What is the place of grief in the pursuit of greatness? George Saunders explores this theme in his new book Lincoln in the Bardo. Did Abraham Lincoln emerge tempered by the deaths of his children? Did his greatness come at too great a personal cost? Would he have traded his place in history for one more day with his son Willy?
The year in the book is 1862 and the American Civil War is a year old and no one knows yet what changes it will bring. President Lincoln and his wife Mary are organizing an annual reception, an event which would later be variously described in the memoirs and diaries of their contemporaries. Taking the testimony of various historical sources, Saunders paints the presidential couple as graceful hosts, whose smiles are imperceptibly tinged with worry for their son William Wallace Lincoln. Little Willy, Lincoln’s favourite child, lies upstairs in the ‘Prince of Wales’ bedroom under a maroon coverlet battling the end stages of typhoid, a disease that has possibly been contracted by him because of contaminated water drawn from the Potomac, which was the main source of water for the White House and along which Lincoln’s soldiers were encamped. Shortly after, Willy dies and the book’s story really begins.
While writing this novel, George Saunders seized upon a tiny factoid in world history—during the Civil War President Lincoln was battling personal grief and depression and was so wracked with longing for his dead son that he would steal away in the dead of night to visit his son interned in a ‘loaned tomb’ belonging to W.T. Caroll at Georgetown’s Oak Hill cemetery. The young boy’s body would only be disinterred and moved three years later to his father’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln in the Bardo is named so because the book is not really about our world, but about theirs. It talks about the place where Willy goes, the Bardo, a concept from Tibetan Buddhism where souls that are no longer connected to a physical body, remain until they pass on to something else. In this stage, they experience multiple realities and hallucinations, which Saunders seeks to describe through his characters, who are souls that don’t think of themselves as dead, merely suffering from a sickness of some sort. When Willy enters the Bardo, three souls, Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and Reverend Every Thomas, are wracked with concern for him as they think he should move on to the next level, unlike them who have tarried in the Bardo for their own reasons. But little Willy waits for his father, who to everyone’s astonishment, comes to the tomb, removes his son’s body, cradles it, Pietà-like and weeps. So shocked are the residents of the Bardo and so compelled by the manner in which little Willy is able to touch or immerse into his father’s body to feel close to him that they all attempt to do the same. They move to see this man weeping for his son—a ‘sculpture on the theme of loss’—and have no real insight into who he is and what power he commands. Some inhabit him and Lincoln experiences the desperation of African-American souls, while one such soul experiences kinship in this touching. The souls are able to read Lincoln’s mind through this touching and learn about the historical time they are in.
Saunder’s Bardo has characters that are gay, poor, black and mixed-race. His book is a reflection on history through the eyes of those that were marginalized for their sexual preferences and the colour of their skin and are already dead when the world begins to change, in what is now America, because of Lincoln’s war. The gay man, Roger Bevins III, died because he killed himself, a mulatto woman’s soul is open-mouthed and cannot articulate because she has been raped so many times and so often by anyone and everyone. The poor and the black people don’t have proper ‘sick-boxes’ (coffins) and are buried in a communal grave, across from the rich people’s lot in the cemetery—their marginalization made permanent even in death. A racist white man’s soul sees a black person’s soul and barks racist orders. Death, in Saunders’s novel, is not a great leveller.
In the crypt, oblivious to the chorus of souls surrounding him and clamouring for his favour and attention to feel alive once more, Lincoln mourns his son, while his mind worries about his deeds and the war effort he is leading. He asks himself if such grief is becoming for someone in his position; he determines that everyone should live free in a freedom that his son will never have. He is a man consumed by sorrow, an ‘unkempt fellow’, whose individual loss has hit further home than the losses of lives during the Civil War, but is not properly distinct from his grief over the huge loss of human lives because of war.
Lincoln died without writing a memoir. Since then many writers have tried to plumb the depths of his psyche from historical records. What makes Saunders’s work unique is the focus on parental loss and grief. In some retellings Abe Lincoln may be a vampire slayer, but for Saunders he is merely another human undergoing human emotions that have the capacity to impede his daily functioning in the midst of a war. As Lincoln thinks (and Saunders writes) while looking at his son’s body, ‘two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for each other. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond.’
Immense, gripping and crippling grief is a common theme in literature. Grief is a sort of trial by fire, which, if survived, allows one to be reborn as something stronger and more tempered. Saunders’s book ends with a Lincoln attempting to close the door on his personal grief and return to a nation worried about his capacity to lead them in war time. It is not a book that is easy to read. In fact it is decidedly odd and pushes the envelope for what forms a novel can take. However, once one gets the hang of it and is able to parse history from fantasy, then a reader can focus on the bigger story of the novel, i.e., humanity and death. The people in the Bardo seem far more alive than the humans mentioned in the story. Those marginalized have managed to gain some freedom in death even though class differences persist. Those that finally start to accept that they are dead, disappear in a flash of ‘matter light blooming phenomenon’ and are no longer part of the author’s narrative.
The best way to read this book is to do so in one sitting. After a point, the beauty with which Saunders is able to imagine and capture Lincoln’s grief becomes the most compelling feature of the book. At that point, one forgets the debate about the authenticity of the facts—did Lincoln simply go to the tomb (verified by multiple accounts) and did he ever remove the body of his son from his coffin? It is at this point that one discovers a powerful imagination at work where the writer is able to empathize with and experience a grief that is not his own and churn out a chaos of words that aptly capture the functioning of a frantic and wounded mind.
Vasundhare Sirnate Drennan, Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai, is Ph.D Candidate at Barrows Hall, University of California, Berkeley, USA.