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Book Review

A Foreign View of an American Hero

LINCOLN: A Foreigner's Quest; by Jan Morris; Simon & Schuster; $23, 208 pages

March 10, 2000|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Lincoln" is British writer Jan Morris' tribute to a nation and its hero. At first wary of both, the author came to admire, and even love, them. For non-Americans, "Lincoln" is an excellent brief introduction to the country's preeminent hero. But even Americans, to whom the suffering, kind and farsighted president is as familiar as a well-remembered grandfather, will find moments of pleasure and insight in Morris' well-written pages.

Morris takes us along as she visits Lincoln's roots in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, from which he left for Washington, D.C., never to return. She quotes Lincoln as saying his boyhood was "stinted," by which he meant that "it was arid, philistine and deprived." His young life, she quotes him as saying, had "an utter lack of any romantic or heroic elements," and Indiana, to which the family moved from his native Kentucky and where they lived longest, was, in Lincoln's words, "as unpoetical as any spot of the Earth."

Along with Morris' blunt though affectionate recounting of Lincoln's early life, she is skillful at re-creating Lincoln's early manhood in New Salem, Ill., where he started his law practice and first ran for office. He lost his first election, but won the second, to become a representative to the state capital. By then, Morris writes, he could "talk the back legs off a mule." He had arrived in New Salem, Morris says, "a raw boy out of the backwoods" but left it a man, heading for the capital.

Of the quarter-century Lincoln spent in Springfield, Morris sketches his life there in deft and charming vignettes. His part of the office he shared with his law partner, Billy Herndon, was always a mess: He had one envelope marked "If you can't find it anywhere else, look in this."

About the unfortunate Mary Todd Lincoln, who was to spend the end of her life in an insane asylum, Morris seems as baffled as most writers. Perhaps only Gore Vidal, in his novel "Lincoln," treated her with full human sympathy, as he imagined her, a very intelligent woman struggling with bouts of her awful migraine headaches and their accompanying dreaded hallucinations.

Morris rightly admires Lincoln's skill as a writer and speaker, and traces his literary development in tandem with his growth as a statesman. If she slights somewhat the force of the sinewy and relentless logic in his great speeches, like the "House Divided" speech of 1858, she accurately ascribes the origins of his trenchant use of American English on grand themes to his "'homely wisecracks, puns, retorts and images."

To illustrate Lincoln's wry wit and skillful compression of ideas, she quotes Lincoln as saying that an improbable assertion was "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death." A specious argument was like confusing "a chestnut horse with a horse chestnut."

Given her admiration for Lincoln's use of language, it is odd that Morris commits a couple of whopping misquotations. She has Herndon hilariously writing that Lincoln's ambition was "that little organ that knew no rest," when what Herndon said was "a little engine that knew no rest." Elsewhere, she has Lincoln awkwardly write, "I have never dictated events. Events have dictated me," when what he actually wrote was, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Vidal once wrote in The Times that "The actual Lincoln is cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant." If Morris' Lincoln is less cold than Vidal's, he is no less deliberate, reflective and brilliant, and no less the standard for American statesmen.

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