A Spiritual Musing on Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Random House, 2017. 343 Pages. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9534-3

by Reign Manzano


On February 20, 1862, President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, succumbed to typhoid fever. George Saunders’ first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, imagines the ghosts of Oak Hill cemetery, where the young boy was buried and a place President Lincoln visited while leading his nation through one of its most brutal wars. Taking inspiration from the state between life and death known in Tibetan Buddhism as the bardo, the voices of Saunder’s supernatural tale reveal the cultural atmosphere of a somber, death-ridden time.

As implied by the title, President Lincoln is one of the Bardo’s leading characters. Attempts to capture not just compelling but also insightful sketches of (arguably) one of the most renowned US presidents have been made before—and, unsurprisingly, they are not met without harsh criticism. Whether shown in good, bad, murky light, a writer’s conception of Lincoln’s image rarely eludes piercing, whether by the disgruntled cries of obstinate patriots or the white-hot spurn of politically-charged multiculturalists. Saunders, who has established his authority as a writer with several critically-acclaimed short-story collections (Pastoralia, Tenth of December), however, is well-prepared, if not qualified, to give readers a compelling impression of Lincoln. Saunders is most notably known for his treatment of moral and philosophical issues with sharp satire as well as for the tragicomic elements that permeate his work. Moreover, Saunders has already proved himself as a historical interpreter and commentator of the 19th century, in his rendering of a run-down theme-park set in the dystopian future whose characters are tinged—fatally equipped, rather—with faults we, as a society, have still not resolved despite having addressed them, time and time again, as faults which threaten our humanity: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. With Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders zones in on the American Civil War, consulting Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, among other books, to conjure the voices of his ghosts and the landscape they might have inhabited.

At first, Saunders’ experimental tale feels unwieldy, intercutting between the imagined rhapsody of Oak Hill cemetery dwellers and accounts of Civil War America culled from historical sources—some real, others fabricated. Dialogue, as well as exposition, is divided among and formatted within the excerpts that comprise each chapter. The characters to whom each excerpt belongs to are later referenced as in-text citations; so it is not immediately evident, for example, that hans vollman’s and roger bevins iii’s initial passages are intertextual. Chapters, furthermore, are as brief as one line or span across several pages, consisting of one character’s monologue or stringing together a congregation of memories detailed in and extracted from independent journals, letters, or literary works. But as the story progresses and readers become attuned to the medley of America’s bygone mouthpieces, Lincoln in the Bardo materializes as a harmony of winsome banter counterpointed by a revelatory review of the past. 

It’s worth noting that civil war is only alluded to, remaining a backdrop to the bawdy cemetery antics which account for most of Saunders’ narrative. Still, Saunders makes the gravity of war apparent at the start of his novel with interspersed chapters that catalogue the subjective judgements of those who attended a frivolous state party Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln had hosted; civil war had just erupted and their son lay sick and suffering just upstairs:

This, it occurred to me, this was the undisciplined human community that, fired by its dull collective wit, now drove the armed nation towards it knew-not-what sort of epic martial cataclysm: a massive flailing organism with all the rectitude and foresight of an untrained puppy.

In the private letters of Albert Sloan, by permission of the Sloane Family

Ostensibly biographical, Saunders’ New York Yimes bestselling performance stands out, not for its delightful poetic illustration (which readers might find isn’t uncommon throughout the novel), but more so for its mashup of fricative personalities, timbres, and moods in which recollections of the past are widely varied. In its totality, the book is a quirky read; each excerpt’s echo interferes with the next excerpt’s echo, and the result is, quite humorously, reminiscent of a yelp! review page.

Hans Vollman, a printer struck down by a compromised structural beam in his house, and Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay who commits suicide, are the principal narrators of Saunders’ macabre ensemble. Both Vollman and Bevins, along with every other hospital-yard apparition, are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and characterized accordingly with an ironic afterlife form. Vollman, who died before he could consummate his marriage, appears naked and with an eternally engorged member. Bevins’ multiple sets of eyes and hands, by contrast, “seem to represent the sensuous appetites that, as a closeted gay youth, he failed to fully explore before he committed suicide,” Caleb Crain points out in his review of the Bardo for The Atlantic. When I think back on my reading of Lincoln in the Bardo, I imagine a stage play of graveyard soliloquies. The ghosts of Oak Hill cemetery are a reactive, if disparate, collective, and they play off each other’s temperaments to charming effect: 

      Bored, we swarmed and entered that couple, and through the combined forced of our concentrated wishfulness, we were able to effect

hans vollman

      This much is true:
      They were overcome with sudden passion and retreated behind one of the stone homes.

roger bevins iii

      To act upon said passion.

hans vollman

      While we watched.

roger bevins iii

      I have misgivings about that. The watching.

hans vollman

      Well, you had no misgivings on that day, my dear fellow. Your member was swollen to an astonishing size. And even on a normal day, it is swollen to

roger bevins iii

      I seem to remember you watching as well. I do not recall the slightest aversion to any of your many, many—

hans vollman

      Truly, it was invigorating to see such passion.
      The fury of their embraces was remarkable.

roger bevins iii

Considering the fantastical elements of the Bardo, there is a burden placed upon readers to suspend their disbelief, trusting, then, in Saunders’ ability to create an internally consistent fictional world. The ghosts of Saunders’ Bardo are able to enter the living, transmuting their spectral forms to match, for example, Lincoln’s corporal form, gaining access to his sense and feeling. This might seem absurd to some, but I urge readers to just go with it. Doing so is necessary to understanding the abstract emotion (remorse, self-doubt, denial) Saunders’ conceptualizes in the Bardo—not to mention rewarding. Via Hans Vollman, nonetheless, we enter Lincoln’s psyche, feel seep into our stomachs what has seeped into his:

      He is just one.
And the weight of it about to kill me.
      Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys…here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I—
      May not have the heart for it.
      What to do. Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing fool, king of indecision, laughing-stock for the ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout?
      It is out of control. Who is doing it. Who caused it. Whose arrival on the scene began it.
      What am I doing.
      What am I doing here. 

The true mark of an effective satirist is an awareness of when to pull back from exaggeration, parody, and criticism, which Saunders does by supposing the intimate musing which might have coursed through President Lincoln’s mind during his solitary strolls through Oak Hill cemetery. These spiritual dialogues (which are not limited to Lincoln) are the hinges that add dimension to Saunders’ satire, turning it away from an external commentary on society and toward a more profound nature of commentary, commentary which aims at the fundamental, the metaphysical. Besides, the imposition of slavery is a symptom of human nature, but it is the cause we must confront, if we are to remedy people of a debilitating symptom. Bardo, then, is not so much concerned with constructing a moral critique on slavery itself (today, a wickedness decisively agreed upon) as it is with capturing a nation’s internal struggle to mature in an environment satiated with grave conflict and pubescent unrest.

At its most compelling moments—Lincoln’s visits to his son’s tomb—crowds (of ghosts) literally form, as if Saunders means to say this is important; this is important because it is a matter of humanity. The ghosts are captivated by the affection Lincoln shows toward his son’s dead body when he takes it out of its “sick-box,” both appalled and envious that someone from “that other place” would dare touch, much less caress, the boy’s “sick-form.” These visits, furthermore, place the struggle over Willie’s spirit in juxtaposition with the intensifying war. 

In my contemplation of Willie’s death and the American Civil War happening in coincidence, I recognize a president’s duty, both to his family and the nation; and then I can’t help but weigh the difference between family and nation. Immediately, I recall a minor yet though-provoking scene from Mindhunter, a netflix exclusive set in the 1970s which explores the coining of the term serial killer during the infancy of research on criminal profiling and psychology. Over a beer, enthusiastic FBI agent Holden Ford (based on real-life agent John E. Douglas) and lecturer Peter Rathman try to make sense of the psychological unrest plaguing America, going so far as to question deviant behavior as it relates to childhood upbringing and parental guidance, a line of thinking in opposition with the prevailing notion among law enforcement that a criminal and motive could almost always be attributed with a straightforward profile: the jilted lover, the ex-business partner. Holden points out how crime has changed, almost as if in response to unprecedented events happening during America’s modern era: Kent State, Vietnam, Watergate. Rathman, on the same wavelength, interjects, “The democracy is vanishing into…what?” They shrug. They don’t know. Then the young protegé asks, “Is that what this is all about? Just a response to turmoil?” Rathman concludes, “the government used to be, symbolically, a parental institution…now it’s a free-for-all.” 

What if they were on to something? 

For me, the role of president has always extended past politics. Specifically, I hold the president accountable for having to counsel a nation during its darkest trials, for inspiring confidence during stretches of self-doubt, for being, at times, the last example of strength a young person has to emulate—even when a president faces the same, if not greater, magnitude of struggle as his people, that is what I expect. Mother or father, father or mother, the president is a parent in every sense of the word, bearing all responsibilities, all failures, all qualities which come with the venture. George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, for me, upholds this sentiment in its paralleling of a parent’s grief at his son’s premature death and the disparagement of a president tasked with assuaging a nation in the fever of war.