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Lincoln in the Bardo is a stunning portrait of a violently divided America

Abraham Lincoln carries an urgent message in this remarkable novel of ghosts and war.

From Virginia to Tennessee, from east to west and from north to south, war was raging. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln had said – and the biblical prediction had been proved right. From 1861 to 1865 the United States were the divided states, riven by a war whose horror has not faded. But in February 1862 death came to Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s door when their 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever. The couple were no stranger to grief; their son Edward had died at the age of three in 1850, not long before Willie was born. But Willie was the Lincolns’ blue-eyed boy, their darling. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was Mary’s seamstress and friend, left an account of the president’s grief. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder,” she wrote. “His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved.”

Keckley’s words can be found threaded through George Saunders’s astonishing first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders is a literary hero in his native land – this novel went straight to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list – but until now he had published only short stories by way of fiction. Consequently, his name is less well known in Britain, even though his last book, The Tenth of December, won the inaugural Folio Prize in 2014. British readers may have come across his commencement speech to Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2013, a viral hit online that was published the following year as Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. But as far back as his debut in 1996, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders’s unusual sensibility has been apparent: a blend of humour and serious intent so finely balanced as to seem almost a magic trick. Although much of that first book was set in the not-too-distant future, it is clear from the title alone that the cataclysm of a riven nation was already on his mind. And that collection, like this novel, is populated not only by the living, but by the dead.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, little Willie Lincoln dies; but that is just the beginning of the story. He is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, where the president, alone, repeatedly visits the still body of his beloved son. There the spirits who inhabit the cemetery, and whose polyphonic chorus powers this beautiful book, encounter Lincoln the living man: his presence forces them to confront the fact of their own deaths. So the division of the country, the division between slave and free, is mirrored in a division between this world and the next. The novel’s speaking voices are punctuated with historical des­cription, some authentic, some invented, all perfectly judged.

Saunders gives readers two central narrators for his tale, which is structured more like a play than like a novel. Hans Vollman was a printer who remarried late in life and found more happiness than he might ever have dreamt of – happiness stolen from him when a heavy beam fell from the ceiling of his shop, cracking his skull and killing him. Roger Bevins III was a young man who fell in love with another young man, but the object of his love vowed to “live correctly”, and so Bevins slit his wrists; that he regretted the action the instant he performed it could not save him from the grave.

Neither Vollman nor Bevins is quite aware of being dead. One of the wonders of this novel is its characters’ expressions for their own state. After his accident, Vollman finds himself confined to a “sick-box”, not a coffin. Young Willie is sent not to a tomb but to a “white stone home”: the simple rhythm of these three words is like a chant running through the book. It is the task of Vollman and Bevins to help Willie – bewildered by his situation – escape from the cemetery. The spirits of children, we come to understand, do not belong in this place: “These young ones are not meant to tarry,” Bevins says. But it seems that Abraham Lincoln’s visits to the cemetery, and the power of his love, keep both himself and the boy in a bardo, a Tibetan Buddhist term signifying a transitional state. A third voice, that of the Reverend Everly Thomas, has a greater understanding of what his situation, and that of his fellows, might be; his knowledge is frightening rather than consoling.

As befits its sombre subject, this is a moving and deeply felt book. Its speaking spectres are haunted not only by their severance from their former lives but by what they suffered in those lives. Like Marley’s ghost, they wear the chains they forged in life.

One of the most remarkable feats of the novel is that no character, however briefly he or she may speak, feels extraneous: not Jane Ellis, whose marriage was bitterly unhappy: not Mrs Francis Hodge, who, kept as a slave in her lifetime, tried to be a friend to Litzie Wright, a young woman so brutalised by her rapists that she is rendered utterly silent, her speech a sequence of asterisks. And yet, somehow, there is always humour in this novel, as Saunders creates an invisible universe that is both terrible and wonderful. Vollman, whose life was cut short before his marriage was consummated, manifests as a man with an enormous “member” that is forever getting in his way; Bevins, in telling the awful story of his suicide, grows extra eyes and noses and hands, so that his body “all but vanished”. And, more than humour, there is that quality that Saunders has already told us he prizes so highly: kindness.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his portrait of America’s 16th president. It takes courage to reimagine so venerable a figure as Lincoln: but here his voice rings clear and true. We hear it when the spirits – Vollman, Bevins, the president’s departed boy – enter his body and so experience his thoughts, translating them for the reader. We hear how his love for Willie, his solitary sorrow, comes to bear on his thoughts about the war he must prosecute, the sorrow he must inflict on others:

Did the thing merit it. Merit the killing. On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?

These are urgent questions for any age, no matter what is going on in the world. Laura Miller, the excellent critic for the American online magazine Slate, has taken issue with Saunders for turning to historical fiction at a time when our best novelists ought to be addressing the peculiar and worrying times in which we live. “The timing on this thing is really, really bad,” she wrote, describing the book as a “melancholy, inward-looking, often lovely and moving but fundamentally private novel” and the author’s most “gently accessible work”: this last has the sound of faint praise. Granted, some novelists are busy scribbling away to address our political and cultural problems head on, most notably Howard Jacobson, whose novella Pussy (no prizes for guessing how he chose the title) will be published next month. Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, to be published in September, will feature “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair”, according to his British publisher, Jonathan Cape. Ali Smith’s Autumn, published late last year, was hailed as the first “post-Brexit” novel.

With no disrespect to those fine authors, not every novel written (or published) in the heat of the moment endures; not every enduring novel must stare directly at the sun. Lincoln in the Bardo is set in the past, but its portrait of a violently divided nation, in which even the dead are discriminated against because of their race or social status, offers little reassurance. Abraham Lincoln’s need to steel himself for the task ahead, so powerfully realised by Saunders, will resonate with readers, if they, too, are willing to steel themselves for what lies ahead.

Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.

He would lead the rabble in managing.

The thing would be won.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a great novel; a human cry for action – and compassion. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury (343pp, £18.99)

Erica Wagner will be in conversation with George Saunders in a free Goldsmiths Prize/New Statesman event at Goldsmiths University,  London SE14, on 15 March: newstatesman.com/events

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo, featuring Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and George Saunders (Audible)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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David Olusoga's look at a forgotten history shows there's always been black in the Union Jack

Black and British: A Forgotten History addresses one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Nineteen eighty-four was a transformative year for David Olusoga. Then a young teenager, he was driven out of his council home, together with his grandmother, mother, two sisters and younger brother, by a sustained campaign of nightly stoning of their windows. When Olusoga recalled the experience before television cameras last year, he wept. His book is a product of that childhood terror, and partly an exploration of his condition as a black Briton. As he states, “The oral history of 20th-century racial violence has never been collected or collated, but it is there and it is shocking.”

Nineteen eighty-four affected him in another way: the publication of Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain introduced him to the scholarship needed to understand his position in Britain. Fryer’s book was monumental, inspiring conferences, publications, the setting up of local history groups, the establishment of Black History Month, and radio and television programmes. It began to alter (slightly) the history curriculum at university level: the first undergraduate one-year course on black British history and culture was taught at the University of Warwick in 1984. It was an apt university to experiment with such developments, since Lord Scarman, who reported on the Brixton riots of 1981, was its chancellor.

Olusoga patterns his narrative after Fryer’s, starting with the North African presence in Roman Britain. He updates Fryer, citing radioisotope analysis of skeletons and craniometrics, which support written documentation of Aurelian Moors guarding Hadrian’s Wall and settling in places such as Yorkshire. Indeed, third-century York may have been more ethnically and racially diverse than present-day York. Roman writers such as Pliny who chronicled – or rather fabricated – African life shaped perceptions of a continent populated by anthropophagi and other fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal. John Mandeville, whose travelogue (circa 1356) was one of the most widely translated books of the later Middle Ages, presented Africans as naked savages living amid heaps of gold to which they gave no value.

And so, equipped with the fruits of Islamic learning (new navigational instruments, books on astronomy and trigonometry), European explorers set sail for Africa to relieve the natives of their gold. Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing, so long as the Vatican benefited. In the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of pounds of gold were shipped to Europe. But slaves were more valuable, so the British fought the Spanish for a share in the trade and eventually came to dominate it. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was granted the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, a right then passed on to the South Sea Company. The “South Sea bubble”, the greatest financial crash of the 18th century, was intimately connected to Britain’s dealings with Africa, though this is rarely acknowledged by historians.

The Royal African Company, established by Charles II in 1672, eventually enslaved and transported more Africans than any other company in British history. It built slave forts on the African coast, some such as Bunce Island in Sierra Leone furnished with a “rape house”. Separated from home and family and landed in the West Indies (countless numbers dying of suffocation during the journey, given that the people traffickers were packing the holds to maximise profits), the Africans had no recourse to the law, much less the conscience of their captors. The Barbados slave code of 1661 stripped Africans of all human rights, and set out ways in which they were to be punished, to exert control over their labour (mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, castration, execution). After decades of complaints, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly in 1712 and, Olusoga writes, “Independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of Africa.” These traders had argued (“stone-blind to irony”) that the right to enslave Africans was “a defining feature of English freedom” and that the Royal African Company had breached their status as free-born Englishmen. Eventually, 11,000 separate British slave-trading expeditions resulted in the trafficking of three-and-a-half-million Africans to the New World plantations, the greatest forced migration in modern history until the 20th century.

How could Britain, a civilised and Christian nation, indulge in rape, torture, killing and the forced labour of Africans over two centuries? The answer is money. If you had spare cash or could borrow, investment in slavery was a sure winner, never mind slave rebellions or hurricanes that destroyed cane fields. Sugar was king: originally a luxury, it became one of the main sources of calories for the British poor. And so many hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly dependent on slavery (from sailors to those who built, rigged and repaired ships) that it was easy to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity. Once insignificant villages, great cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow sprang up on the profits of slavery.

But a group of 12 disciples of Christ set out to change things. In 1787, they met in London and set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery entrepreneur), Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Fired by religious feeling, they embarked on a campaign of public education and political lobbying “unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature”. Supported by African authors of slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, they held meetings all over the country, attracting huge crowds. Thousands of petitions were presented to parliament. Women, denied a meaningful role in politics, formed their own organisations, writing tracts, pamphlets and poems, gathering signatures for petitions and fundraising: “At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement.”

Abolition was the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain, and it ended the slave trade in 1807. It could have ended earlier, but the planter interests in parliament defeated William Wilberforce’s attempts. In 1796, a bill was defeated by only four votes: a group of abolitionist MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. Between that night at the opera and 1807, nearly 800,000 Africans were enslaved.

Women such as Elizabeth Heyrick continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery. They organised a boycott of sugar, produced more petitions and hosted meetings. It was such a brilliantly organised programme of mass protest that slavery was declared abolished in 1833: 46,000 slave owners were given £20m in compensation (£17bn in today’s money), the largest payout in British history and 40 per cent of all government spending that year. The enslaved Africans had to wait another five years for their freedom and were not given a penny.

Long after slavery ended in the British colonies, British people continued to lobby the American government to free their slaves. The many African-American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, who visited Britain from the 1840s onwards, were well received and, again, thousands of people greeted them and raised money to support their cause.

The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, swelled national sympathy for the plight of black slaves. More than a million copies were sold in Britain – cheap pirated versions reached a mass readership. The novel became the bestselling book of 19th-century Britain; it was adapted for the theatre and generated mass-produced merchandise – playing cards, jigsaws, tableware. Its extraordinary success rested upon the “foundation of sympathy… laid down during the previous 70 years of abolitionist activity in Britain”.

Yet American slave-produced raw cotton continued to feed the 4,500 mills of Lancashire. In 1860, cotton goods accounted for 40 per cent of all British exports. In 1861, the Economist stated that nearly four million people in Britain depended – directly and indirectly – on the cotton industry; a fifth of the entire population. When the American Civil War interrupted the supply of cotton, hundreds of thousands of British workers were made destitute, dependent on soup kitchens, and the British economy was “dealt a thunderous blow, all because an ocean away the forced labour of four million enslaved black Americans had been disrupted”. Needless to say, the national mood changed. The masses who once supported black freedom now campaigned for the Deep South.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

During the Second World War, thousands of black American soldiers stationed in Britain were befriended by white Britons who opposed efforts by the white military to segregate them. West Indians fought with the Allies – more than a hundred were decorated. And yet anti-black race riots broke out in 1948 in Liverpool and in 1958 in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill. The following decades were taken up with popular and political rhetoric about immigration and parliamentary acts to limit blacks coming to Britain.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrush era. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. Olusoga has benefited from and added significantly to the work of Fryer and other historians such as James Walvin. He has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics. Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Black and British: A Forgotten History
David Olusoga
Macmillan, 624pp, £25

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear