“Lincoln in the Bardo” takes its inspiration from a heartbreaking fact: the death, at age 11, of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie.
“Lincoln in the Bardo”
by George Saunders
Random House, 341 pp., $28
“The Sound and the Fury” grew out of an image that William Faulkner couldn’t shake: a girl at the top of a pear tree, looking in a window on the day of her grandmother’s funeral. Her brothers gazed up at the “muddy drawers” of the character Faulkner called “my heart’s darling.”
George Saunders’ first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo” grew out of a heartbreaking fact: After the death of his 11-year-old son Willie, a distraught Abraham Lincoln visited the boy’s tomb on several occasions and held his son’s body in his arms.
Saunders, arguably America’s best short-story writer, saw the image as “a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pieta” and spent 20 years trying to write it, first attempting a play before completing a novel that like Faulkner’s masterpiece uses multiple narrators, stream of consciousness, and the fractured thoughts of an innocent child to tell a story about the destruction of a family and the struggle and endurance of a country stained by slavery.
The author of “Lincoln in the Bardo” will appear Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; tickets $35-40 (includes book). 206-652-4255 or townhallseattle.org
“Lincoln in the Bardo” takes place in a graveyard where spirits unable to accept their death exist in a purgatory Buddhists (like Saunders) believe can be liberating or destructive. This bardo is a melancholy way station where phantasmagorical ghosts relive their earthly failures and wear the chains they forged in life. A young man humiliated in a desperate effort to find love spills his life’s blood onto a cold floor. A loyal slave cries out as his white “family” ignores him. A mother yearns for her beloved daughters.
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Into the cacophony comes Willie Lincoln, fair-haired favorite of his indulgent father, “a child of bright intelligence and of peculiar promise” according to the pastor who delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Typhoid took Willie Lincoln on Feb. 20, 1862, when the president was desperately trying to turn the needle of the Civil War toward the north. Willie’s death brought Abe Lincoln low (Mary Todd Lincoln never got over it) and caused him to ride to Oak Hill Cemetery after midnight and cradle his son once again. Saunders uses excerpts from history books, real and imagined, to set the terrible scene: a lavish White House party where the worried Lincolns kept going upstairs to check on Willie, the funeral procession where two white horses pulled Willie’s hearse and two black horses drew Lincoln’s carriage through the muddy streets.
As in life, Willie is a source of light in the bardo, an inspiration to the lost souls flitting about disconsolately. His connection to his father is so strong that it threatens to stop his spiritual journey and drag Lincoln — and the country — down. Lincoln’s ability to “Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad” saved the Union. It also inspired the inhabitants of the bardo to accept their fate, forgive themselves, and get on with their afterlives.
In a 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University, Saunders implored the new graduates to incline toward the big questions, ignore the trivial, and discover “the luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will.” His novel follows the same path, and gets there.