Presidential Purgatories: George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo”

By Matt SandlerMay 22, 2017

Presidential Purgatories: George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

GEORGE SAUNDERS’S Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, offers a surreal and melancholic vision of a presidency in crisis. Its high moral seriousness makes an odd vantage from which to contemplate the grotesquerie of the Trump administration. But this odd and unanticipated historical perspective also makes the novel’s arrival an occasion to wonder about the distinctly white and middle-class political ambitions of literary fiction. The term “literary fiction” usefully describes a set of linked phenomena from the rise of creative writing programs to the changing shape of the market for books. Recent books like Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Amy Hungerford’s Making Literature Now, and n+1’s MFA vs NYC have illuminated the institutions that support and constrain contemporary American literature. Recent debates and scandals have drawn out the “diversity” problems that define the perspectives of those organizations. As a novel about a white hero of the Civil War era by a white author, Lincoln in the Bardo enters this fractious scene with Saunders’s characteristic humor and expansive sensibility. In this respect, it feels more like the last presidential fiction of the Obama era than the first of the Trump administration. However, the novel also reflects on a moment much like the present, in which the day-to-day business of politics gave way to a more fundamental test of principles.

Lincoln in the Bardo centers on the death of the president’s son, Willie Lincoln, in 1862. Saunders sets the scene through whole chapters made up of interpolated quotations from contemporary and historiographic sources, recounting the death of Willie in painstaking and dramatic detail. These moments, which open the novel and occasionally return at key moments in the narrative, recall the work of the “lowly Verisimilitude Inspector” in Saunders’s early story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (1996), who watches out for lapses in accuracy in an absurd historical theme park. The trick can be traced to 19th-century literary experiments like Moby-Dick (1851), with its own showy research into the intellectual history of whales by a “Sub-Sub-Librarian.” Here, it gives the story of Willie’s death a kind of watched quality — the sheer variety of voices taking measure of the Lincoln family’s moods gives their grief world-historical freight. The commentators in Saunders’s research often range beyond fact into the kind of projection typical of presidential lives: “[Willie] was his father over again both in magnetic personality and in all his gifts and tastes,” writes Ruth Painter Randall in Lincoln’s Sons (1955).

Saunders keeps up the quotational style when he turns from historical sources to the spirits in the cemetery where Willie is interred. This technique gives the narrative a dramatic quality, leavened by the way the spirits also speak in free indirect discourse, seeming to recall the events of the plot from an indistinct distance of time. They also appear to share a vocabulary for describing the afterlife, many of them describing “the bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon” that accompanies a soul’s passage out of the “bardo” in the title. This Tibetan Buddhist concept, which motivates the novel’s speculative premise, is translated variously as the liminal, intermediate, or transitional state between incarnations. The novel’s depiction of the afterlife is more syncretic than doctrinal however, and its setting is often purgatorial. Saunders cannot resist the occasional Dante-esque counter-punishment, like the hunter who must cuddle the spirit of every animal he has killed. To go into detail about the characters who follow Lincoln and his son’s fate most closely — Roger Bevins III, Hans Vollman, and the Reverend Everly Thomas — would give up some of the novel’s best-kept secrets. Suffice it to say that they represent iterations of white male frailty, and so in Saunders’s scheme, Bevins has the many eyes of an insect, while Vollman is weighed down by his outrageously enormous dick.

The novel’s subject matter is thus both explicitly political and obliquely allegorical. Its focus on the death of Willie seems for long stretches like a kind of fetishistic turning away from the problem of slavery (which has of course been the focus of an enormous body of historical fiction in the last several decades). The character of Willie represents a late turn on the “racial innocence” Robin Bernstein finds across 19th-century American children’s culture — and yet both the historical sources and the spirits testify to the boy’s intuition, his precocious intelligence, and charisma. Willie died, as Saunders notes, just as news of major casualties of the Battle of Fort Donelson were reported in the capitol.

The boy thus comes to symbolize the principle of “sacrifice” which sometimes organizes histories of the Civil War era. The rabble of spirits sets up this conclusion, taking an interest in the fate of Willie’s soul and in the president’s arrested grief. In representing the souls drawn to the boy, Saunders makes a bid for the kind of democratic multivocal quality of the American novel at its finest, and he casts a range of minor characters in a sometimes Whitmaniac tally of the American body politic. His short fiction has long been guided by a sense of economic justice, but here we also find (especially in the later pages) fully developed Black and queer characters in determining roles. The writing in these later pages, which observes the transformation of Lincoln’s melancholia to political resolution via the spirits, is downright gorgeous, rewarding those who might find the citational disjunctiveness of the novel exhausting. Here, Bardo’s Buddhism lands with a kind of polemical force, in Lincoln’s haunted realization that, “his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone.”

Saunders’s turn from short story to the novel indicates not only his ambition but also echoes a classic 19th-century move, followed by Poe, Hawthorne, and Twain. The will to the scale of the novel in this tradition has sometimes yielded representations of American life that capture its tragicomic complexity. At other moments, or perhaps according to other critics, the failure of these attempts has given American art its true democratic quality. Lincoln in the Bardo might yield a similar ambivalence. Does the citational style feel democratic or flattening? Does the climax compensate for the long, lonely feeling of bardo in the early pages? These questions now belong in significant ways to the institutional matrix of creative writing and literary fiction. The MFA program emphasis on craft has long hoped to save American literature from its democratic excesses and perhaps to resolve the literary ratio of elitism and democracy in the minds of educated readers. McGurl refers to Saunders’s preference for the short story as a part of the program era’s preference for “miniatures,” in which literary refinement is best exemplified. Here lies the risk of his late turn to the novel, at the intersection of craft and politics.

Polemics against literary fiction remind me of a parallel conversation in the visual arts about what some critics call “zombie modernism.” This idea suggests that the techniques for signaling formal innovation have become fixed, that we have become accustomed to recognizing the signals of contemporaneity precisely because they are fixed, rote, and dead. As a generalization, I think this notion can serve critiques of literary fiction as well, which can often seems to exist in its own kind of bardo. The research that pads out Saunders’s novel is a delight to read, frankly, but it is also recognizable in the work of other “modern” novelists like Melville and Joyce. The misapprehension of the present that characterizes “zombie modernism” has political implications of course as well. On the other side of the recent election, one might wish that Saunders’s lefty, late-boomer sensibility had reckoned the problem of what Dana Nelson calls “presidentialism” — the ideology of national leadership she reads as “bad for democracy.” Beyond formal politics, Saunders’s drama of white masculinity misses the subject’s now most urgent tones, which are too plainly moronic and resentful to find a place in this story. Here too lies another limitation of literary fiction; craft sets it at a distance from the defining scenes of our moment. Saunders reckons this problem in a deeply felt summer 2016 New Yorker piece about visit to a Trump rally. But the problem of form and its institutionalization persists; given the current crisis, the figure of the novelist in the comfortable repose of a leafy college town sounds a bit like a soul in purgatory.

The predicament of the campus novelist has long generated drama, no doubt, and all the more so as those cushy gigs dry up, to say nothing of the leaves. But still, one wonders: How will the edifice of literary fiction in its ivory towers and lowly precincts weather the rise of a less-refined sensibility in American political culture?

Saunders’s novel answers these questions by asking another one: can the undead be woke? I use the millennial term for political consciousness, because I think the novel’s concern for generations bears on the present as well. The spirits want Willie to settle into death, and the president to mourn well, out of a sense of commitment to the good that goes beyond the span of human life. Lincoln in the Bardo draws into a kind of transhistorical afterlife the question Saunders once asked in an introduction to Huckleberry Finn: “How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours?” One answer over the tumultuous second half of the 20th century, at least for artists and intellectuals, has been to land a job in the academy, where at least one can contemplate the mistakes of the past with a modicum of protection. But Saunders is too searching an artist to rest so easy, and so this novel wonders for the rest of us how we are fated together, in this life and the next.


Matt Sandler works at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University and is writing a book about Black Romantic poets in the Civil War era.

LARB Contributor

Matt Sandler works at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University and is writing a book about Black Romantic poets in the Civil War era. He tweets a little diffidently @mfsandler


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