cover image Lincoln, a Foreigner's Quest

Lincoln, a Foreigner's Quest

Jan Morris. Simon & Schuster, $23 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85515-8

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.)