By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
The PEN/Faulkner Foundation will announce today that E.L. Doctorow has won its 2006 fiction award for his novel "The March." It is the second PEN/Faulkner award for the much-honored Doctorow, who won in 1990 for "Billy Bathgate" and whose 1975 novel "Ragtime" established him as a writer capable of combining literary ambition and commercial success.
"I think it's his best so far," said novelist and poet George Garrett, one of three writers who served as judges.
The historical setting of "The March" is Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's 1864-65 scorched-earth campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas. This made Garrett "not your perfect unbiased judge," he said, because some of his Civil War-era ancestors were "smack in the line of the march" and he grew up on a diet of atrocity stories about Sherman and his men. But he called Doctorow's book "a hell of a good evocation of history" nonetheless, praising in particular the skill with which the author keeps his complex, multi-character narrative moving.
In a telephone interview, Doctorow described himself as "very gratified" by the award and praised the PEN/Faulkner organization for what he called its "real passion" for literature.
The four other finalists were:
· William Henry Lewis for "I Got Somebody in Staunton," a story collection examining African American lives in a variety of settings. Judge Melissa Pritchard, a fiction writer who teaches at Arizona State University, called Lewis's work "poetic and muscular," noting that it combined lyricism with a forceful evocation of "this wound of being black in America."
· Karen Fisher for her first book, "A Sudden Country," a tale of America's 19th-century western migration. Inspired by a journal written by one of the author's Oregon-bound ancestors, Fisher's novel impressed Garrett with its "sensory recovery of the past."
· Bruce Wagner for his novel "The Chrysanthemum Palace," which Publishers Weekly called "a short, sharp book that puts a dagger right in the heart of Hollywood."
· James Salter for his story collection "Last Night." Salter, who has long been admired in literary circles but has never achieved Doctorow's mass audience, won the 1989 PEN/Faulkner award for "Dusk and Other Stories."
The third judge was novelist and short story writer Ana Menendez. More than 350 American novels and story collections published in 2005 were submitted for the award. Doctorow will receive $15,000; the finalists each get $5,000; all will be honored May 6 at the PEN/Faulkner Awards at the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 6.
Doctorow, 75, who lives in New York City, said the germ of the idea for "The March" came to him two decades ago. He read a soldier's-view account of Sherman's campaign by historian Joseph Glatthaar and remembers thinking that it "had an identity apart from everything else in the Civil War" and "could serve as an armature for a novel."
That war was "an act of monumental self-destruction" which "cuts to the heart of everything we are as a country," he said. But he had no notion of drawing contemporary parallels, even though he was writing "The March" as the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003.
"I wasn't thinking out of the book. That's what the reader brings," he said. "Reading is a very creative act; until the book is read, it's really not completed. Lines on the page are like a circuit that the reader's life flows through."
Historian Glatthaar said that Random House, Doctorow's publisher, asked him to read the manuscript. He found a few minor details to correct, but praised "The March" for its descriptions of the way the war affected ordinary people and for giving "a real feel" for the period. "He did his homework," Glatthaar said.
Suggestions that he is a historical novelist, however, have always irritated Doctorow.
"I don't like any modification of the word 'novelist,' " he said. "The Scarlet Letter" is set 150 years before Nathaniel Hawthorne's time but "we don't think of that as a historical novel."
Asked if he has started a new novel, he laughed and said, "I think I have. I'm not sure." What he's writing could turn out to be a novel, a story, a novella. But whatever it is, "it's holding my interest."