Emersonian Sentimentalism and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo

Georgia Walton, University of Leeds

“Where do we find ourselves? We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight” (27). So begins Emerson’s 1844 essay “Experience.” He here describes a moment of awakening, of suddenly becoming alert to the specificities of the present. However, this present moment stands atop accumulated experience. It is the product of what has come before. This image of a man teetering on his history, in sudden awareness of his place in time, is one of self-reflection that incorporates the past into the awareness of the present. I begin with this famous opening of a famous essay because it offers a productive starting point for thinking about our own present moment and its connectedness to history. How might Emerson help us to become alert to the specificities of the present? In particular, how might Emerson shed light on debates about twenty-first century literature? I suggest that Emerson, and more particularly “Experience,” offer a useful way of reading the contemporary debate about the relationship between empathy and literature as it is staged in one of the most prominent novels of recent years: George Saunders’ Man-Booker-Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017).

Lincoln in the Bardo narrates the circumstances that surrounded the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie from typhoid in 1862. The novel is inspired by archival accounts that detail how Lincoln returned to Willie’s tomb after the boy’s funeral and opened the crypt in order to embrace the body of his son. Though this is a striking and somewhat gothic image in the eyes of Saunders’s twenty-first century readership, a familiarity with the remains of loved ones was relatively common in the nineteenth century: Mary Shelley kept Percy’s calcified heart in her desk and Poe’s executor, the anthologist Rufus Griswold, opened his wife’s coffin forty days after her death. More pertinent here though is Emerson’s response to the death of his son, Waldo, which he writes about in “Experience.” Waldo died from scarlet fever in 1842 at the age of five. His death left Emerson questioning his own ability to respond to or engage with the world. Emerson writes in “Experience,” “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into the real nature” (29). This sense of removal has been read by scholars such as Dana Luciano and Max Cavitch as a critique of the dominant nineteenth-century cultures of mourning. However, despite the sense of affective distance and the refusal of sentimental modes of expressing feeling that Emerson articulates in the essay, his actions after Waldo’s death tell a different story. When Waldo’s remains were disinterred fifteen years after his death to be moved to the newly consecrated Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Emerson opened the coffin and looked inside. Karen Sanchez-Eppler argues that this action “embodies sentimental efforts to keep the dead present” (81). There is therefore a disconnection between the essay and the visceral, sentimentalized action of viewing the remains.

Saunders has frequently described his writing process as a struggle with the sentimental. In a 2001 interview he explains, “[i]n my work, and in my psyche, there’s this very sentimental, traditional, conventional side that’s always in argument with a more radical, sarcastic side” (Wylie 58). Saunders describes a continued use of irony and perversity in an attempt to hold an inherent sentimentality at bay. Nowhere is this conflict more apparent in Saunders’ work than in Lincoln in the Bardo. While in his short stories he is adept at mimicking the idioms of the modern office and the experience industry, in this, his first full-length novel, he turns his satirical eye to the nineteenth-century textual practice and cultural industry of mourning children, the sentimental genre par excellence. Pivoting on the nineteenth-century trope of the dying or dead child whilst also inhabiting the satirical mode that has become his trademark, Saunders’s novel stages the very reckoning with sentimentalism that he has long identified as a component of his writing process.

In facing the sentimentalism of his own writing head-on, Saunders confronts his own belief that the primary aim of literature is to inspire empathy in his reader. He says in another interview: “I have a very limited gift and the essence of that gift, as I’ve come to understand it, is that I can sometimes produce a moment or two of increased empathy in a reader” (Nugent). Saunders shares this view with nineteenth-century sentimentalists. However, the often-ironic tone of his writing complicates the sincerity of most traditional sentimental literature.

Across his writing and real-world response to Waldo’s death, Emerson displays a complex form of mourning that both conforms to and resists dominant cultural forms of representing and expressing grief. In doing so, he questions whether the act of writing about grief has any value. This goes against the grain of contemporaneous sentimental literature that suggested that reading about the pain of others allows the reader to share in that pain. Emerson’s ambivalent sentimentalism, encapsulated by the figure of a father returning to the body of his son, thus emerges as a clear precedent for Lincoln in the Bardo, a text that wrestles with the nature of the sentimental in order to question the possibility of empathy when reading. Thus, by bringing Emerson’s writing to bear on Saunders’ novel, we see how the past continues to shape the intellectual questions of the present.

Works Cited

Cavitch, Max. American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Emerson, Ralph W. ‘Experience.’ The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol III, edited by Alfred R. Ferguson, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 25-52.

Luciano, Dana. Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth Century America, New York University Press, 2007.

Nugent, Benjamin. ‘George Saunders, The Art of Fiction No. 245.’ The Paris Review,

231, Winter 2019, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/7506/the-art-of-fiction-no-245-george-saunders.

Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. ‘Then We Clutch the Hardest: On the Death of a Child and the Replication of an Image.’ Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture edited by Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler, University of California Press, 1999, 64-85.

Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Wylie, J.J. ‘An Interview with George Saunders.’ The Missouri Review, 24:2, 2001, 53-68.

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How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Georgia Walton. “Emersonian Sentimentalism and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.” The Transparent Eyeball, Fourth Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, November 8, 2021, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emersonian-sentimentalism-and-george-saunders-lincoln-in-the-bardo/. Accessed [date of access; ex.5 Dec. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Walton, G. (2021, November 8). Emersonian Sentimentalism and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emersonian-sentimentalism-and-george-saunders-lincoln-in-the-bardo/.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Walton, Georgia. “Emersonian Sentimentalism and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, November 8, 2021https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emersonian-sentimentalism-and-george-saunders-lincoln-in-the-bardo/.