Views of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

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A visual tour of George Saunders’ first novel

By now you’ve probably heard of the George Saunders first work of fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo, that was published in early 2017. In short order, the novel won the Man Booker Prize, was listed as one of the 100 notable books of 2017 by The New York Times and made Bill Gates list of five books worth reading for the summer of 2018. (If you are new to George Saunders, see his colorful self-written bio here — why should we try and describe the man when he does it so well himself!)

We are not here to review the novel (which is excellent and couldn’t agree more with Mr. Gate’s opinion…), rather, we seek to enrich the experience of those that have taken the great advice of many and read the book. For those that haven’t read the book-STOP HERE-go read the book and come back.

Cover of Lincoln in the Bardo — Landscape with Abraham and Isaac (John Pye, E. Webb)

Now, for those that have listened to the spectral orchestra that the maestro George Saunders so skillfully conducted into words, we hope to add to the experience by adding a visual companion to this great work. While Saunders pithily is able to paint an incredibly rich picture of so many different characters, voices and emotions (dense is the last word we would use in explaining the prose)-the lightness of the text seems all the more fitting given the ephemeral (and literally floating) nature of the cast.

Set in 1862, with the onset of photography less than three decades old, we can add texture to the story through its magical medium that original witnesses thought conjured up a way to visit the plane on which ghosts were said to exist —we are not joking. In fact, one of the most famous ‘spirit photographs’ is of a seated Mary Lincoln, wife of Abraham and mother to Willie, taken by William Mumler after the assassination of her husband. Perhaps an inspiration for this work…

Mary Todd Lincoln and the ghost of Abraham (William Mumler)

Spirit Photography, while a very interesting topic (Wikipedia) in its own right is not the point-let us return to the subject at hand.

In Chapter 18 we are introduced to a full description of Willie Lincoln’s character and appearance — by which point he has already been put in his ‘sick box.’ There are a myriad of views expressed from Saunder’s voices. Below we see an actual photograph of Willie Lincoln taken in 1860 by an unknown photographer and on the right a slightly older representation of the child from a photo taken by Matthew Brady, famous for his work during the American Civil War.

https://www.lincolncollection.org/search/results/item/?q=Willie+Lincoln&item=22925

On the left: A photograph of Willie Lincoln from 1860, two years before his death (source: Lincoln Collection). On the right: A likeness of Willie Lincoln from a Matthew Brady photography taken closer to the child’s death (source: Library of Congress).

Historians suspect that the Civil War, which Saunders shows weighing heavily on Lincoln’s mind midst his grief over the loss of his child, and the encampment of thousands of soldiers in Washington D.C. was likely the cause of the Typhoid Willie contracted. Thousands of soldiers and their mounts were present along the Potomac River, from which the White House drew its water, and thus a likely source of contaminated drinking water.

Crowds of civilians attending Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 (source: civil-war.net)
Union troops drilling in Washington, D.C. circa 1862 (source: PBS.org)

In stark contrast to the war raging across the nation, Saunder’s evokes a vivid description of the reception the Lincoln’s held at the White House while their son, Willie, lay on his death bed upstairs.

From Harpers, January 25th, 1862, shortly before Willie’s death, a depiction of reception at the White House hosted by the Lincolns (source: mrlincolnswhitehouse.org)

Obviously everyone had an opinion, but we haven’t been able to find a direct visual representation of the night in question, but the etching below provides some insight to what a guest may have encountered, although without the sight of

The flowing sugar gown of Lady Liberty descended like drapery upon a Chinese pagoda, inside of which in a pond of candy floss, swam upon a Chinese pagoda, inside of which, in a pond of candy floss, swam miniature fish of chocolate. (pg. 14, voice of Margaret Garret)

Now Saunder’s words paint a vivid enough picture, but will anyone complain if we toss out the comparison to a Willie Wonka wonderland-quite the contrast to the b&w photos capturing the grim realities of a war torn …

The set of the original Willie Wonka movie

While hell raged outside the White House in 1862, a party raged inside, all the while the Lincoln’s felt that they were in their own personal hells because of their child’s anguish upstairs — how public figures reconcile their civic duties to the care of their own families and their own sanity amidst the pull-and-push of these demands is a story told throughout the ages. Saunder’s tale captures this in a truly innovative manner that is sure to influence writers for ages.

Let us know if you enjoyed pairing some images to a text that while rich in its depictions, we humbly believe could be enjoyed even more with a few references for the eye! Thank you to George Saunders for producing such a captivating tale.

Willie Lincoln’s tomb within the crypt of William Thomas Carroll

(Picture by John Kelly/The Washington Post)

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