William (“Willie”) Lincoln was the fourth son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and the second to die. On Feb. 20, 1862, the 11-year-old succumbed to typhoid fever, probably from drinking contaminated water drawn from the Potomac. According to an eyewitness, when Lincoln entered the room where his son’s body lay, “His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.”
The death of young Willie was unbearably sad, but even Lincoln scholars regard it mostly as a tragic footnote. It occurred at an early stage in the presidency, inside a White House struggling to contain an escalating war. But the letters and memoirs of those who knew him (interspersed throughout the novel) leave no doubt that Willie was a source of constant joy to his father.
“He was the child in whom Lincoln had invested his fondest hopes; a small mirror of himself, to whom he could speak frankly, openly, and confidingly.”
And then he was gone.
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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by 58-year old George Saunders. In the past 25 years, Saunders has published several influential, highly acclaimed story collections. He’s a satirist in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut (political and surreal), with a vision of America as a bleak, corporate theme park that’s cartoonish and weirdly familiar.
But Abraham Lincoln? Haven’t we been down that road before?
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that Saunders is after something far more evocative than historical fiction or “alternative history.”
In recent interviews, he has explained that the inspiration for the novel came from a story he heard (almost certainly apocryphal) of Lincoln’s behavior in the aftermath of Willie’s funeral. Heartrending and somewhat morbid, the story described a late night visit by Lincoln to Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Entering his son’s crypt, the solitary mourner withdrew the body from its coffin, and held it for a few hours.
But if this was a private visit, then who was there to describe it?
Saunders has the answer: the dead inhabitants of the cemetery. The tip-off, you see, is the title of the novel. “Bardo” is a term from Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the transitional state of existence between death and the afterlife (or rebirth, if you prefer). Within the borders of this purgatory, the consciousness remains active, while no longer tied to the physical body.
Saunders constructs his novel entirely out of separate strands of narration, presented by the disembodied spirits in Oak Hill Cemetery. They are, for the most part, a rowdy, truculent bunch, never at a loss for words when recounting past sins and misfortunes. (Some are doomed to repeat them endlessly, as if stuck in a diabolical loop).
Eventually, two distinct voices emerge from this “serendipitous mass co-habitation”: a middle-aged printer killed by a falling beam, and a young gay man who slashed his wrists after romantic betrayal. Deeply affected by Lincoln’s midnight visit with Willie, they attempt to come to the dead child’s aid in the netherworld.
As the older of the spirits explains: “It is anathema for children to tarry here.”
In spite of these fantastic, surreal qualities, “Lincoln in the Bardo” presents a Lincoln struggling desperately to regain a sense of reality. Broken and dispirited by the death of his son, he emerges from the trauma with new-found resolve: unite the severed nation, regardless of the terrible cost.
“Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch. Bleed and bleed the enemy until his good sense is reborn.”
Sam Shapiro is a manager and film programmer at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
“Lincoln in the Bardo”
By George Saunders
Random House, 368 pages.
Saunders will speak twice at CPCC’s Sensoria in April: He’ll offer “A Few Thoughts on Kindness” (based on his commencement speech at Syracuse in 2013) at 10:30 a.m. April 5, and do a reading and discussion of “Lincoln in the Bardo” at 8 that night in Pease Auditorium. Both are free and open to the public; sensoria.cpcc.edu.