‘Lin­coln in the Bardo’ deals with grief over his son

The Buffalo News - - GUS­TO­SUN­DAY -

“Then he died and be­came Christ­like,” Saunders said.

The Fran­cis col­lec­tion

Lin­coln vis­ited Buf­falo three times.

In 1848, he spent a night with his wife down­town while cam­paign­ing for a fel­low Whig politi­cian. In 1857, he stayed at the Cataract House in Ni­a­gara Falls with his wife and three sons.

In 1861, Lin­coln was re­ceived by a crowd es­ti­mated as large as 75,000 when he stopped in Buf­falo on the way to his in­au­gu­ra­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The pres­i­dent-elect gave a speech Feb. 16, 1861, from the bal­cony of the Amer­i­can Ho­tel fes­tooned with bunting. Be­side him were for­mer pres­i­dent Mil­lard Fill­more, a news­pa­per edi­tor, the act­ing mayor and a fu­ture Civil War hero.

A mu­ral on the sec­ond floor of the Buf­falo His­tory Mu­seum painted dur­ing the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1940 by artists Charles Grief and Ed­ward Riegel shows Lin­coln on that bal­cony.

On that trip, Lin­coln also stopped in West­field and said hello to a girl who wrote him a let­ter sug­gest­ing he grow a beard.

The Buf­falo His­tory Mu­seum’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Lin­coln had a lot to do with tim­ing, Greco said.

The mu­seum was es­tab­lished in 1862, one year af­ter Lin­coln be­came pres­i­dent, and three years be­fore he was as­sas­si­nated.

The Julius E. Fran­cis col­lec­tion was an­other fac­tor.

“The mis­nomer started with Fran­cis, who called his col­lec­tion the ‘Me­mo­rial Lin­coln Col­lec­tion,’ ” said Wal­ter Mayer, the mu­seum’s se­nior di­rec­tor of mu­seum col­lec­tions.

“The Julius Fran­cis col­lec­tion is more of a Civil War col­lec­tion,” he said. “That cre­ated a per­cep­tion that the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion is larger than it is.”

The siz­able col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts col­lected by the Buf­falo drug­gist in­cludes a cane given to Lin­coln in May 1862.

There are more than 100 Lin­coln cam­paign me­men­tos in the col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing a litho­graph silk cam­paign rib­bon fea­tur­ing Lin­coln’s like­ness, mi­nus the beard, taken by Civil War pho­tog­ra­pher Mathew Brady.

“The qual­ity of the is­sue is re­ally good,” Mayer said, not­ing a tin­type pho­to­graph was con­verted into the litho­graph.

The col­lec­tion’s real stock-in­trade, though, are au­to­graphs – lots of them.

Large binders hold the names of some 10,322 sol­diers and sailors with name, rank, en­list­ment and dis­charge dates. The im­por­tant bat­tles each par­tic­i­pated in are also listed. Fran­cis went to bat­tle­field scenes to col­lect them.

The col­lec­tion also in­cludes over 1,500 au­to­graphs of govern­ment of­fi­cials and a com­plete, two-vol­ume set of Civil War en­velopes used to mail let­ters, some with al­le­gor­i­cal fig­ures marked in wa­ter­col­ors.

The Fran­cis col­lec­tion was do­nated to the mu­seum in 1874.

A mourn­ing badge worn by Buf­falo Com­mon Coun­cil Mem­ber Henry Swartz at a cer­e­mony in Buf­falo’s St. James Hall in Shel­ton Square (close to where the M&T Tower is now) af­ter Lin­coln’s death is part of the dis­play com­ing to Klein­hans.

So is a com­mem­o­ra­tive rib­bon that lists the sched­ule of stops for Lin­coln’s fu­neral train be­tween Erie and Cleve­land. A draw­ing of a woman weep­ing with an arm draped over the cas­ket con­veys the solem­nity of the oc­ca­sion.

“They say there were 100,000 peo­ple who passed by the cas­ket at St. James Hall,” Greco said. Among those pay­ing their re­spects was fu­ture Pres­i­dent Grover Cleve­land.

Fran­cis un­suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned Congress in 1873 to make Lin­coln’s birth­day a na­tional hol­i­day. The fol­low­ing year, on Feb. 12, 1874, he be­gan in Buf­falo what has be­come the long­est con­tin­u­ous cel­e­bra­tion of Lin­coln’s birth­day, with peo­ple gath­er­ing each year in the mu­seum to mark the date.

The mu­seum’s best-known Lin­coln piece is the bronze statue com­pleted in 1902, mounted on black mar­ble by sculp­tor Charles H. Niehaus that over­looks Hoyt Lake from the mu­seum’s por­tico.

Push­ing through fear

Saunders, a pro­fes­sor at Syra­cuse Univer­sity, didn’t im­me­di­ately de­cide to grap­ple with Lin­coln’s long shadow.

He had writ­ten nu­mer­ous short sto­ries, es­says, novel­las and even chil­dren’s books be­fore be­gin­ning what would be­come “Lin­coln in the Bardo,” an ex­per­i­men­tal novel that won the 2017 Man Booker Prize given for books pub­lished in the United King­dom in 2017, an award rarely given to Amer­i­can au­thors.

“I didn’t choose Lin­coln,” Saunders said. “For 20 years, I pur­posely chose not to do this book just be­cause it was Lin­coln.”

Saunders had heard a story from a fam­ily mem­ber about how Lin­coln vis­ited his son Wil­lie’s crypt at Oak Hill Ceme­tery in Ge­orge­town. The grief-stricken fa­ther was said to have held his son’s body and was pos­si­bly stroking his hair.

“It was an in­ter­est­ing story, but I thought Lin­coln – that’s too much,” Saunders said. “There had been about 35,000 books about him at that point.” Saunders let the idea sit. “Ev­ery time I thought about writ­ing about him I got the chills – in a bad way,” Saunders said. “So, I did a lit­tle psych job on my­self. I said, ‘You’re not writ­ing about Lin­coln so much as you’re writ­ing about a night in a grave­yard, and he just hap­pened to be there.’

“Then I said, ‘Let’s forget it’s Lin­coln and he’s just a griev­ing fa­ther, and I know what that’s about.”

The novel deals with Lin­coln’s grief, with most of the book oc­cur­ring over the course of a sin­gle evening. It is set in “the bardo” – an in­ter­me­di­ate space be­tween life and re­birth.

“In mak­ing art, you do have to go to­ward the thing that scares you,” Saunders said. “That means you will have to find ad­di­tional pow­ers if you’re go­ing to do it. It’s kind of like Spi­der-Man. If he goes against the guy he al­ways beats, it’s bor­ing.”

Saunders said Lin­coln re­mains one of the coun­try’s most enduring fig­ures for good rea­son.

“Lin­coln em­bod­ies cer­tain Amer­i­can virtues we haven’t re­ally got­ten to the bot­tom of yet,” Saunders said.

“He’s an in­tel­lec­tual in the truest sense of the word. He’s deeply cu­ri­ous about the world and his place in it, and he’s will­ing to self-cor­rect,” he said.

Saunders, who will be talk­ing about his book and Lin­coln with Just Buf­falo Lit­er­ary Cen­ter’s Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Bar­bara Cole on Thurs­day, thinks of Lin­coln as a deeply spir­i­tual leader, too.

“At the end of the day, he looked at slav­ery and un­der­stood it to be a mon­strous evil against hu­man dig­nity and had the courage to re­verse him­self, re­ally, and take the whole coun­try in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion,” he said.

Pho­tos by Derek Gee/Buf­falo News

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