George Saunders Gets Inside Lincoln’s Head
Seekers of Presidential frisson cherish the synchronous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, on July 4, 1826, a temporal thrill doubled by the date’s being the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Another eerie conjunction belongs to February 20th, which delivered to the White House, on two occurrences a century apart, some of the keenest joy and deepest sorrow to enter the building.
At 4:10 p.m. on Tuesday, February 20, 1962, John F. Kennedy was on the phone congratulating John Glenn, who had just completed three orbits of Earth. Amid a clamor of national pride, the President quietly observed, “I have just been watching your father and mother on television, and they seemed very happy.” A hundred years earlier, almost to the hour, the set of parents then occupying the White House, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, were being plunged into an extreme grief by the death of their third son, Willie, who was eleven years old.
The boy had been seriously ill, probably from typhoid fever, for more than two weeks. On the evening of February 5th, the Lincolns had shuttled between his upstairs sickbed and the East Room. Signs of improvement several days later engendered only false hope. “Well, Nicolay,” a weeping Lincoln said to one of his secretaries on the afternoon of the twentieth, “my boy is gone—he is actually gone.” Four days after that, Willie’s body lay in the Green Room, next door to where Lincoln’s and, eventually, Kennedy’s would lie.
Willie’s fairness of face and sweetness of disposition made him his parents’ darling. After his death, both mother and father tended to view him as having been a sort of extraterrestrial visitor. “He was too good for this earth,” Lincoln remarked. Mary, in a letter to the painter Francis Carpenter, recalled the boy’s “always unearthly” nature. Hours before the assassination, during their afternoon carriage ride, the President invoked not only the just ended war but also Willie’s death as what he and Mary must finally try to rise above. Willie’s coffin was entombed for three years in Georgetown’s Oak Hill cemetery; it then shared the eighth car of Lincoln’s funeral train home to Springfield, where both father and son were laid to rest.
Willie’s temporary afterlife in Oak Hill has become the subject of George Saunders’s first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo” (Random House), now being published after a half-dozen books of accomplished, high-concept short fiction. The idea took hold, Saunders has said, when a friend told him how “newspapers of the time reported that Lincoln had returned to the crypt several times to hold his son’s body. As soon as I heard that, this image sprung to mind: a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà.” The novel that has resulted is anything but a quiet tableau. It depicts a ferocious, keenly felt, and sometimes comic struggle over Willie’s spirit while he is in a Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist transition from death to rebirth, during which one’s next life is very much up for grabs.