Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest

Article excerpt

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest. By Jan Morris. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Pp. 205. $23.00)

Jan Morris is a renowned author, her travel writing is justly celebrated, and now she has written a book on Abraham Lincoln. It begins with Morris describing a trip to the United States in the 1950s, and her horrified discovery that orange marmalade was not available for her breakfast toast. She characterized what was available, grape jelly, as inedible and the epitome of American faults: too sweet, textureless, artificial. This is a decidedly peculiar way to begin a Lincoln book and places Morris completely at odds with the table manners of her subject, Abraham Lincoln, who was known for his utter indifference to food. A condescending and critical tone toward the United States typifies the book, and it seems to place Morris in the churlish tradition of the antebellum English travelers, Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens for example, who came to the United States and found little to admire and much of which to be critical.

Driving from Indiana to Illinois on a pilgrimage to Lincoln sites, Morris finds the Midwest little changed from the heyday of the Clary's Grove boys, a region of provincial imbeciles, bad food, ugly and cheap homes. A trip to Lincoln's Kentucky birthplace prompts Morris to sniff at the locals' obesity, pick-up trucks and trailers. She attributes Lincoln's penchant for melancholia to a childhood in the desolate Midwest. The life of Lincoln is in many respects a celebration of the virtues of the American people. Lincoln after all emerged from humble circumstances, but Morris is too busy chronicling the evidence of present day philistinism to notice.

The text is riddled with errors (historian James McPherson found thirty-eight, many of which will cause the knowledgeable Lincoln reader to wince and grind teeth). …

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