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Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest


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About 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.


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.

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.

This book purports to convey through the narrative device of a travelog Morris's reflections about Abraham Lincoln, his America, and the nation he helped refashion in the crucible of war. Yet one is left wondering which is more boring: the places she visits and the people she encounters or her condescending description of them. Morris mistakes pretentiousness for perceptiveness and profound thought, mocking everyone else's image of Lincoln while constructing her own curious version, complete with speculations about homosexuality. She even describes imagined encounters with Lincoln, a device that reminds us that this book is really more about Morris than it is about the 16th president. This seemingly endless journey is provokingly pedestrian, blithely ignorant, remarkably self-absorbed, and a waste of our time; when wags speculated that publishers might sell books on Lincoln's dog's doctor, they overlooked the even more alarming possibility that they would embrace such tedious twaddle as sophisticated social commentary and learned reflection. Not recommended.--Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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