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Willie Lincoln

Willie Lincoln

by William H. Benson

April 6, 2017

     Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever, on Thursday, February 20 1862. The most likely cause was from drinking contaminated water drawn from the Potomac River. His mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, was hysterical with grief, and the President suffered his own private agony.

     He said, “My poor boy He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so much. It is hard, hard to have him die.”

     Four days later, the Lincoln family laid Willie to rest in a vault at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, a Washington D.C. district. In the days ahead, the grief-stricken President returned again and again to the crypt to lift Willie’s body out of his vault and hold him, a strange and unusual action.

     The modern-day author, George Saunders, writes short stories, mainly of the supernatural. He took the historical facts associated with Willie’s passing and then wrote a novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, now a best-seller that he first published on February 14. To the historical characters, Saunders adds a full cast of fictional characters, spirits of those buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery.

     “Bardo” is a Tibetan word from Buddhism that refers to a state of existence between death and rebirth, that varies in length according to a person’s conduct in life. It is the son Willie who is in the bardo, and not the father Abraham.

     In each chapter, Saunders offers a series of quotes—most are a line or two, but some a page—that he lifts from countless historical documents and then provides attribution, as to where he found each.

     For example, “’Willie was burning with fever on the night of the fifth, as his mother dressed for the party. He drew every breath with difficulty. She could see that his lungs were congested and she was frightened.’ In ‘Twenty Days,’ by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt.”   

     The dead gaze at the lad, and talk amongst themselves. For example, one of the dead, Reverend Everly Thomas, says, “’The newcomer was a boy of some ten or eleven years. A handsome little fellow, blinking and gazing cautiously about him.” Then, after Lincoln visited the crypt, the spirit Hans Vollman said, “And yet no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.”

     Rather than build a plot or a storyline, Saunders paints a collage, a verbal work of art. He intersperses the words of the those who witnessed Willie’s death and burial, with those of the walking, and talking, dead. One book reviewer said, “Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, a theatrical panorama of voices.”

     In a “Letter to the Editor,” dated Sunday, March 12, 2017, Jay H. Lefkowitch of New York points out how similar Saunders’s novel Lincoln in the Bardo is to an episode of The Twilight Zone, called “The Passerby.” (Season 3, episode 4.) Rod Serling wrote the story, and it first aired October 6, 1961.

     Serling begins, “It began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and ended at a place called Appomattox. It’s littered with the residue of broken battles and shattered dreams. In just a moment, you will enter a strange province that knows neither North nor South, a place we call The Twilight Zone.

     A woman named Lavinia rocks back and forth on a chair on the front porch of a burned out house somewhere in the South. A stream of wounded and crippled soldiers pass by her house, each anxious to get to the end of the road, obscured by fog. She soon realizes that they are dead, Civil War casualties.

     Lavinia sees her husband Jud, and he tells her that he too is dead, killed in a battle, and that she also died of a fever. He wants to walk on, into the fog, but she hesitates, falls to her knees, looks up, and sees Abraham Lincoln standing over her, his stove-pipe hat atop his head.

     Lincoln helps Lavinia up to her feet, and then he quotes Shakespeare’s words from his play Julius Caesar. “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear, Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” Lincoln tells her that he is the final passerby, “the final casualty of the war.” She races ahead to join Jud, in the fog, at the end of the road.

     Rod Serling concludes the episode. “Incident on a dirt road during the month of April, the year 1865. As we’ve already pointed out, its a road that won’t be found on a map, but it’s one of many that lead in and out of The Twilight Zone.

     George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, and Rod Serling’s “The Passerby.”

     The actor James Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington D. C. on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and he died on Saturday, just hours away from Sunday morning, Easter. A funeral train carried the President’s body, and that of his son Willie, back to their home in Springfield, Illinois, where they were buried side by side in the family plot on May 4, 1865.