Doctorow worked as an editor at the Dial Press. "We were a feisty little house," he says modestly, perhaps excessively so given that this little press published big names like Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead. In 1969, Doctorow says, he "walked away from the best job I'd ever have" in order to finish work on The Book of Daniel." The move paid off - the book was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Since then, Doctorow has taught and written, the novels coming more slowly than some of his contemporaries, but gradually with more and more success. He was 44 when Ragtime made him something of a household name. The book borrowed figures from real life such as Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and J P Morgan, and put them into fictional scenarios, all set to a ragtime beat.

With Ragtime, Doctorow began a strategy he has followed for almost every book since. "Depending on the time, I've always gravitated toward the place where American life was being most vividly expressed," he says, "when the national identity flashed into being... In 1865, the hot spot was in Georgia, in the Carolinas, so that's where I was."

Although Doctorow has not radically overhauled his writing, his few vociferous detractors have raised a white flag at last after reading The March. The legendarily tough New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that it highlights his "bravura storytelling talents and instinctive ability to empathise with his characters, while eschewing the self-conscious pyrotechnics and pretentious abstractions that have hobbled his recent books like City of God." In The New Yorker, John Updike declared that The March "pretty well cures my Doctorow problem". Buzz has already begun in New York that this book will pretty well cure Doctorow of his Pulitzer Prize problem as well.

Doctorow appears very unruffled by this entire hullabaloo. It's not that he hasn't seen it before, but he also knows that medals are beside the point."You just have to do the work," he says enigmatically. "That's the most important thing. You have to do the work."

Biography: E L Doctorow

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, born in 1931, grew up in the Bronx; his parents were the children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father ran a music shop and his mother was a pianist. After studies at Kenyon College and Columbia University, he served in the US Army Signal Corps, read movie scripts, and then worked as a publisher with the New American Library and (until 1969) the Dial Press. His first novel was the Western Welcome to Hard Times (1960). Its successors include The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989) and Waterworks (1994). The March is published this week by Little, Brown. Since 1982 he has taught at New York University and currently holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters. E L Doctorow lives with his wife in Manhattan.