Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

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Lincoln in the Bardo
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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


The long-awaited first novel from the author of Tenth of December: a moving and original father-son story featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln, as well as an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, living and dead, historical and invented

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

Praise for Lincoln in the Bardo

“A luminous feat of generosity and humanism.”—Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Book Review

“A masterpiece.”—Zadie Smith

“Ingenious . . . Saunders—well on his way toward becoming a twenty-first-century Twain—crafts an American patchwork of love and loss, giving shape to our foundational sorrows.”—Vogue

“Saunders is the most humane American writer working today.”—Harper’s Magazine

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Product Details
Random House Publishing Group
Random House Publishing Group
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6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)
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About the Author

About the Author

George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
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Read an Excerpt

Read an Excerpt

Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:

We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.

Then let out a sob

Dear Father crying    That was hard to see    And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.

Saying all this to the worm!    How I wished him to say it to me    And to feel his eyes on me    So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me And in I went It was no bother at all    Say, it felt all right   Like I somewhat belonged in

In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father

And could know exactly what he was

Could feel the way his long legs lay     How it is to have a beard      Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to—

It has done me good.

I believe it has.

It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.

Then Father touched his head to mine.

Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.

willie lincoln

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

1. The presence of a child in the bardo is rare, but what other things about Willie make him different from the other ghosts?

2. Which of the ghosts’ stories resonated with you the most?

3. How did the style and form of the book enhance or detract from your experience of the story? What did you think of the author’s decision to include snippets of real, historical sources among the fictional narration?

4. In what ways do the social structures of this time period manifest in the bardo? How does Saunders play with and explore historical attitudes towards race and class throughout the novel?

5. In what ways does Saunders challenge and expand the genre of historical fiction? Why do you think Lincoln and his legacy remain such popular subjects in literature today?

6. It is unknown, both to the reader and to the character of the Reverend Everly Thomas, why he is damned, even though he understands that he is dead. What do you think is meant by this omission?

7. On page 87, the Reverend Everly Thomas explains the Barons’ existence on either side of the dreaded fence as not about wealth per se, but about being “wealthy in spirit.” Discuss what this means, and how it relates to the slaves’ ability to be near the fence while the other ghosts remain unable to stand such proximity.

8. Roger Bevins says that “all were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” Vollman responds by saying “It was the nature of things” and that we are all “suffering, limited beings.” Do you agree?

9. George Saunders has described the question at the core of this book as, “How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?” Did you find this to be true, and do you feel like you came to a deeper understanding of mortality?

10. Towards the end, the ghosts unite in an attempt to “enter” Lincoln’s mind and stop him from leaving the graveyard. In doing so, they find themselves transformed from their wretched states, remembering parts of their lives that had been lost to them since entering the bardo. Discuss the significance of this transformation.

11. Discuss the final scene, in which Thomas Havens follows Lincoln out of the graveyard on horseback. What do you think this foreshadows?

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Editorial Reviews

Editorial Reviews

In 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 a hundred 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 1862; eleven months after the Lincolns moved to Washington D.C., ten 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 20th, he succumbed to his disease, aged eleven. 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 and 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 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.

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, appeared in the summer of 2013. In the fall, her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, was published by Simon & Schuster.

Reviewer: Liesl Schillinger

The Barnes & Noble Review
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Customer Reviews (22)
- Anonymous
June 19, 2017
An amazing story told in a whole new way. Fascinating until the r ...
An amazing story told in a whole new way. Fascinating until the regrettable end.
- Anonymous
June 15, 2017
I understand why some reviewers are slamming this book--it can be ...
I understand why some reviewers are slamming this book--it can be somewhat difficult to follow. That being said, I thought it was brilliant! I actually shed a tear or two--never had that happen while reading, that I can remember, at least. Very touching and tender--also funny and stimulating. I wish I could think of someone to share it with. It really is such an unusual book.
- keepssecrt
May 3, 2017
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