Interspersed throughout the narrative, Saunders includes sections comprised of historical excerpts. This particular section begins with a quotation from “Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,” by a former slave who eventually became the confidante of Mary Lincoln. In this excerpt, she explains that President Lincoln is expected to “give a series of state dinners every winter”—dinners that are quite expensive. Apparently, the First Lady decided she’d rather have President Lincoln host “three large receptions” instead of these dinners. As such, the family started throwing parties, which an American historian explains (in yet another excerpt) were “criticized” by abolitionists who found “the merry-making at the White House” inappropriate, given that the country had recently embarked upon a Civil War.
By providing multiple accounts of the president and his various decisions, Saunders establishes the divisive nature of the United States during Lincoln’s presidency. Indeed, while some citizens perhaps understand why the president would want to throw receptions instead of hosting state dinners, others “criticize” him for doing so. What’s more, Saunders also reveals to readers in this section that Lincoln in the Bardo takes place during the Civil War, thus underlining the circumstances driving the country apart. As the South fought to secede from the rest of the country, President Lincoln led the Union in an effort to keep the country together. Using this history as a touchstone, Saunders mixes the nation’s political unrest with Lincoln’s personal life, showing that the president is subject to intense scrutiny even when it comes to throwing a party.
Another historical excerpt explains that Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, was quite sick when the president threw one of his large receptions. “Willie was burning with fever on the night of the fifth, as his mother dressed for the party,” historians write. “He drew every breath with difficulty. She could see that his lungs were congested and she was frightened.”
In this moment, Saunders uses Mary Lincoln’s concern to create tension, framing Willie’s illness as a potentially dire situation that threatens the Lincolns with the possibility of losing their son. What’s more, since Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III have already addressed a heretofore unnamed child in the Bardo, readers begin to intuit that Willie is indeed headed toward his grave.