Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

Our final review for this week’s roundtable comes from Nina Silber, Professor of History and American Studies at Boston University. You can read all of the roundtable contributions by clicking on the links in the guest editor’s introduction.

In this imaginative and deeply moving book, George Saunders has re-envisioned the moment when President Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie died, in February 1862, ten months into the Civil War. Saunders’ novel is an odd and unconventional book, composed of fragments of actual historical writing and fictionalized historical passages, along with the musings of individuals who have died and now inhabit the cemetery where Willie’s body has been interred. This is the “Bardo” of the book’s title – a sort of in-between place, poised between the land of the living and a more definitive afterlife – and the book’s central premise involves the struggle to get Willie, and his father, to fully accept death so that Willie can leave this disturbing transitional world.

More than just a meditation on Willie’s tragic demise, the book is also a much larger deliberation on the overwhelming onslaught of death that gripped Americans in the middle years of the nineteenth century. It evokes, for example, the sentimental reflections of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who, pondering the misery of losing a child to slave traders, likens that to an experience that would have been familiar to many American families of the 1850s. “Has there never been,” Stowe asks her readers, “in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave.”[1] Indeed, this is precisely what Abraham Lincoln does in Saunders’ book: so grief-stricken is he by Willie’s death that he visits his burial site, opens his coffin, and even lovingly cradles his dead body. And even if the literal handling of the body has more to do with Saunders’ artistic rendering than historical truth, he nonetheless captures the profound sadness Lincoln felt at this moment, a grief that numerous historians have attested to, including some who are quoted in these very pages.

Photograph taken in Matthew Brady’s studio showing Willie Lincoln, center, Tad Lincoln, right, and their cousin Lockwood Todd, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Also in the spirit of Stowe, Saunders’ book is a story about empathy: about learning to see and feel the full spectrum of the human experience, and especially human suffering. For Lincoln this means confronting not just the death of his child but the thousands and thousands of deaths on the battlefield. Saunders references the battle at Fort Donelson, which occurred just a few days before Willie died, to show the exponential mounting of Civil War casualties, beyond what anyone living had anticipated. “The dead at Donelson, sweet Jesus,” writes one of Saunders’ imagined informants. “Heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two on top of three.”[2] As historian Drew Faust has suggested, death at Fort Donelson, and even more so at battles yet to come, forced Americans in these years to reckon with the very meaning of death, grappling with what such monumental sacrifice might signify not just for individual families but for an entire nation. One suspects that Saunders, having read Faust, has exactly this point in mind: to consider how Lincoln may have worked through his sadness about Willie’s death into a larger reflection on Civil War mortality. As Lincoln begins to accept the finality of Willie’s passing we become privy to the president’s inner thoughts: “Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.”[3]

Willie’s death, in short, teaches Lincoln that he must pursue the war, swiftly and efficiently. It also forces Lincoln to think about what the killing means, what purpose, in short, the war would serve; fragments of the Gettysburg Address are even beginning to form in his mind. Saunders moves, perhaps, a bit too mechanically from this one episode of Lincoln’s private suffering to the Lincoln overseeing matters of great national import, yet much about his way of describing the president’s thought process – logical and ponderous, even in contemplating grief – rings true.

Although Saunders, like many historians, sees Lincoln primarily motivated to wage a war that would preserve a society giving opportunity to free white men, the author by no means neglects the horrors of slavery and how that, too, comes to weigh on Lincoln’s conscience. Thus the Bardo holds not only white characters but also, in a segregated section, black ones as well. This group includes Litzie, a young light-skinned woman who has endured such an unspeakable litany of abuse she has been rendered mute. Frequently accompanying Litzie is Mrs. Francis Hodge whose feet and hands have been worn away to bloody stumps. Like the white characters, the black ghosts, too, are moved by the sight of Lincoln cradling Willie’s dead body and see a chance to make their stories known to a figure from that “other place.” And, just like the white spirits, the black ghosts also have the ability to pass through Lincoln’s body, even affecting the living president’s thoughts and feelings. As Lincoln turns away from the cemetery and towards the task of waging a monumental war, he leaves with a black ghost clinging to his form, perhaps even to remain with him in perpetuity.

I suspect Saunders wants us to see this black figure, literally, as the weight upon Lincoln’s conscience. In this, Saunders advances an interpretation that, despite the fantastical scenario, would find favor with many historians: that the impulse to do right by black men and women may not have come completely naturally to Lincoln, but that the circumstances of the war gave the Civil War president a stronger sense of empathy that allowed him to move just a little bit closer towards addressing the human suffering of both white and black Americans.


[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 93.

[2] George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 152.

[3] Saunders, 306.

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is the Jon Westling Professor of History at Boston University and recently served as the President of the Society of Civil War Historians. Her most recent book is This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (Chapel Hill, 2019).  She’s currently at work on a history/memoir about her father, a central figure in the mid-twentieth century folk revival.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.