back to top

BuzzFeed News; Getty

Read This Excerpt From George Saunders' New Novel

Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel from renowned short story writer George Saunders, follows Abraham Lincoln's deceased son Willie as he navigates a purgatory realm filled with spirits. In this exclusive excerpt, a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln visits Willie's body in the mausoleum, as Willie and the other spirits watch.

Posted on
Willie Lincoln was the most lovable boy I ever knew, bright, sensible, sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered.
In “Tad Lincoln’s Father,” by Julia Taft Bayne.

He was the sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children.
Randall, op. cit.

His self-possession—aplomb, as the French call it—was extraordinary.
Willis, op. cit.

His mind was active, inquisitive, and conscientious; his disposition was amiable and affectionate; his impulses were kind and generous; and his words and manners were gentle and attractive.
In “Funeral Oration for Willie Lincoln,” by Phineas D. Gurley, in “Illinois State Journal.”

He never failed to seek me out in the crowd, shake hands, and make some pleasant remark; and this in a boy of ten years of age, was, to say the least, endearing to a stranger.
Willis, op. cit.

Willie had a gray and very baggy suit of clothes, and his style was altogether different from that of the curled darlings of the fashionable mothers.
In “The Truth About Mrs. Lincoln,” by Laura Searing (writing as Howard Glyndon).

I was one day passing the White House, when he was outside with a play-fellow on the sidewalk. Mr. Seward drove in, with Prince Napoleon and two of his suite in the carriage; and, in a mock-heroic way—terms of intimacy evidently existing between the boy and the Secretary—the official gentleman took off his hat, and the Napoleon did the same, all making the young Prince President a ceremonial salute. Not a bit staggered with the homage, Willie drew himself up to his full height, took off his little cap with graceful self-possession, and bowed down formally to the ground, like a little ambassador.
Willis, op. cit.

There was a glow of intelligence and feeling on his face which made him particularly interesting and caused strangers to speak of him as a fine little fellow.
Searing, op. cit.

It is easy to see how a child, thus endowed, would, in the course of eleven years, entwine himself round the hearts of those who knew him best.
Gurley, op. cit.

A sunny child, dear & direct, abundantly open to the charms of the world.
In “They Knew the Lincoln Boys,” by Carol Dreiser, account of Simon Weber.

A sweet little muffin of a fellow, round and pale, a long shock of bangs often falling before his eyes, who would, when he found himself moved or shy, involuntarily perform a rapid opening and closing of the eyes: blink, blink, blink.
In “The President’s Little Men,” by Opal Stragner.

When confronted with some little unfairness, his face would darken with concern, and his eyes well up with tears, as if, in that unfortunate particular, he had intuited the injustice of the larger enterprise. Once a playmate brought along a dead robin he had just killed with a stone, held tong-like between two sticks. Willie spoke brusquely to the boy, seized the bird away, took it off to bury it, was low and quiet for the rest of the day.
In “Lincoln’s Lost Angel,” by Simon Iverness.

His leading trait seemed to be a fearless and kindly frankness, willing that everything should be as different as it pleased, but resting unmoved in his own conscious single-heartedness. I found I was studying him irresistibly, as one of those sweet problems of childhood that the world is blessed with in rare places.
Willis, op. cit.

Privately, after the service, Dr. Gurley told people that shortly before death Willie had asked him to take the six dollars that were his savings out of the bank on his bureau and give them to the missionary society.
Kunhardt and Kunhardt, op. cit.

With all the splendor that was around this little fellow in his new home, he was so bravely and beautifully himself—and that only. A wild flower transplanted from the prairie to the hot-house, he retained his prairie habits, unalterably pure and simple, till he died.
Willis, op. cit.

Many months later, going through some old clothing for Mrs. Lincoln, I found, in a coat-pocket, a tiny wadded-up mitten. Many memories came back to me and I burst into tears. I will remember that little boy forever, and his sweet ways.
Hilyard, op. cit., account of Sophie Lenox, maid.

He was not perfect; he was, remember, a little boy. Could be wild, naughty, overwrought. He was a boy. However—it must be said—he was quite a good boy.
Hilyard, op. cit., account of D. Strumphort, butler.
About noon, The President, Mrs. Lincoln, & Robert came down and visited the lost and loved one for the last time, together. They desired that there should be no spectator of their last sad moments in that house with their dead child & brother. They remained nearly 1/2 an hour. While they were thus engaged there came one of the heaviest storms of rain & wind that has visited this city for years, and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within.
In “Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee ’s Journal, 1828–1870,” by Benjamin Brown French, edited by D. B. Cole and J. J. McDonough.

During the half hour the family was closeted with the dead boy, lightning cleaved the dark sky outside, thunder as terrible as artillery fire made the crockery shudder, and violent winds charged in from the northwest.
Epstein, op. cit.

From throughout the spacious halls that evening great sounds of grief could be heard, not all emanating from the direction of the room where Mrs. Lincoln lay insensate; the President’s deeper groans could also be heard.
In “My Ten Years at the White House,” by Elliot Sternlet.

A century and a half has passed, and yet it still seems intrusive to dwell upon that horrible scene—the shock, the querulous disbelief, the savage cries of sorrow.
Epstein, op. cit.

It was only just at bedtime, when the boy would normally present himself for some talk or roughhousing, that Mr. Lincoln seemed truly mindful of the irreversibility of the loss.
In “Selected Memories from a Life of Service,” by Stanley Hohner.

Around midnight I entered to ask if I could bring him something. The sight of him shocked me. His hair was wild, his face pale, with signs of recent tears plainly evident. I marveled at his agitated manner and wondered what might be the outcome if he did not find some relief. I had recently been to visit an iron-works in the state of Pennsylvania, where a steam-release valve had been demonstrated to me; the President’s state put me in mind of the necessity of such an apparatus.
Hilyard, op. cit., account of D. Strumphort, butler.
The unkempt gentleman was fussing over the small form now, stroking the hair, patting and rearranging the pale, doll-like hands.
roger bevins iii

As the lad stood nearby, uttering many urgent entreaties for his father to look his way, fuss over and pat him.
the reverend everly thomas

Which the gentleman appeared not to hear.
roger bevins iii

Then this already troubling and unseemly display descended to a new level of—
hans vollman

We heard an intake of breath from the Reverend, who, appearance notwithstanding, is not easily shocked.
roger bevins iii

He is going to pick that child up, the Reverend said.
hans vollman

And so he did.
The man lifted the tiny form out of the—
roger bevins iii

Sick-box.
hans vollman

The man bent, lifted the tiny form from the box, and, with surprising grace for one so ill-made, sat all at once on the floor, gathering it into his lap.
roger bevins iii

Sinking his head into the place between chin and neck, the gentleman sobbed, raggedly at first, then unreservedly, giving full vent to his emotions.
the reverend everly thomas

While the lad darted back and forth nearby, in an apparent agony of frustration.
hans vollman

For nearly ten minutes the man held the—
roger bevins iii

Sick-form.
hans vollman

The boy, frustrated at being denied the attention he felt he deserved, moved in and leaned against his father, as the father continued to hold and gently rock the—
the reverend everly thomas

Sick-form.
hans vollman

At one point, moved, I turned away from the scene and found we were not alone.
roger bevins iii

A crowd had gathered outside.
the reverend everly thomas

All were silent.
roger bevins iii

As the man continued to gently rock his child.
the reverend everly thomas

While his child, simultaneously, stood quietly leaning against him.
hans vollman

Then the gentleman began to speak.
roger bevins iii

The lad threw one arm familiarly around his father’s neck, as he must often have done, and drew himself in closer, until his head was touching his father’s head, the better to hear the words the man was whispering into the neck of the—
hans vollman

His frustration then becoming unbearable, the boy began to—
roger bevins iii

The lad began to enter himself.
hans vollman

As it were.
roger bevins iii

The boy began to enter himself; had soon entered himself entirely, and at this, the man began sobbing anew, as if he could feel the altered condition of that which he held.
the reverend everly thomas

It was all too much, too private, and I left that place, and walked alone.
hans vollman

As did I.
roger bevins iii

I lingered there, transfixed, uttering many prayers.
the reverend everly thomas

Mouth at the worm’s ear, Father said:
We have loved each other well, dear Willie, but now, for reasons we cannot understand, that bond has been broken. But our bond can never be broken. As long as I live, you will always be with me, child.
Then let out a sob

Dear Father crying    That was hard to see    And no matter how I patted & kissed & made to console, it did no

You were a joy, he said. Please know that. Know that you were a joy. To us. Every minute, every season, you were a—you did a good job. A good job of being a pleasure to know.

Saying all this to the worm!    How I wished him to say it to me    And to feel his eyes on me    So I thought, all right, by Jim, I will get him to see me    And in I went    It was no bother at all    Say, it felt all right    Like I somewhat belonged in

In there, held so tight, I was now partly also in Father

And could know exactly what he was

Could feel the way his long legs lay    How it is to have a beard    Taste coffee in the mouth and, though not thinking in words exactly, knew that the feel of him in my arms has done me good. It has. Is this wrong? Unholy? No, no, he is mine, he is ours, and therefore I must be, in that sense, a god in this; where he is concerned I may decide what is best. And I believe this has done me good. I remember him. Again. Who he was. I had forgotten some- what already. But here: his exact proportions, his suit smelling of him still, his forelock between my fingers, the heft of him familiar from when he would fall asleep in the parlor and I would carry him up to—

It has done me good.

I believe it has.

It is secret. A bit of secret weakness, that shores me up; in shoring me up, it makes it more likely that I shall do my duty in other matters; it hastens the end of this period of weakness; it harms no one; therefore, it is not wrong, and I shall take away from here this resolve: I may return as often as I like, telling no one, accepting whatever help it may bring me, until it helps me no more.


Then Father touched his head to mine.

Dear boy, he said, I will come again. That is a promise.
willie lincoln
After perhaps thirty minutes the unkempt man left the white stone home and stumbled away into the darkness.

Entering, I found the boy sitting in one corner.

My father, he said.

Yes, I said.

He said he will come again, he said. He promised.

I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved. A miracle, I said.
the reverend everly thomas

From the book LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders, published this month by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by George Saunders. All Rights Reserved.


George Saunders is the author of nine books, including the New York Times bestsellers Congratulations, by the way and Tenth of December, an essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone, and the critically acclaimed collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. In 2006, he was awarded a MacArthur fellowship. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University.

To learn more about Lincoln in the Bardo, click here.

Contact George Saunders at jarry.lee+georgesaunders@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.