Content: Willie Lincoln, one of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons, died of typhoid fever at age 11 in 1862. By all accounts of the day and historical scholarship, his death was devastating to the president and Mrs. Lincoln. He died on a night when the president and Mrs. Lincoln were hosting a long-planned and politically important party at the White House, and during the early years of the Civil War. For several nights after Willie’s funeral, witnesses saw Mr. Lincoln visit the cemetery, enter the mausoleum where Willie was interred, and stay for a long time. This is all historical fact, and we learn about these facts and their historical implications and interpretations in chapters composed of quotes from history books, old letters, first person accounts, and so on, cited by Saunders.
The other chapters in the book are purely Saunder’s invention. Saunders imagines the cemetery where Willie is buried populated by trapped lost souls. These people — or ghosts/spirits — remain attached to something or someone in the physical realm after their burial, and it keeps them from transitioning to the beyond. It’s a kind of purgatory or bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist concept of an intermediary state between death and rebirth. These spirits don’t seem to know they are dead, but they do know they are/were sick in some way. They each repeatedly obsess over whatever it is that ties them to the physical world. We learn their stories, which are sad, funny, weird, touching, and horrible — just like the stories of real people. Their ghostly forms often are a parody of their sorrows or attachments, i.e., one man who dies just before consummating his marriage with his beautiful young wife flits about with an erection so large he has to carry it in both hands so he doesn’t trip over it. Lots of different spirits narrate, but there are three main ones that describe most of the events after Willie’s funeral.
After his interment, Willie’s spirit is present in the cemetery/bardo. We learn it’s particularly horrible for children to become trapped, so the spirits are all expecting and hoping for Willie to move on rather quickly. This process is interrupted by Mr. Lincoln’s surprising visits. He even lifts Willie’s dead body out of his coffin (or “sick box” as the spirits call it) and holds him in his lap. The spirit Willie sits in his father’s lap, even enters his father’s body to “hear” his thoughts, and this confuses and slows the boy’s transition. The other cemetery spirits have never seen anyone behave as Mr. Lincoln has done, and they are excited, jealous, and fascinated by his visits. Some of them also enter Lincoln’s body and they “hear” his ruminations and pathos not only over his son’s death, but also over his great burden of responsibility and grief at the war.
It’s through these alternating chapters of historical quotes and spirit stories/narration of Mr. Lincoln’s nighttime cemetery visits, that we move through the novel.
Construction: At first crack, LITB looks tricky and hard to read with its many short quotes and citations. Here’s a slightly blurry photo (my specialty) of a couple of pages where you can see both the literary citations and the imaginary ones:
But once you start, it’s not hard at all. I soon skipped past reading the source of every historical citation, preferring to blend them into one seamless narrative in my head.
I imagine that Saunders came up with this construction when he was researching the topic. I imagine he wrote his notes and citations on index cards and then was fascinated by how he could arrange them all into little vignettes that became chapters. Why bother putting them in a fictional narrative, when they narrate so beautifully by themselves?
My copyeditor self could not help but wonder at the choice to punctuate and capitalize proper nouns in the literary citations, but keep the names of the spirit speakers/authors in lower case. Perhaps Saunders is playing with the notion of fact (the literary/historical record) vs. the fiction (the imaginary spirit “talk”). Or perhaps the spirits are no longer proper nouns because they are neither living persons nor just names on tombstones. Or maybe it is simply a quick visual that helps to remind the reader which type of chapter we are dealing with.
Similarly, Saunders does other interesting stylistic things with language. Sometimes -ed verbs (especially the word “wanted”) are given an extra space: want ed. Some ghosts speak in single words or short phrases with extra spaces between. Like. This. Some ghosts never punctuate; some swear like motherf—ers in a dizzy parade of letters and em dashes. These quirks are poetic and function like physical characteristics of the spirits’ personalities on the page.
I guess that one of the hardest things about writing a novel about a historical figure, and certainly a figure of Lincoln’s stature and importance, must be trying to get the reader into the character’s head. Maybe Saunders took this idiom quite literally and that is how he conceived of the structure. The literary citations paint an external, historical portrait of Mr. Lincoln and the setting at the time of Willie’s death. But Saunder’s ghosts get us quite literally inside Mr. Lincoln. Some of them — or sometimes hundreds of them at one time — go inside his body. And they describe to us what he is thinking, even if he can’t feel or hear them. We learn about his intense grief at Willie’s death, his worry about his wife, and his despair and self-doubt about the war and his own leadership. I know this sounds deeply weird and fantastical in review, but it works beautifully.
I loved this novel. It’s so wonderfully inventive in both structure and story. It’s both deeply, deeply sad and yet utterly comical. It’s about one beloved historical figure and yet about all of humanity with our many quirks, vanities, and frailties. I have never read anything else by Saunders, but that is about to change.