An 1861 painting of the Lincoln family in muted black and white. Abraham and Mary Todd are seated at either end of a table. Abraham is reading from a book. One son stands behind the table, one leans on Abraham's chair, and one is seated near Mary Todd looking toward the viewer

A Historian’s Trip to the Graveyard

bardo, noun
(In Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.
Origin: Tibetan bár-do, from bar “interval” + do “two.”1

For someone who spends their time obsessing over history, I don’t read much historical fiction. Given the choice between fiction and fact, I play by the “truth is stranger than fiction” rule. My “beach reads” for 2017 have so far included a history of hair removal, a study of Civil War medicine, and an exhaustive study of battered women’s trials in recent Canadian history — but only one work of historical fiction.

That book is Lincoln in the Bardo, and if you, too, are only going to read one historical fiction book this summer, I suggest you make it this one. George Saunders, author of the short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline among others, takes a bizarre premise — Willie Lincoln, the recently deceased third son of President Lincoln, wakes from death into a ghostly afterlife in Oak Hill Cemetery, accompanied by a grotesque yet surprisingly sympathetic cast of undead characters — and with this premise, and the meticulous and imaginative use of selections from primary sources, crafts a book like very few others.

The book jumps back and forth between history and reality. Some passages, built entirely from quotations from historical documents, provide a patchwork account of events on the ground in Washington in 1862: the party thrown by the Lincolns on the night of Willie’s illness; the funeral held four days after his death; contemporary accounts of Lincoln’s appearance, character, and management of the war between the states. Saunders handles these sources with a poet’s attention to phrasing and rhythm, weaving together disparate and even contradictory voices into a single account.

A portrait of George Saunders, bearded and facing the camera, seated, leaning his head on this hand, adjacent to the book cover of his book Lincoln in the Bardo
The cover of Lincoln in the Bardo, and a portrait of author George Saunders.

In between these chapters, we slip from fact into fiction — into the “bardo,” the dimension in between life and a clearly defined afterlife, where the residents of Oak Hill Cemetery attempt to help little Willie pass on into a proper death, as intended. It reads like a play without stage directions, in which all the action is filtered through characters’ voices just as the action of history must be filtered through the writings of historical characters and scholars.

The way the book is constructed seems like it shouldn’t work: it ought to be difficult to read, limiting in its scope, even dry. But it isn’t. Lincoln in the Bardo is delightfully weird; it’s illuminating in its perspective on history; it’s thought-provoking with regard to Lincoln and his policies; it’s funny at the most unlikely moments.

It’s also heart-shakingly sad. (I’m not a book crier, and I cried both times I read this book.) Saunders’s portrayal of Lincoln as a grieving father, both in fictional passages and through primary sources, shatters the myth we too often believe about the distant past, that in an era when children often died young the pain of that loss was lessened by its inevitability. Willie is a child like any other, and Lincoln is a father like any other: devastated by the loss of a boy he loved so dearly.

And Lincoln isn’t the only character whose unhappiness weighs on the book. The residents of Oak Hill Cemetery, frozen in miserable caricature between life and death, reflect the reality familiar to many historians that those who are most “visible” after their deaths are often those who were unhappy in life. They are all victims of something — suicide, battle, rape, enslavement, marital strife, or poverty — and they carry that unhappiness with them in the space between life and the afterlife.

It’s the cemetery that allows these people to linger, to repeat their stories to those around them, even if they never reach the ears of the living. The cemetery captures and preserves each life within its forbidding iron fence.

I was about a hundred pages from the end of Lincoln in the Bardo when I took a trip to a nearby cemetery to search for the grave of a woman I’ve been researching for nearly three years. Even with a cemetery map and a plot number, it took me a long time to find the headstone, in part because the graveyard itself was in such a state of disrepair. Hurricane damage, unstable soil, and neglect had all conspired to drag many of the stones deep into the earth; often only a faded “MOTHER” or “Here Lies” could be seen peeking through the long grass. When I finally found the stone I was looking for, I had to dig for a few minutes in the matted earth to clear off the woman’s full name.

On the far side of the cemetery, a barren plot of sandy earth stood scattered with temporary markers — small laminated cards with the names of the dead and, in many cases, the URL of Janaza Alert, a local funeral notification service for bereaved Muslim families. Some cards listed not the name of the deceased, but their mother: “Infant of _____;” “Fetus of ______,” stuck into a series of shallow, close-packed mounds near the edge of the plot. A few of the cards had fallen out onto the ground; soaked with rain, they were hard to distinguish from the Burger King wrappers someone had dropped walking through.

A photo of the Lincoln family tomb, featuring a tall stone obelisk behind and atop a curved stone building with three statues, the photo set against a blue sky
The Lincoln family tomb in Springfield, Illinois’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. (David Jones/Wikimedia | CC BY-SA)

I don’t have an argument for this post. But reading Lincoln in the Bardo, and walking through a real cemetery that had suffered the worst kind of neglect, got me thinking about the way history deals with the dead. In the most basic terms, the majority of historians write about dead people; we study and imagine their lives, doing our best to represent the fact but surely slipping from time to time into the realm of fiction. We privilege some of the dead, placing them high on hilltops under towering monuments of text. Others are harder to find; their names might be lost to time, with only the outline of a life available to the historian. Some groups barely earn a plot in history, with only cursory, embattled markers signaling their presence in the narrative at all.

Today, Willie Lincoln’s remains lie under a 117-foot obelisk in Springfield, Illinois’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. I, for one, have never thought much about that. But Lincoln in the Bardo has me thinking more and more about what’s underneath such monuments, and about the hidden lives, sufferings, hilarities, and contradictions too often swallowed up by history without a record in stone.

Notes

  1. Oxford Living Dictionaries definition of bardo. Return to text.

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