Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest

By Parish, Peter J. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest


Parish, Peter J., The Journal of Southern History


Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest. By Jan Morris. (New York and other cities: Simon and Schuster, c. 2000. Pp. 205. $23.00, ISBN 0-684-855515-1.)

Jan Morris is the latest in a long line of British commentators on Lincoln's achievements and reputation. She is the author of what remains one of the very best travel books on the United States and has written extensively on recent and contemporary America, but this is her first major venture into nineteenth-century American history and culture. Her book is an uneasy mixture of popular history, psycho-biography, myth, travelogue, speculation, and fantasy. She offers suggestive insights into aspects of Lincoln's early life and some intriguing reflections on the transforming effect upon him of four years of wartime presidency. But such attractive passages are intermingled with extraordinary flights of fancy--seeing herself as the judge in a famous Lincoln case, invoking Lincoln's ghost walking the streets of Springfield, describing the visit of a fictional English couple to the White House, and imagining a meeting between Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.

Doubts about the historical credibility of the book are enhanced by the number of factual errors and historical misconceptions. Ridiculing Lincoln's undignified entry into Washington in February 1861, Morris says that he was rushed to Willard's Hotel "instead of going straight to the White House" (p. 104), thus overlooking the fact that James Buchanan was still in residence there. There is the remarkable statement that Lincoln appointed to his cabinet "all of his four main rivals for the presidency, from both parties" (p. 119). She is unreliable on names and also on quotations. Morris mutilates Lincoln's much-quoted statement that "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me" (p. 118). It would surely have been almost as easy to get such facts right as to get them wrong, but the underlying problem lies in Morris's uncertain grasp of the historical context. …

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