March by Geraldine Brooks

In her afterword to March, Geraldine Brooks apologises to husband Tony Horwitz for her years of indifference to his civil war obsessions (well documented in his outstanding Confederates in the Attic). The apology is appropriate, because with March, Brooks has not only joined the ranks of Civil War nuts, but with a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction under her belt, it just might be the making of her as a novelist.

March tells the story of the eponymous absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and his travails as a chaplain to Union troops during the war. This immediately sets off alarm bells for this reviewer, as interpolations and extrapolations from popular novels meet with mixed success. Brooks, already a popular writer, doesn’t seem to need Little Women‘s reflected glow, and it becomes apparent that Alcott’s book is a mere starting point to explore bigger themes. The overlap between the two narratives is minimal and the focus on March, rather than his daughters, means that Brooks has the freedom to develop a unique narrative and voice.

The hero of the story is as much the very real Bronson Alcott (father to Louisa) as it is the fictional March — Brooks combines them into one person for the purposes of the novel. Alcott’s ideals, radical even for the New England of his day, and his friendships with the transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau (ascribed to March in the book), provide the philosophical underpinning to his actions.

It’s a strong novel, with dramatic set pieces and genuine emotional impact. Like most historical novels, there’s some contrivance in the set up and an overriding sentimentality to the proceedings. Nevertheless, March is a success on its own terms as a portrait of a man, in three dimensions with all his follies and foibles, who transcends his constructed place as observer to history in the making

March, the vegan, environmentalist, abolitionist preacher of ill-defined religious beliefs, is something of an archetype of the 21st century liberal, and his dilemmas have a certain resonance in today’s political world. The problems of March’s conscience are the problems of the liberal conscience — conflicting moral demands, conflicting emotional demands, and a failure to effectively communicate ethical imperatives. March’s lessons can be taken on board by any liberal concerned by conservatives gaining ground in the “culture wars”.

Like today’s liberal, March sits somewhere between the extremist “by any means necessary” radicals and the complacent conservatives. He admires John Brown’s commitment to emancipation, but he balks at the open terrorism Brown advocates. While the liberal may identify with the moral principles of the radical, he or she often lacks the single-mindedness needed to act. Each principle is complicated or even negated by another, equally strongly held. In the same way that western liberals are troubled by female circumcision among indigenous peoples (which is the greater evil — violent patriarchy or colonial moralisation?), March the pacifist grapples with the violence of the Civil War as a response to slavery.

This dilemma often results in a failure to act with decisiveness. For this reason, March’s non-combatant role in the Civil War leaves him feeling unfulfilled, with a nagging sense of failure or omission. In today’s world it is the reason why neo-conservatives can sneer at liberals for being soft on dictators and oppressors. If one has only one idea in the world, whether it be abolition or establishing global democracy, all other decisions fall subject to this overriding objective. While this kind of moral code is simplistic and unsubtle, history has more often been made by the intemperate and extreme than by the thoughtful and considered. Of course, it might be worthwhile thoughtfully considering whether history is worth making.

March’s self-determined approach to religion is also problematic for his personal wellbeing. Whereas the fiery Calvinists he works alongside can refer to the external authority of Holy Scripture, March’s own non-conformist beliefs are self-defined, far from absolute and accordingly very difficult to communicate and promote. While the liberal can easily question the absolute moral certainty of the religious fundamentalist, it’s certainly more persuasive to have a god on your side in an argument. Even in today’s postmodern society, while a lack of authoritative backing for values and views is more widely accepted, it still leads to difficulty in communicating moral imperatives. It may be good for you, but it’s hard to argue that it’s good for all.

March finds the Union forces more concerned with spiritual reassurance than with the noncommittal sentiments he espouses. His uncertain faith leaves him unable to offer much encouragement, and his doubts in the matter of hell and damnation come across as deriving from a lack of conviction rather than from a considered theological stance. This is the same perception problem that liberals face today, even down to allegations of nihilism.

The most significant dilemma, and the emotional hinge of the novel, is the conflict of March’s marriage to Marmee, the mother of the “little women”. As a radical herself, Marmee’s flights of political passion have impressed themselves on March over all other aspects of her character. Determined to impress her, March loses his fortune on an abolitionist cause, takes himself off to war in his late 30s, and nearly loses his life and health. In the chapters written from Marmee’s perspective we see that instead of feeling pride and admiration, she views March’s decisions as foolish and selfish, rather than the mixture of adolescent attention-seeking and ideological commitment that they are. The curse of many people of strong ideals through the ages has been a tendency to sacrifice relationships and normal “life” in the pursuit of change. Unfortunately, the credibility of a liberal like March is undermined by his illiberal, inconsiderate treatment of his family. This is a difficult balance to strike.

It’s not hard to understand why March, the novel, has found favour with critics and prize judges. March, the man, has the equivocal dignity of an Updike hero. We may not admire all his actions and his vacillating inaction frustrates, but we can identify with his struggle to remain true to himself at all costs. Historical fiction can either be a curiosity, a voyeuristic exercise in time-travel, or it can be a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected and recognise both the good and the bad of ourselves. March is such a mirror.

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