George Saunders dropped by The Washington Post on Presidents’ Day to talk about his new novel, “Lincoln at the Bardo.”
It’s a strange and moving book — you can read the full review here — about the night Lincoln visited his dead son Willie in a Georgetown cemetery. But the novel vibrates with contemporary implications, too.
During our discussion, I noted that President Abraham Lincoln was once widely hated by millions of Americans who found him crude and tyrannical. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of the current criticism of President Trump?
Here’s Saunders’s response:
“The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love. It sounds a little corny, but I think the historical record kind of backs me up. Well, now, let’s just say the opposite motion is happening: The empathy is going from all to small, and maybe just to himself, to Mr. Trump himself. And that’s fine, except who’s being left out of that? Wonderful, good, hard-working people. And this is all being done by what I would say is an anti-literary move, which is to feed on projection and conceptional political knowledge and to turn away from the things we thrive on in fiction: specificity, detail, the human face, patience of abiding.”
With all the current concern about “fake news,” it’s striking to hear Saunders celebrate the salubrious counter-effects of real fiction. After all, the best novels and short stories aren’t merely made up; they’re true in a way that grounds us, recalibrates our sagging empathy and reminds us what’s important.
Make sure to take some time away from the online shrieking and even the serious news coverage to recharge your soul with a good book.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.