Magazine article The Spectator

Nice Guys Don't Always Finish Last

Magazine article The Spectator

Nice Guys Don't Always Finish Last

Article excerpt


by Jan Morris

Viking, L19.99, pp. 216

Here is a little jewel-box of a book, not so much a biography as an exercise in travel writing decorated with historical imagination. When Jan Morris first visited the United States, she was irritated by the adulation accorded to the man still spoken of as `Mr Lincoln'. Twenty-two counties and 35 towns and cities are named after him. He features in 130 films, and his profile on American coins is the most widely reproduced portrait in the world. The very figure of Uncle Sam has gradually been redrawn to resemble his lanky form. As a foreigner and an iconoclast, Morris found the whole thing rather ersatz, but she could never shake off her interest in the president whose life and death were seen in such quasi-religious terms.

Nearly half a century after her first visit to the US, and at the height of her literary powers, Jan Morris has returned to assess the man who, even now, is held to epitomise the virtues of the republic. This may not be a conventional biography. But, in her idiosyncratic way, Morris has succeeded in the first task of the biographer: to get inside her subject and to understand the time in which he lived. Most of us know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin; but generations of historians have wrangled over exactly where to place him socially. Were his parents semi-civilised frontier folk, or poor but respectable church-goers, or white trash? Rather than trawling through the evidence, Morris takes us to the listless hills of contemporary northern Kentucky:

It is exemplified, in my own mind, by hugely bulbous young mothers in trousers, smoking cigarettes, by the peculiar stale smell of down-market 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 pick-up trucks.

What conventional history could convey with such vividness the society, mutatis mutandis, into which the 16th president was born? It is a technique which Morris uses again and again, following Lincoln's trail from the straggly forest settlements of Kentucky and Indiana to Springfield, Illinois, where the young Abraham mastered the intrigues of faction politics as a state legislator, and on to Washington DC, then a compact little town. Along the way, we repeatedly encounter the man in our fancy: now listening to Lincoln the lawyer arguing in his famous home-spun style, now imagining him being seduced by the gentility of plantation life as he stays with slave-owning friends, now watching the careworn President shuffling around the Executive Mansion in his socks and slippers. …

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