Lincoln in the Bardo

Author: George Saunders

Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Audio Program Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

What a joyful surprise: both in terms of presentation of the material as well as the story that was shared. A tender, poignant, and occasionally phantasmagorical surprise about a figure that perennially fascinates Americans: Abraham Lincoln.

How did a seemingly simple (but documented as ambitious) man from rural Illinois / Kentucky resolve to undertake the bloodiest slaughter in American history? How did he square all that death as he lay his head down at night. How did he balance that with the unthinkable weight of office and perch atop those swaying scales the question of the fundamental right of a human to determine their own destiny?

There will never be “enough” written about Lincoln, but how to say something new? I think Lincoln in the Bardo says something new about the man, as a human in a thoroughly novel fashion.


While certainly a bit self-serving, this production garnered the top award for audiobook by, and deservedly. The cast is superb and the quality of voice acting was simply top notch. Nick Offerman and David Sedaris voiced our leads tour guides, Vollman and Bevins, respectively.

Offerman’s bourgeois stentorian voice fits perfectly for a robust and strong printer, Vollman, who died on the eve he was to consummate his marriage. Sedaris’ soft, yet prone to excitement voice fits with the sensualist, denied-in-love, Bevins. With these two as our leads, we slowly come to realize that they are not exactly alive anymore.

In a certain postmodern sensibility, the book also plays with the fact that Ken Burns’ “Civil War” is the default media lens through which Americans consider the “Civil War.” Scratchy fiddles mark interludes and letters are read in the “Dear Martha” trope voice we know from the “Civil War.” The book featured pull-quotes as filler between the “story” of Lincoln in the graveyard providing fascinating historical insights to how “God-Damned Abraham Lincoln, the Ditherer in Chief” was not the vaunted Lincoln of our present historiography. These snippets serve to reduce Lincoln to a man, a parent, a wounded parent who is facing the most unbearable of fates: death of a favorite child.

Unlike a straight read of the book as the material for the audiobook, the host of voices, ghosts, newspaper clippings, historical research woven together make the presentation feel more like a play. It was wise of the production to take that as the cue to try doing a radio-play (like “Doctor Who” or “Hitchhiker’s Guide” from BBC; closer to home, Welles’ “War of the Worlds”). It’s not so much an audio book but a recorded play.

And the voice cast is expansive: Offerman, Sedaris, Megan Mulally, Susan Sarandon, and Jeff Tweedy of Son Volt!). Tweedy delivers a particularly rousing voice characterization of a vehemently bitter racist slave-owner who delights in the sadism and cruelty of having been a slave-master who, even in the afterlife shows no new capacity for feeling.


The Bardo, the Tibetan Buddhist land between this world and our next incarnation is inhabited by these unhappy shades who refuse to move on to wherever or whatever their fate holds. It is in this overlain reality that they observe the historically accurate entry and departure of Lincoln into the crypt of his dead son, Willie.

Lincoln, half-heartedly enters the crypt to touch the still body of his dead son and, through the ghosts, we come to hear the abject sorrow in the man. As humans we know how low his heart must be, but with the Civil War beginning around him, Lincoln immediately externalizes this sorrow and realizes it to be a true (if not the truest) unifying experience of this mortal coil: our polite forgetfulness toward the inevitability of Death. But for Lincoln is no longer a polite abstraction: it is real for his son today, real for sons of the South and the North tomorrow, and real for more sons day by day, year by year, for however this conflict to preserve the Union endures.

Baghavad Lincoln

In this graveyard, in this midnight of the soul, his heart aches and his mind frays. The tears fall. But as followers in chronology, we know that Lincoln does commit to the war, does resolve to prosecute it fully, and ultimately prevails. What happened on this night that allowed him to shake his grief?

In this, the book turns closer to the Baghavad Gita where Lincoln, a latter avatar of Arjuna realizes that the cause is righteous and demands blood. Life demands death, it cannot be avoided. But his pursuit of right can make those deaths achieve something. And therefore, the most impeccable thing he can do, since he cannot escape death, is to prosecute with full conviction that the slipped dogs of war might most expediently be brought to heel.


I enjoyed this book very much, I also enjoyed the audio production. I’d definitely recommend it be experienced in either format. It gave me a way to feel the heart and the vulnerability of one of our most outstanding Americans.