Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest, by Jan Morris, Simon and Schuster, New York, 205 pages, $23.00.
An ordinary man of extraordinary accomplishments gets killed in his prime, and a gifted writer eventually comes along to tell his story. Such is the formula for a legend. In America, if one person defined legend, it would be Abraham Lincoln. Born a poor boy in backwoods Kentucky, Lincoln rose to the presidency, won the Civil War, freed the slaves, and was assassinated in his prime. Decades later, poet Carl Sandburg presented him to posterity in a captivating biography that turned millions of readers into believers.
In 1950, about 11 years after Sandburg finished his Abraham Lincoln in six volumes, Jan Morris visited the United States from England. Lincoln hype was at a peak. The American public was still high on the patriotism stirred up by World War II, and Sandburg’s Lincoln, the ideal patriot, had captured the American consciousness. “It seemed to me in the early 1950s that the American people as a whole were almost deranged in their obsession with their sixteenth President…,” Morris writes. The 16th president was everywhere.
Morris decided that Lincoln was like “grape jelly.” Whenever she went to a place that served food, she found the oddly flavored dark-purple glop waiting there to be spread on something. Like Lincoln, it was everywhere. It “seemed to represent all that I distrusted about America: synthetic, oversweet, slobbery of texture, artificially colored and unavoidable,” Morris writes. Her feelings about the similarities between the Great Emancipator and the ubiquitous condiment were so strong that when she started working on the book now published as Lincoln: A Foreigner’s Quest, she considered titling it Grape Jelly.
Before Morris could draw reasonable conclusions about the president, and about the people who so adored him, she had to take on the mammoth task of separating Lincoln the man from Lincoln the myth. In doing so, however, she ended up turning her book into something of a capsule biography of Lincoln. This is the work’s greatest weakness. The pages would have been more profitably used had Morris filled them with more of her provoking insights. Many acclaimed biographies and profiles of Lincoln are already available. Morris’s book is, after all, billed as a foreigner’s view of Lincoln, and more of the idiosyncrasies of that particular viewpoint would have improved it.
Morris begins her examination of Lincoln, naturally, with his early years. She finds nothing there, however, to sway her negative opinion. She discovers a boy and young man who was just too good to be true. Indeed, the sanitized young Lincoln known to post-World War II generations is largely the creation of Sandburg, who brazenly invoked his poetic license in fleshing out a larger-than-life figure on a skeleton of facts.
Looking at the more mature Lincoln, Morris sees a pragmatist driven mostly by ambition. At this stage, she discovers Lincoln’s continual battle with melancholy and offers a reasonable hypothesis for it. “I think it was the long accretion of sadnesses in his life, beginning with his childhood losses, culminating in two causes of despondency in Springfield [Illinois]: first the split with Mary Todd, then their reconciliation,” she writes. Both Lincoln’s marriage, and the emotional trouble Morris believes it caused him, would endure right up to his death.
After following Lincoln through the war years and the end of his life, Morris concludes that he was, more than anything else, a poet. Indeed, all his lifelong efforts culminated in what is by far the greatest speech in American political history. “The best thing Lincoln ever did was to write the Gettysburg Address,” she writes. “However mean and crafty the action he had allowed himself in the fulfillment of his inexorable ambition, he made up for them all with 270 words of oratory in a Pennsylvania Cemetery.”
Morris comes to a reasonable compromise regarding her personal view of Lincoln. She decides that he was a good man, not so bad as she at first imagined, nor so good as Americans of the 1950s seemed to believe. Of course, she realizes that Americans at the turn of the millennium don’t necessarily view Lincoln in the same rosy light their counterparts in the 1950s did. And there’s the stark contrast between Northern and Southern views of Lincoln, but Morris doesn’t analyze that dichotomy.
In the end, Morris succeeds in chipping away years of accumulated polish to get to the core of the Lincoln legend. In doing so, she helps us to see a good man for what he really was and what he means to us as Americans.