Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest

Overview

With a fresh eye and inimitable style, the peerless travel and history writer Jan Morris journeys through the life of Abraham Lincoln to sketch an insightful new portrait of America's sixteenth president, one of our greatest and most enigmatic figures. Looking past his saintly image and log-cabin legend, Morris travels from Lincoln's birthplace to the White House to the infamous Ford Theater and conjures him in public and in private, as politician and as father, as commander-in-chief and as husband. With her ...

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Overview

With a fresh eye and inimitable style, the peerless travel and history writer Jan Morris journeys through the life of Abraham Lincoln to sketch an insightful new portrait of America's sixteenth president, one of our greatest and most enigmatic figures. Looking past his saintly image and log-cabin legend, Morris travels from Lincoln's birthplace to the White House to the infamous Ford Theater and conjures him in public and in private, as politician and as father, as commander-in-chief and as husband. With her skepticism and humor and marvelous sense of place, Morris seamlessly blends narrative, history, and biography to reveal the man behind the myth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Lincoln revealed by British writer Morris is a far cry from the Honest Abe of popular myth: she finds an "unpleasant side" to the president's nature, an "element of the mountebank" that "led him into spite or mayhem." But what else, Morris seems to ask, should we expect from someone who was "surely only another party politician anyway"? Morris confesses that ever since the 1950s, when she (then a he, named James Morris) first set foot in the U.S., she has been skeptical of the American veneration of Lincoln. In this indulgent excursion, she combines considerable (but idiosyncratic) historical homework and some extensive travel around the U.S. with a lot of imaginative license to paint a thoroughly subjective picture of Lincoln. Morris, the author of a variety of historically oriented travel books (Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire, etc.), does make some larger points, calling Lincoln "the originator of American hubris." She also gleefully reports on Lincoln's well-known ambivalence toward slavery as though she, for the first time, is revealing that Lincoln was not the unconflicted emancipator portrayed in grade-school history books. And it's not just Lincoln who irritates her. She is affronted as well by the Lincoln lookalikes she finds in museums and gift shops. (But then most Americans she meets in her travels seem to be stupid, not to mention obese.) More than anything, Morris is surprised and dismayed at Lincoln's folksiness, not recognizing that this is one of the qualities most prized in American presidents, from Jackson to Truman. In this book, it's not only Lincoln that Morris fails to understand; it's an entire culture. Agent, Julian Bach. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-When Morris first visited the United States in the 1950s, she felt that Abraham Lincoln's image was much like the grape jelly served in diners and coffee shops. It was "synthetic, oversweet, slobbery of texture, artificially colored and unavoidable." She wondered, however, if her assessment then had been correct, and decided to "follow his life and career wherever it took him." The author does follow Lincoln from his roots in England and Wales, through Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and on to Washington. She emphasizes that he was not just "everybody grown taller" or an idealized Huck Finn. To get in touch with Lincoln and return him to human status, rather than an icon, she even imagines him in various settings. She conjures up General Lee waiting for Lincoln's arrival, "the Marble Model" meeting Abe, who "stumped in, as if he needed oiling." After examining his upbringing, his family life, and his role as commander in chief, Morris finds much to admire in Lincoln. She carefully recounts his foibles, making him a most human president, who achieved "full sincerity-in his brief moments of creative inspiration." A warm, readable, well-rounded picture of this extremely complex man.-Jane S. Drabkin, Potomac Community Library, Woodbridge, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
David Walton
Morris's efficient skepticism cuts through the ridiculous and sentimental, and Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest is a marvelously compressed and persuasive portrayal of this most iconic of American presidents.
The New York Times Book Review
James M. McPherson
Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest is a witty, urbane, imaginative, sometimes cynical but at other times admiring narrative of Lincoln's life and its meaning.
Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306810329
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 627,190
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.21 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Jan Morris has written more than thirty books of travel, history, and autobiography, including Manhattan 1945 and The World of Venice. Her novel Last Letters from Hav was a finalist for the Booker Prize. She lives in Wales.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Hingham and Bryn Gwyn -- white trash? -- "whispering dreams, wistful dust" -- the Lincoln Trail -- the company he kept -- on the river -- TROMBO FOR JAILER

Hingham in Norfolk, England, is where Abraham Lincoln's paternal forebears came to America from, his father's great-great-grandfather having emigrated to the colonies in the late seventeenth century. It is a trim country village with a fine fourteenth-century church, some handsome eighteenth-century houses, a couple of inns, a Methodist chapel and a main road running through it. Unlike most English villages nowadays, it supports a thriving community of craftsmen and shopkeepers, and it used to bask in the local nickname "Little London."

Generations of Lincolns, we are told, lived in the ancillary hamlet of Swanton Morley, first in a cottage, then in a grander house which is now absorbed into the Angel Inn; a grassy plot of land behind the pub is preserved by the National Trust in not very evocative remembrance -- it looks like a small bowling green. In Hingham church, amidst sundry Lincoln references and suitably embroidered hassocks, there is a bust of Abraham on a wall, presented by the citizens of Hingham, Massachusetts, and excellent cream teas are served at Lincoln's Tea and Coffee Shoppe along the road. All in all Hingham is a tasteful, steady, very Saxon sort of place, and the best-known British writer about Abraham Lincoln, Lord Charnwood, liked to think he could trace his hero's character to his Norfolk origins. He was of sound English rural stock, Charnwood thought, and it is true that to this day Lincoln's gaunt and lanky frame, his pinched face and his Anglo-Saxon attitudes sometimes do show among country people of East Anglia.

On the other hand, away to the west in the wild moorlands of north Wales stands a derelict farmhouse called Bryn Gwyn, near the hill-hamlet of Ysbyty Ifan, which is a place of quite another kind. It is a magical place. Fairies and magicians abounded there long ago, and princes, and elegiac bards! Melancholy songs were sung to the harp! Slippery tricks were played, ambiguous tales were told at firesides! A terrific prospect extends to the west from Bryn Gwyn, away to the clumped mountains of Eryri, white with snow in winter, blue-gray on a summer day. Not another house is to be seen from the old building, and nobody has lived here since the 1940s, but fine big ash trees stand guard behind it, and nearby are the barn and sheep pen where today's farmer shears his sheep and piles his black plastic packages of silage.

There are no mementos of Abraham Lincoln here, no fancy hassocks or scones for tea, but from Bryn Gwyn in the 1660s, so brave Welsh genealogists assure us, Elen Morys and her husband Cadwaladr Evans emigrated to America, where they became the sixteenth president's maternal great-great-great-grandparents. Charnwood liked to think of Lincoln as a Norfolk yeoman, but I am a Welsh Morys myself, with an Evans grandmother, and I prefer to see in him the charisma of a high Welsh heritage; for those Welsh scholars swear too that Cadwaladr Evans was collaterally related to Rhodri Fawr the King of Gwynedd and even to Owain Glyndwr, greatest of all Welsh patriots, who vanished from human ken in the fifteenth century never to be seen again. Let Lord Charnwood keep that patch of mown grass behind the Angel Inn, courtesy of the National Trust. Give me, for my Lincoln memorial, the windswept ruin of Bryn Gwyn, where princes ride and poets sadly sing.


Not that it matters anyway. Most Americans have long since forgotten that Lincoln's forebears came from anywhere but the U.S.A.; Lincoln himself was not greatly interested in his European ancestry, and might indeed have been amused by the tradition that he was descended from a nameless foundling deposited on the doorstep of Lincoln's Inn, the ancient London legal society. He was a child of the untamed American backwoods, and his more immediate origins are generally described as ambivalent, partly because his line has been complicated by births out of recorded wedlock, partly because people have found it hard to believe that so towering a statesman could emerge from so obscure a background, and partly because Lincoln himself was reluctant to talk about it all.

Academic controversy has raged over the manner of his upbringing in the American West of the early nineteenth century -- the Middle West of today. Nobody seems to know for sure what kind of people the Lincolns were. Were they predominantly (1) poor but respectable, (2) come down in the world, (3) comfortably landowning by the standards of the time and place, (4) hardily pioneering, or (5) rock-bottom bucolic? Investigators have argued all five cases, producing (Case 1) records of regular Lincoln chapel attendance, (Case 2) genteel Lincoln relatives back East, (Case 3) sizable Lincoln property holdings, (Case 4) folk-memories of true-blue Lincoln conduct, or (Case 5) evidence of unlovely Lincoln circumstances. Abraham Lincoln himself adhered to Case 5, with occasional deviations in the direction of Virginia gentry. Asked once to talk about his early life, he said there was nothing much to talk about -- it was just "the simple annals of the poor." Asked another time, he said his boyhood was "stinted," by which he meant it was arid, philistine and deprived.

He is also apocryphally quoted as saying that his family was "white trash." This was a phrase devised by the black people of the American South, in the days before political correctness, to describe their indigent white neighbors, whom they considered endemically lazy and unreliable. It is still a convenient if prejudiced generic for many inhabitants of Lincoln's native region. His father Thomas (part farmer, part carpenter) had migrated with his wife Nancy (née Hanks) in an apparently somewhat listless way out of Virginia into the northern part of Kentucky, and to this day those poor hill regions, on the edge of the Bible Belt, on the border between North and South, form a white trash homeland. It is exemplified, in my own mind, by hugely bulbous young mothers in trousers smoking cigarettes, by the peculiar stale smell of downmarket motel rooms, by junk food of awful malnutrition, by trailers parked in messy woodlands, by dubious evangelical preachers and six-packs of tasteless beer and abandoned cars with grass growing over them and TV game shows and lugubrious country and western music thumping out of pickup trucks.

Was this the kind of society, mutatis mutandis, into which Abraham Lincoln was born, in the days when the American frontier, with its volatile mixture of the bold, the godly, the shady, and the plain riffraff, was fitfully pushing westward out of the Appalachian mountains? His friend and devoted biographer William Herndon defined it as "a stagnant, putrid pool," and hardly more than thirty years after the Revolution, life was certainly rough and ready at these limits of civilization. The western frontier states were still covered with forests and more or less roadless, while beyond them the vast continent was an inchoate mass of sparsely settled territories, mostly unexplored; New Orleans, bought from the French in 1803, was the solitary big city out there. Scattered Indians were the only people who had lived in the frontier regions for more than a generation: all the white people were migrants or settlers in flux -- sometimes aiming to stay in a place for good, sometimes only in transit towards more promising country over the hill. If they wanted meat they shot or slaughtered it. If they wanted whiskey they distilled it. Protestant chapels proliferated, served by zealous and sometimes fanatical ministers, but here as in the Europe of the time innumerable superstitions governed the conduct of simple people -- the malice of moon phases, the ominous influence of birds, breath of horses, witches' spells, hex and shibboleth, potion and philter and magic cure. A fastidious Easterner passing this way in 1818 described the people, men, women and children, as "wallowing in promiscuous filth."

He was certainly piously exaggerating (his name was Elias P. Fordham). All the same, even in the 1950s, when my family and I spent some time in the American South, the poor whites next door to us lived appallingly sordid lives, in rooms full of cockroaches and discarded beer cans, beating their children at the drop of a one-eyed teddy bear and shouting abuse at each other late into the night. In those days they were too thin rather than too fat, scrawny and ill-nourished, and this now makes it all the easier for me to imagine little Lincoln growing up among their mess and screamed invectives. Patriotic chroniclers would be horrified at the fancy. They present the Lincoln clan as honest, diligent and God-fearing pioneers, and there were undeniably respectable burghers among Lincoln's relatives. But his mother is generally agreed nowadays to have been illegitimate (and herself no better than she ought to have been, so neighbors said), while his father Thomas was characterized by a contemporary as "an excellent specimen of white trash" -- lazy, worthless, slow-moving and slow-talking. Lincoln père was a practicing Baptist but an unsuccessful defendant in four lawsuits, and "from what I hear," an informant told me in Lexington, Kentucky, a century and a half later, "when he got old he was meaner'n a rattlesnake."


Anyway to my mind the Lincoln legend is far more striking if its hero sprang allegorically from the cloaca. Fortunately nothing could be much more allegorical than the famous one-room log cabin in which he was born, at Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville in Kentucky. We are told that his mother, in her labor, lay close to its smoky fire on a bed of corn husks and bearskins, above a floor of dried mud (his father being too shiftless to make floorboards): and that thus, on February 12, 1809, little Abe entered what Carl Sandburg was characteristically to call a world of "whispering dreams and wistful dust."

Whether it really is that log cabin is open to doubt. Some of its logs are probably genuine, is all its National Park Service guardians claim, and scoffers like to remember the joke that says Lincoln was born in a log cabin he had built with his own hands. But the hut has played the role for so long, has convinced so many millions of visitors, that like many another place of pilgrimage it has by now acquired the aura if not of fact, at least of faith. It certainly looks uncomfortable enough to ring true; although entirely scrubbed and empty now, it could easily be fitted out with mud, corn husks, bearskins and wistful dust, if not with whispering dreams. It was an original progenitor of those trailers in the woods: if Lincoln were to be born today, he would be born in a mobile home.

Several cabins more or less like it, all purporting to have housed the young Lincoln or members of his family at one time or another, are scattered through northern Kentucky, up through Indiana and into Illinois, and are linked by roadside markers and tourist brochures into something called the Lincoln Heritage Trail. Imagine the labor of it, when the Lincolns moved to another farm, probably because of some squabble about land rights, as they loaded their implements on the wagons once again, and plodded off into the west! It is bad enough even now, as one sweeps across these landscapes in a comfortable car. The forests may have been tamed, the roads are splendid, but sometimes there is still nothing but woodland for hours on end, and sometimes only a dull flat countryside littered with trailers and with the tall neon signs, mounted on tall pillars like saints in a medieval desert, which announce the imminence of yet another McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Wendy's or Comfort Inn. There are few surprises along the Lincoln Trail through Kentucky and Indiana. There are no handsome old market towns. There are no sudden lakes or mountains. There are very few bookshops. Theaters and concert halls are almost unknown. The height of gastronomic aspiration I found, during a journey in 1998, was an Indiana cream torte defined as "a yellow cake with rich milk chocolate ganache, sweet raspberry marmalade and smooth pastry cream, iced with Italian butter-cream." Half the houses, pretending to be white colonial-style clapboard, are really made of plastic over cinder blocks. Horizons are still so limited that when I once told a shopkeeper I came from Britain, she said I must have lived in the United States for a long time be cause I spoke such fluent English.

Sinking Spring to Knob Creek, Little Pigeon Creek to Macon County, as I potter myself from one to the other, imagining them as they must have been 150 years ago, they strike me as memorials of a dispiriting childhood.


In children's hagiographies the boy Lincoln is portrayed as an idealized Huck Finn, shoeless but merry, manfully fetching water from the well, gazing into his Mom's eyes as she tells stories from the Bible, cheerfully helping his Daddy to chop wood or pick pumpkins. Sometimes the family certainly settled in countryside that now looks lovely, all dogwood and green oaks, rushing trout streams and meadows humming with congenial insects; little Abe must have got his share of fun out of a wilderness childhood -- fishing, collecting berries, wandering the woods, climbing trees and falling into streams. But in the early 1800s, when the whole country was scarcely inhabited, and families like the Lincolns had to hack and scratch a living out of a forested wasteland, forever plowing, hoeing, building fences or shooting turkeys, to an intelligent and imaginative boy a lifetime in these parts must have seemed an uninviting prospect. He felt, so he said in later years, "an utter lack of any romantic or heroic elements," and Indiana, where the Lincolns settled longest, was "as unpoetical as any spot of the earth."

For of course he was not, as that insurance company advertisement claimed, just "everybody, grown taller." Every gossipy recollection that has come down to us from his childhood emphasizes how different he was from everyone else. Much of this folklore is unreliable, having been dredged out of the past years after the event, or even invented for profit or effect -- an amazing number of ancients were discovered to have had contact with the young Lincoln, when he became the martyred President of their nation. Some recollections, though, are convincing. Abraham certainly looked odd from the start: so tall and ungainly, with such big feet and long arms, that some researchers have postulated a kind of endocrine abnormality. He liked to carry a stick, with a beechwood head he had carved himself. He was immensely strong, and a keen wrestler -- an enthusiasm inherited, it is said, from his mother Nancy Hanks, who like some Welsh women of the time was apparently an able wrestler herself. He was insatiably inquisitive, sometimes infuriating his father by butting into adult affairs and conversations. It is true I am sure that he learnt to read precociously early, giving him an almost mystic prestige in that community of illiterates. By frontier standards he was lazy, always preferring a book to a hammer, and one cannot for a moment doubt his paradoxically tender love for animals, which lasted all his life. This surfaced in his eighth year when, having shot a wild turkey as every frontier urchin must, he found himself mourning its death: down the years horses, dogs, pigs, goats, raccoons, terrapins and especially cats and kittens were all befriended by Abe Lincoln, and it was perhaps no coincidence that when he got to the White House, a pet turkey was among the family ménage.

This was not how "everybody" behaved, especially in that wild environment of the backwoods. Because the boy Lincoln was so clearly remarkable, and so frank about it, he got away with his differences. People liked him. He was tough and self-reliant, which obviously helped with his peers, and he told entertaining stories. Even his congenital physical idleness seems to have been forgiven a prodigy who could actually write the neighbors' letters for them. Still, he was always one of a kind -- if not isolated, sometimes surely lonely. How could such a lively, wondering mind confine itself to the planting of vegetables or the slaughter of poor birds? Lincoln was to grow into a quixotic personality in many ways, and in his frequent moments of depression he was truly a knight of the mournful countenance -- "melancholy dripped from him as he walked," Herndon famously wrote long afterwards. Deposited in those unlyrical parts, in crammed log cabins hardly larger than prison cells, no wonder little Abe grew up sad.

Besides, calamity after calamity befell him in his backwoods childhood. His circle of acquaintances was decimated by the dreadful milk sickness (modern brucellosis, perhaps), caught from cows which had grazed the poisonous snakeroot. His only brother died when he was three. His mother died when he was nine, and he is said to have helped make her coffin. When he was seventeen one of his friends went mad. When he was nineteen his sister died. Cousins and neighbors collapsed all around him. His father appears to have drifted from one half-cock enterprise to another; bankrupts and ne'er-do-wells frequented his earliest years. Everyone was illiterate, or nearly so, and Lincoln had a total of one year's elementary schooling at most -- among his kind of people, as he said himself, "there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education."

Most of his childhood he spent slaving away at menial family tasks: "an axe was put into his hand," he wrote about himself in retrospect, "and with the trees and logs and grubs he fought until his twentieth year." His chief consolation seems to have been provided by his kind and sensible stepmother, the widowed Sarah Bush Johnston, whom Thomas brought into the Indiana woods, poor soul, just a year after Nancy's death, together with two daughters and a no-good son to be jammed into the log cabin of the moment. The new Mrs. Lincoln was unable to write her own name, but she brought with her a few books, and these provided the real basis of Abe's education. They were an eclectic but invigorating mix, including the King James Bible, Robinson Crusoe, some simplified and doubtless bowdlerized version of The Thousand and One Nights, Mason Locke Weems's epic Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington ("There the battling armies met in thunder -- the stormy strife was short"), and Webster's Speller, which also contained improving maxims of behavior for young persons (Q: Is labor a curse or a blessing? A: Constant moderate labor is the greatest of blessings).

"A stagnant, putrid pool"? Lincoln himself was to make the most of his legend as a frontier lad, and sentimentalized some of his childhood in jejune verse --

My childhood home I see again
And gladden with the view:
And still as mem'ries crowd my brain
There's sadness in it too.

He never learnt to relish the pioneering life, though, and was never much interested in agricultural affairs -- he said he was taught how to work the land but not how to enjoy doing it. He was never exactly ashamed of his origins, and was not above politically exploiting them, but he preferred to stay well clear. It was left to one of his own admirers, many years later, to erect a headstone above his poor mother's grave, in a clearing among the Indiana woods (where she lies, by the way, not far from a putative kinsman of hers, Joseph H. Morris). In adult life he seldom visited even his amiable stepmother, although for many years they both lived in the same state, and he was always to be irritated by the whining ineptitude of relatives. As for his father, Lincoln so disliked him that he declined to visit his last bed of sickness, contenting himself with a sanctimonious message to the effect that our great, good and merciful Maker notes the fall of a sparrow, numbers the hairs of our heads, and will not forget the dying man who puts his trust in Him..."If we could meet now," he wrote in declining to visit the paternal deathbed, "it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant."

According to Dennis Hanks, a disreputable cousin who lived with the Lincolns and in later years became a kind of familiar, Abraham was obsessed with the Arabian Nights stories, reading them over and over again. "Them stories is nothing but a pack of lies," Dennis complained once. "Mighty fine lies," said Abraham, perhaps comparing the magic sunlit world of Sheherazade, Sinbad and the flying horse with the gloomy forest outside his own window, and the company he kept.


Three years at Sinking Spring, Kentucky, five more at the nearby Knob Creek Farm, another eleven at Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana -- it was not until he was nineteen that Abraham Lincoln had a glimpse of life outside the backwoods. In 1828 he was invited to help a young boatman named Allan Gentry take a flatboat loaded with frontier produce to New Orleans, 1,200 miles down the immense river system of the American interior. The boat, a kind of cabined raft, was fifty or sixty feet long: lading bills of the time suggest that the cargo included pork and hams, cornmeal, oats, beeswax, beans, poultry and possibly live cattle. When they got to New Orleans they would sell both the cargo and the flatboat, and come home by river steamer.

They started from Rockport, Indiana, and that old river port on the Ohio has never forgotten the event. The river is a mile wide there, and it often runs very high, swirling past the town loaded with tree stumps and miscellaneous flotsam. Then the bank is squelchy beneath one's feet, the wind smells of damp and mud, and when a towboat strains against the stream towards Louisville you can hardly hear the heavy beat of its engines through the water's rush. From Rockport the river runs away to the west in an inexorably haughty manner, as though it means to flow to the other side of the world -- as it very nearly does, for by combining with the even mightier Mississippi, its waters end up at last in the tropical Gulf of Mexico.

Beside the old river landing, below the bluffs of Rockport, a memorial stone remembers Lincoln's embarkation. Gentry the captain was at the long tiller aft, the mate Lincoln watched for snags and shallows forward when they caught the stream downriver. In those days, when roads were scarce and often impassable, the western rivers were busy with the comings and goings of thousands of craft -- paddle steamers belching wood smoke from their funnels, barges, skiffs, huge rafts and multitudinous flatboats. I doubt if anyone took much notice of Gentry and Lincoln as they pushed off -- just two more young men on yet another flatboat. It was a fateful sailing nevertheless, for this first water voyage was a metaphor of Lincoln's urge to get away from the cramped and arid narrative of his boyhood.

The rivers were the superhighways of his youth, the great escape routes, the contemporary equivalent of Kerouac's motorbike turnpikes. They gave him his first taste of life beyond the log cabin, as television might today, and they were his promise of freedom, as a university could have been. For a time he wanted to make a career as a professional river man, and boats were always to play an important part in his life. Many an old tale lists his boyhood experiences on the rivers -- how he earned his first dollars taking passengers to a steamer in midstream, how he worked as a ferryman on the Ohio, how he built his own boats and acted as a pilot on the Sangamon. He patented a device to enable river steamers to lift themselves over shallows: it was U.S. Patent No. 6,469, and there is a model of it still in the Smithsonian in Washington.

"Whenever I come this way," said a passing lady exercising her dog, as I stood one day in contemplation at the Rockport landing stage, "I fancy Mr. Lincoln out there on his boat. Can't you just see him there?" Of course I could -- it's my trade! -- but I suspect she and I saw different navigators on that flatboat. She saw Mr. Lincoln in his stovepipe hat, black suit and beard, perhaps with his shawl over his shoulders, but I saw the gangling young Abe in his hand-me-downs, cautiously poling a way through the snags as the eddy took them round the point. He always looks and feels like a river man to me. He was a man of canny calculation, a man for the slow emergency, and the very sprawl of the American rivers suggests to me his own later presence, gawky but grand. Even in 1829, when he was not yet out of the boondocks, a great inchoate ambition was beginning to stir in him, and his first experience of the river system, his first sight of cosmopolitan New Orleans, doubtless gave him visions of the vast scale, power and meaning of America, and its limitless opportunities. Manifest Destiny, Monroe Doctrine, Go West, Young Man!, Sea to Shining Sea -- all the old mantras of American pride stir in my own consciousness, even now, when I watch the great rivers go by.


The money Lincoln made from that first adventure into liberty had by law to be handed over to his feckless Dad. "I know what it is to be a slave," he said years later, and this is probably what he had in mind. I can well imagine Thomas Lincoln claiming his cash, and even the young Abraham keeping something back on the sly. Who could blame him? Convention presents him as a paragon of truthfulness and square dealing, but it is hard to believe that, growing up in such a milieu, the boy was altogether immune to its mores.

So it is proper, I suppose, that around the Lincoln birthplace symptoms of the white trash society are still in evidence -- one can hardly imagine the cabin at Sinking Spring transposed to some immaculate countryside of New England, or even to a stately tract of Old Virginia. Unbelievably obese families wander through the site, or peer into its eponymous spring, and just up the road there is one of those shambled settlements of trailers and scruffy shacks, with NO TRESPASSING warnings stuck on trees everywhere. I was there once at a time of local elections in Kentucky, and all over the place pasteboard notices on sticks invited the support of the electorate for one candidate or another -- TROMBO FOR JAILER was one that seemed to me aesthetically apt.

But as for that log cabin itself, genuine or not, long ago Posterity laid its hands upon it, and did to it what it had already done to Abe Lincoln himself: apotheosized it. At one time entrepreneurs from Louisville hoped to make Lincoln Birthday Whiskey from the water of Sinking Spring, but the site was saved for a still higher destiny. In 1911 a patriotic association reerected the cabin in a commanding position overlooking the spring, and surrounded it with a manicured park. The architect John Russell Pope was then commissioned to encase it within a large white classical temple, with Doric columns and chiseled inscriptions of inspiration, and a ceremonial staircase of fifty-six steps (one for each year of Lincoln's life). It was hoped that this noble sanctuary might dissuade young Americans from looking only to Europe for spiritual inspiration. It does rather suggest Ludwig of Bavaria's Valhalla above the Danube at Regensburg, then one of the prime destinations of cultural tourism, or even more appositely, the basilica at Assisi that immures within its vast marble spaces St. Francis's original woodland chapel.

National Park ladies guard the shrine at Sinking Spring, sporadically launching into educational monologues, and wondering matrons squeeze their way with difficulty around the cabin.

If the heaviest of the pilgrims have found those fifty-six steps too much for them, they may return to the Park Visitor Center by way of a more accommodating boardwalk, called the Pathway of A President. I am a foreign agnostic, though, trying to work out for myself the true nature of Abraham Lincoln, and I prefer to take the symbolical staircase -- restraining myself, in deference to the National Park Service, from skipping down it whistling "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Copyright © 2000 by Jan Morris

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2002

    an entertaining legal brief on AL!

    Succinct, informal, accurate and inviting: throw out all the newest (thank you HL Mencken!) Lincolnia, this is more refreshing than a 21st Century Lincoln-cola. It has all of the virtues one could hope for in a bright, insigtful analysis by a foreign travel-writer who writes with the clarity of a superb brief-writer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2001

    Seriously marred by lack of good editing

    <P>I was disturbed almost at the start of Jan Morris' 'Lincoln,' when I found on page 5 a reference to Mount Rushmore in North Dakota instead of South. What a shame, I thought that a careless editor had allowed such a simple, silly geographical error to reach print in the work of one our finest living travel writers. <P>Mistakes like this always give me pause. How many non-obvious mistakes, ones that I won't easily recognize, may have crept in elsewhere in the text? But I continued reading, because in this volume as always, Morris' eye for detail and felicity of language provided reading pleasure. <P>Imagine my disappointment then, when, on page 57, I read of the Donner Party perishing in the Rocky Mountains instead of the Sierra Nevada. Barely a quarter of the way through, and two startling errors, both geographical, have appeared in a travel book. That's too many, even for the sort of impressionistic writing at which Morris excels. I put the book down and didn't finish it. <P>'Lincoln' is about Morris' reconciliation over half a century with Americans' reverence for the 16th president. Clearly, after all those years, Morris is still British and an outsider. That very perspective informs and gives spice to much of her work. So, I don't fault the author. To err is human. <P>However, to catch errors before they are published is professional. On the face of it, this book was not competently prepared for publication. It should have come under the watchful and informed eye of an editor or editors familiar with American geography and culture, an editor or editors who would have caught such basic mistakes. <P>A writer like Morris is not 'too good to edit.' Good writers deserve the safety net of good editing. Sadly, the publisher seems willing, for reasons which I suspect are mainly economic, to allow its writers to hang out to dry and to face public embarrassment. <P>In my opinion, this is editorial negligence, even publishing malpractice. If the publisher has such a cavalier disregard for the facts, for the reputation of its writers, and for the sensibilities of its readers, then readers can respond by refusing to buy this book -- and indeed by boycotting the publisher's entire catalog. <P>

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