Lincoln in the Bardo

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Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders first edition.jpg
First hardcover edition
AuthorGeorge Saunders
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical fiction, magical realism, experimental fiction
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
February 14, 2017
Media typePrint (hardcover)

Lincoln in the Bardo is a 2017 experimental novel by American writer George Saunders.[1][2][3][4] It is Saunders's first full-length novel and was the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller for the week of March 5, 2017.[5]

The novel takes place during and after the death of Abraham Lincoln's son William "Willie" Wallace Lincoln and deals with the president's grief at his loss. The bulk of the novel, which takes place over the course of a single evening, is set in the bardo—an intermediate space between life and rebirth.

Lincoln in the Bardo received critical acclaim, and won the 2017 Booker Prize.[6][7] Many publications later ranked it one of the best novels of its decade.

Conception and research[edit]


The novel was inspired by a story Saunders's wife's cousin told him about how Lincoln visited his son Willie's crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown on several occasions to hold the body,[8] a story that seems to be verified by contemporary newspaper accounts.[9] In March 2017, Saunders provided more detail on the background and conception of his novel:

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife's cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt "on several occasions" to hold the boy's body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn't getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read "Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt", decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt [...].[10]

Without giving anything away, let me say this: I made a bunch of ghosts. They were sort of cynical; they were stuck in this realm, called the bardo (from the Tibetan notion of a sort of transitional purgatory between rebirths), stuck because they'd been unhappy or unsatisfied in life. The greatest part of their penance is that they feel utterly inessential – incapable of influencing the living.

— George Saunders (2017)[10]

Saunders first announced the novel in a 2015 New York Times interview with the novelist Jennifer Egan, revealing that it would have a "supernatural element" while remaining "ostensibly historical".[11] The novel's title was announced in a conversation between Saunders and Susan Sarandon in Interview magazine, in April 2016.[12] That same month, a description of the book was posted on the Random House website.[13]


Saunders did not originally intend to write a novel (and had avoided doing so in the past[14][10][15]), but the story of Lincoln cradling his son's body stayed with him, and he eventually decided to write about it.[8] The novel began as a single section, and was fleshed out over time.[8]

To produce the book, Saunders conducted extensive research on Lincoln and the Civil War, consulting, among other books, Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore (1962).[16] Saunders rearranged historical sources to get at the "necessary historical facts", and included excerpts from them in the novel.[15] Many of these sources are cited in the book, along with some fictional ones.[17]

Abraham Lincoln Statue near the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

In a The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast with David Remnick, Saunders described how a melancholic Lincoln the Mystic statue, sculpted by James Earle Fraser, propelled him through the novel. The statue is in front of his office at Syracuse University, near the Tolley Hall.[18][19]

Saunders has said that he was "scared to write this book". He worried about his ability to portray Lincoln, but decided that limiting his characterization to a single night made the writing process "not easy, but easier, because I knew just where he was in his trajectory as president".[20] Given that his work is generally set in the present, Saunders compared writing a novel set in 1862 to "running with leg weights" because he "couldn't necessarily do the voices that I would naturally create".[21]


Much of the novel takes place in the bardo, a Tibetan term for the Buddhist "intermediate state" between death and reincarnation when the consciousness is not connected to a body. In Saunders's conception, the "ghosts" that inhabit the bardo are "disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive" and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.[22] They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their "hospital-yard" and to their coffins as "sick-boxes".[22]

Saunders has said that, while he named the setting after Tibetan tradition, he incorporated elements of the Christian and Egyptian afterlives, so as not to be "too literal." The selection of the term "bardo", he said, was "partly to help the reader not to bring too many preconceptions to it... in a book about the afterlife, it's good to destabilize all of the existing beliefs as much as you can."[20]


Saunders has typically recorded his stories' audiobook adaptations himself,[23] but given this novel's cast of 166 characters, he did not feel he could be the sole voice actor for its adaptation. His friend Nick Offerman agreed early in the production process to take a role, as did Offerman's wife, Megan Mullally. The two then recruited Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, and Susan Sarandon. Non-celebrities with parts include Saunders's wife, his children, and various friends.[23] Other notable narrators include David Sedaris, Carrie Brownstein, Lena Dunham, Keegan-Michael Key, Miranda July, Ben Stiller, Bradley Whitford, Bill Hader, Mary Karr, Jeffrey Tambor, Kat Dennings, Jeff Tweedy, and Patrick Wilson.[24]

Mullally and Offerman purchased the rights to produce a film version of the novel five weeks after it was released.[25] Saunders will be involved in the process, and has said he hopes to "find a way to make the experience of getting [the] movie made as wild and enjoyable and unpredictable as the experience of writing it".[25]

In February 2017, Lincoln in the Bardo was adapted as a 360-degree, interactive virtual reality video, commissioned by The New York Times.[26] The adaptation was directed by Graham Sack and produced by Jennifer 8. Lee.[27]


Critical reception[edit]

Lincoln in the Bardo was acclaimed by literary critics, with review aggregator Bookmarks reporting zero negative and only three mixed reviews among 42 total, indicating "rave" reviews.[28] The novel won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.[7] The novelist Colson Whitehead, writing in the New York Times, called the book "a luminous feat of generosity and humanism."[29] Time magazine listed it as one of its top ten novels of 2017,[30] and Paste ranked it the fifth best novel of the 2010s.[31]

The novel has been compared with Edgar Lee Masters's poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, published in 1915.[32][22][33] Tim Martin, writing for Literary Review, also compared its "babble of American voices," some from primary sources and some expertly fabricated, with the last act of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. [34]


The novel was listed as a bestseller in the United States by The New York Times and USA Today.[35][36]


The novel has been translated into Polish by Michał Kłobukowski and published by Znak in 2018.[37] In Brazil, it was translated into Portuguese by Jorio Dauster and published by Companhia das Letras in 2018.[38] In Iran, it was translated in Persian by Naeime Khalesi and published by Jomhooripub in 2018.[39] It was translated in Greek by Giorgos-Ikaros Babasakis and published by Ikaros in 2017.[40] A Swedish translation (by Niclas Nilsson) was published by Albert Bonniers Förlag in 2018.


  1. ^ Iaciofano, Carol (14 February 2017). "George Saunders' 'Lincoln In The Bardo' Goes Inside Our 16th President's Mind At A Pivotal Moment". WBUR. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  2. ^ "'Lincoln In The Bardo' Pictures An American Saint Of Sorrow". NPR. 11 February 2017. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  3. ^ Whitehead, Colson (9 February 2017). "Colson Whitehead on George Saunders's Novel About Lincoln and Lost Souls". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 February 2017.
  4. ^ Alter, Alexandra (17 October 2017). "George Saunders Wins the Man Booker Prize for 'Lincoln in the Bardo'". Retrieved 19 October 2017 – via
  5. ^ "Hardcover Fiction - March 5, 2017". The New York Times. 23 February 2017. Retrieved 24 February 2017.
  6. ^ "Man Booker Prize 2017: shortlist makes room for debuts alongside big names". The Guardian. 13 September 2017. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  7. ^ a b "Booker winner took 20 years to write". BBC News. 18 October 2017. Retrieved 18 October 2017.
  8. ^ a b c Rosenberg, Tal (21 February 2017). "The Chicago education of George Saunders". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  9. ^ Mallon, Thomas (13 February 2017). "George Saunders Gets Inside Lincoln's Head". The New Yorker. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  10. ^ a b c Saunders, George (4 March 2017). "What Writers Really Do When They Write" – via The Guardian.
  11. ^ Egan, Jennifer (12 November 2015). "Choose Your Own Adventure: A Conversation With Jennifer Egan and George Saunders". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  12. ^ "Susan Sarandon/George Saunders". Interview Magazine. 4 April 2016. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  13. ^ Shephard, Alex (29 April 2016). "Here's What We Know About George Saunders' First Novel". The New Republic. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  14. ^ Del Signore, John (15 February 2017). "George Saunders Discusses 'Lincoln In The Bardo' And Trump In The White House". Gothamist. Archived from the original on 17 February 2017. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  15. ^ a b Smith, Zadie (2 February 2017). "George Saunders by Zadie Smith". Interview Magazine. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  16. ^ "George Saunders: By the Book". The New York Times. 16 February 2017. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  17. ^ Corrigan, Maureen (9 February 2017). "George Saunders Re-Imagines A President's Grief With 'Lincoln In The Bardo'". NPR. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  18. ^ Remnick, David (January 13, 2017). "George Saunders's Lincoln". The New Yorker Radio Hour (Podcast). WNYC. Retrieved 30 November 2022.
  19. ^ McMahon, Julie (14 February 2017). "See the Abe Lincoln statue that helped inspire a book". The Post-Standard. Retrieved 30 November 2022.
  20. ^ a b "Consciousness Is Not Correct: A Conversation with George Saunders". Weld for Birmingham. 2017-02-15. Archived from the original on 2019-02-15. Retrieved 2017-03-02.
  21. ^ Fassler, Joe (15 February 2017). "George Saunders on Chekhov's Different Visions of Happiness". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  22. ^ a b c Crain, Caleb (25 March 2017). "The Sentimental Sadist". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  23. ^ a b Biedenharn, Isabella (8 February 2017). "How George Saunders got the greatest audiobook cast in history for Lincoln in the Bardo". EW. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  24. ^ "Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders | Full Cast Listing". Penguin Random House Audio. Retrieved September 16, 2020.
  25. ^ a b Avins, Jenni (23 March 2017). ""Lincoln in the Bardo" is headed for Hollywood, thanks to Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman". Quartz. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  26. ^ The New York Times (2017-02-11), Lincoln in the Bardo | 360 VR Video | The New York Times, retrieved 2019-03-11
  27. ^ "From Novel to VR Film: Making The Times' 'Lincoln in the Bardo'". Publishing Perspectives. 2017-02-15. Retrieved 2019-03-11.
  28. ^ "Bookmarks reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders". LitHub. Archived from the original on October 18, 2017. Retrieved October 18, 2017.
  29. ^ Whitehead, Colson (2017-02-09). "Colson Whitehead on George Saunders's Novel About Lincoln and Lost Souls". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-10-18.
  30. ^ Begley, Sarah (November 21, 2017). "The Top 10 Novels of 2017". Time. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  31. ^ "The 40 Best Novels of the 2010s". 2019-10-14. Retrieved 2020-05-03.
  32. ^ Finch, Charles (17 February 2017). "Review: George Saunders' remarkable first novel, 'Lincoln in the Bardo'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  33. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (6 February 2017). "Review: 'Lincoln in the Bardo' Shows a President Haunted by Grief". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  34. ^ Martin, Tim (1 March 2017). "A Night in Purgatory". Literary Review. Retrieved 28 February 2023.
  35. ^ "The New York Times Best Sellers - March 5, 2017". The New York Times. 5 March 2017. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  36. ^ McClurg, Jocelyn (22 February 2017). "'Lincoln in the Bardo' lands high on USA TODAY's list". USA Today. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  37. ^ "Lincoln w Bardo". Retrieved 20 September 2018.
  38. ^ "Lincoln-no-Limbo". Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  39. ^ "لینکلن در باردو". Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  40. ^ "Λήθη και Λίνκολν". Retrieved 19 November 2019.