From the outside, America seems defined by its brutal polarities – political, racial, moral, economic, geographic. The Disunited States of America. From the inside, the picture is more complex; American life is not lived at these extremes, but in the murky, transitional spaces between them. George Saunders’s much-anticipated novel Lincoln in the Bardo is set in another murky, transitional space – between life and death – a space that proves a powerful allegory for the desires and sorrows of a nation conceived in liberty, but forged in blood.
In early 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son William (Willie) died of typhoid fever. Lincoln had been president for less than a year; the Union had shattered and the Civil War raged. As families buried their sons, the president grieved for his own. Newspapers reported that Lincoln was so debilitated by grief that he returned to Willie’s crypt alone at night to hold the boy’s body. Saunders’s novel imagines that this private tenderness has been observed, not by the living, but by a wakeful and garrulous chorus of ghosts.