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Presidential biography seeks to uncover true story of American hero

By Michael Sims

MAY 1, 2000:  Welsh writer Jan Morris is best known as the author of literate, engaging reports of her travels to the far corners of the world. Many of these essays were published originally in the New Yorker and gathered into collections with such titles as Cities and Places and Journeys. They skip from Venice to Manhattan to Hong Kong and many points between. Morris writes with a kind of casual grace. As with many peripatetic writers before her--Jonathan Raban and Peter Matthiessen come to mind--we read her as much for her companionship as for her insights into cultures different from our own.

One of Morris' strengths is her ability to convey how the cherished assumptions of any place reflect the history that shaped it. She has brought this signature talent to a surprising subject in her new book, Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest. She explains in a foreword that when she first came to the United States in the 1950s, Lincoln idolatry was at its peak. "He cropped up in all the conversations by which kind Americans tried to introduce me to the meaning of their country," she writes, "and he seemed to stare down at me monumentally from every other public place, with a mixture of the judgmental, the homespun, and the sanctimonious that I came to find intolerable."

Not that Morris is a harsh critic of American life; she is skeptical of God's-country silliness but fond of Americans in general. She is merely too sensible to succumb to hoary mythologies. The myths are familiar to everyone, Americans and questing foreigners alike. What Morris wanted to learn for herself was how much of the man remains when the myths are stripped away. She decided to find out, and the result is this impressive little book. Rather to her surprise, it seems, she grew to like her subject.

Morris visits all of the sacred sights associated with the Lincoln story, from his nativity in Illinois to his Golgotha at Ford's Theater. She follows in his tracks from a wild youth on river boats to an early manhood spent lawyering in Springfield to a political and spiritual coming-of-age in the White House. By going in and out of the present and past, Morris conveys simultaneously the look and feel of the Lincoln-idolatry industry and the world of the man himself. Gradually, we absorb the textures and assumptions of the barbaric young nation, still giddy with adolescent energy and confusion, that produced Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's modest beginnings are part of his deification, as if he had been born in a manger with attendant wise men. Actually, as Morris writes, "if Lincoln were to be born today, he would be born in a mobile home." His family was what is nowadays described as white trash. Lincoln described his boyhood as "stinted," and his friend and first biographer called young Abraham's pioneer culture "a stagnant, putrid pool."

How Lincoln rises above his dreadful origin has always been part of the lure of the story. One answer is surprisingly simple: books. Like many heroes before and since, he really did read his way out of oblivion and into history. Our knowledge of his later climb to the status of "great man" lends his early days a misty halo of significance, and his tragic end enables us to cast it all in operatic tones. Understandably, skeptics protest. But the fact remains that, when the time came, Abraham Lincoln grew into the role for which history had cast him: a hugely unpopular American president whose nation was at war during his entire term in office.

Innocent readers may be shocked to learn that the ambitious young Lincoln could be a sneaky lawyer and a shamelessly manipulative legislator. And what is often portrayed as his Falstaffian wit seems really to have been more of a Jerry Clower-ish goofiness. Apparently, not even his underlings laughed at most of his homespun jokes, and Lincoln is on record as frequently rebuffing his unamused colleagues. Disappointed with Lincoln's irreverence, a sanctimonious cabinet member advised the president to use a guaranteed crowd-pleasing ploy that is still popular in political speeches: lots of references to God.

In only a couple hundred pages, Morris sketches Lincoln's love for his rowdy children and devotion to his unstable wife, his fondness for Shakespeare, and his lifelong struggle with depression. And she paints a quick portrait of his spiritual evolution. At the helm of a violently divided country--whose rupture he had helped to engineer--he was almost single-handedly responsible for most of the major decisions in the war. And out of this cauldron came the Abraham Lincoln we remember and idealize, the man whose moral burden is conveyed in the photographs documenting the erosion of his craggy Rushmore face.

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