'Lincoln in the Bardo' imagines Lincoln losing his son as the Civil War rages

In the first novel by celebrated short story writer George Saunders, Abraham Lincoln wrestles with grief – and the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

Lincoln in the Bardo By George Saunders Random House 368 pp.

In his new book Lincoln in the Bardo – his first novel – the tricksy, unsettling, masterly short story writer George Saunders has taken a family tragedy  – the death of an American President’s child – and set it at the center of a national tragedy: the Civil War. Around this dark double-hub he affixes a flutter of other characters from the period, more than 100 of them, who (in a typically ingenious Saunders invention) are no longer living, but do not know it. Stubbornly clinging to “memories, complaints, desires,” and “raw life-force” they refuse to advance to whatever post-mortal realm may exist to receive more biddable natures. Homer or Dante might have called such unquiet souls “shades;” and in Tibetan Buddhism, the notional realm they inhabit, between this world and the next, is known as the “bardo,” hence the title.

For the purposes of Saunders’s novel, though, the “bardo” is the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, where the arrival of the President’s embalmed son stirs the resident shades to commotion. His presence in their midst animates them, motivates them, and sets them awhirl. Vibrant and multi-voiced, they fling shards of color like the leaves of a pinwheel in a gale. Rarely has a novel about the dead felt so thrillingly, achingly, alive.

The President in question, of course, is Abraham Lincoln; and the boy entombed at Oak Hill was his favorite child, Willie, the third of his four sons. Today, father and son occupy such a hallowed and familiar position in American history that it can be difficult to think of them as ever having been flesh and blood. If you visit the comfortable but unshowy house in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln and his wife and sons lived until 1861 (when they moved to the White House), you feel yourself in a gallery of sepia-tone portraits, not a place where a human family jostled, worked and played – even as you climb the creaking staircase they climbed, and peer into the playroom on the second floor, where the boys’ antique toys spill across the carpet. Saunders takes the portraits off the walls and sets them walking.

His novel begins in the brutal month of February of 1862; 11 months after the Lincolns moved to Washington D.C., 10 months after the outbreak of the Civil War. As thousands of soldiers lay slain or maimed in the battle of Fort Donelsen, their bodies “heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two on top of three,” little Willie Lincoln was dying, probably from typhus, in his White House bedroom. On February 20, he succumbed to his disease, aged 11. Lincoln needed all his strength and focus to hold the country together, but the shock of his son’s death unmoored him. “I never saw a man so bowed down with grief,” wrote one observer. Newspapers of the day reported that the President’s agony was so overwhelming that he returned to the crypt where the child was entombed, brought out his son’s body, and held it in his arms, unable to bear his loss. Meanwhile, the author writes, summoning the voice of an old-time chronicler, “The nation held its breath, hopeful the President could competently reassume the wheel of the ship of state.”

Saunders (who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago) first heard of Lincoln’s cemetery visitation during the Clinton administration, on a visit to Washington. In an interview printed in the novel’s end pages, he recalls, “As soon as I heard that, this image sprung to mind: a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà.” This vision, in which a grieving Lincoln took the role of the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s statue, gestated in Saunders for nearly a quarter century, he explains: “I just wanted to get on paper something that would evoke the feeling of pathos and beauty I’d get every time I imagined that night in 1862.”

To do so, he has devised a richly hybrid work that defies easy categorization. Chapters of whirligigging dialogue between the cemetery denizens are interleaved with chapters holding excerpts from news accounts, biographies, memoirs, and diaries of the era (many actual, many invented), which ballast the fantasy with the gravitas of real occurrence. One example: while Willie was burning with fever from the sickness that would kill him, the President and Mrs. Lincoln threw a sumptuous (late) New Year’s fête in the White House, attended by hundreds of foreign and national dignitaries. As guests danced and made merry under chandeliers garlanded with flowers, stuffing themselves on pheasant, venison, and oysters, and plucking sweetmeats from elaborate dioramas made of sugar, the boy suffered in his bedroom. His parents slipped away continually to stand vigil at his bedside. Partisan scandalmongers denounced the party, before and after, as decadent and frivolous – “a piggish and excessive display, in a time of war, ” as one fictional commenter puts it; and after the child’s death, mean-spirited detractors accused the Lincolns of “heartlessness” for entertaining while their child was ill, tacitly blaming them for his demise. But those close to the family were “awe-struck” by the violence of Lincoln’s heartbreak. “Great sobs choked his utterance,” a seamstress remembered. “He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion.”

In Saunders’s fervid, electric imagination, Lincoln’s grief-stricken visit to Willie in the crypt causes profound agitation – and jealousy – among the unruly bardo dwellers, who have received no such calls themselves. Hamming and pouting, bickering and boasting like actors on the stage (their words appear in the book like the script of a play, each speaker listed after his line) they attempt to assess the import of this invasion of their liminal precincts. One of the main players, an ungainly middle-aged printer named Hans Vollman (whose head was squashed by a falling beam when he was on the brink of consummating his marriage), muses, “No one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.” Another, Vollman’s friend Roger Bevins III – a closeted teenager who longs to be “revived” so he can “wander the earth, imbibing, smelling, sampling, loving whomever I please” wonders: “How had it felt, being held like that?” More pressingly, Bevins wants to know, had the visitor “offered any hope for the alteration of the boy’s fundamental circumstance?” – that circumstance being death, a state the self-deluding shades shy away from mentioning by name. If so, Bevins asks, “might said hope extend to us as well?” Willie is bewildered by the excitement he provokes in the spectral entourage. “So many were still waiting,” he marvels, “A shifting mass of gray and black…. People in the moonlight outside pushing and shouting, standing on tip-toe to see….Me.” And above all, looming over the turbulent shadows, is the living form of the boy’s father, who cannot keep away, either.

A philosophical principle runs throughout Saunders’s novel that keeps the engine of his story spinning. That principle is that even the most private tragedy plays an integral part in the natural order. The shades in the bardo have stalled that natural order by dwelling with fixed intensity on their “primary reason for staying” in the world they had physically departed. But when Willie’s “primary reason for staying” – i.e., his father – walks into Oak Hill, Vollman and Bevins and some of their disembodied cohort are stricken by something like conscience. They don’t want the child to get stuck in their macabre stasis. Lincoln’s grief, like a turning gear, catches in its cogs the individual passions and grievances of the querulous shades, carrying them forward along with him. They are moved to empathy by his magnanimity. Peace cannot be restored in the bardo – or in the White House, or the nation, it would appear – until the finality of the boy’s death can be admitted by the President, by the boy himself, and by the shades as well. Saunders enlists his imaginary dead to rescue the living, and thereby, themselves. Attempting to speed this catharsis, Vollman and Bevins share space in Lincoln’s head. “One must try to remember that all were suffering,” Vollman thinks, channeling Lincoln’s thoughts. “His current state of sorrow was not uniquely his.” Lincoln (as Vollman) also believes Willie would want him to keep prosecuting the Civil War. “Our Willie would not wish us hobbled in that attempt by a vain and useless grief,he thinks.

A little more than three years after these nighttime adventures, in May of 1865, the Union won the Civil War, and Willie’s presumed wish was achieved. In March of that year, in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln had adjured the nation to “strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Having bound up his own wounds first, he knew the sacrifice this entailed. But the following month, before he could finish the work he envisioned, on the eve of peace, Lincoln was assassinated. And yet, as "Lincoln in the Bardo" hauntingly, movingly suggests, his death did not mean his influence had vanished; to know the full record of any life is to know that it never ends.

If you visit Springfield, Illinois today, not the Lincoln house, but the Oak Ridge Cemetery there, you will find the president’s family reunited in Lincoln’s Tomb, except for the oldest son, Robert, who survived his parents and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A larger-than-life bronze head of Lincoln stands at the entrance; children are told to rub the nose for luck. The nose gleams from the pressure of so many hands, stretching to touch history’s patina in the living day. As superstitiously as the gaggle in the bardo, the visitors hope, through this symbolic contact, to carry away a micron-dusting of the man who could not save his son, or himself, but saved the nation; and who remains as awe-inspiring in death as in life.

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