Jan Morris explores Lincoln-- a pursuit of the sublime

January 30, 2000|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

This is not an auspicious manner in which to begin a book about an American hero, intended for American audiences: "This is idolaItry... went against my grain, as a European and a natural iconoclast. Surely there was something phony to it all, something trumped up and ersatz -- rather like that damned grape jelly, in fact. For nearly half a century intermittently thought...if he really had been a saint he was made out to be, or was [he] just another political opportunist riding the tides of democracy.

These are not the first words of Jan Morris' "Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest" (Simon & Schuster, 205 pages, $23), but, appearing early in the book, they summarize the mission of her work.

By the time she is done, Morris had written a lovely book. A loving book though never sentimental. A moving book though never histrionic. It's a skeptical book from a true European. And it's also a work of poetry, close to adoration.

Jan Morris, who wrote under the name James Morris until a famous sex-change operation in 1972, has written 30 books, which have included some of the most stunningly artful travel writing in the language. She is half English, half Welsh, and two years ago, at 71, she came again to America to discover the real Lincoln.

After scurrying to every spot where Lincoin lived and worked, after apparently reading the bulk or the best of the Lincoin biographical,library, at the book's midpoint, Morris can write:

"Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States of America, was a President of misery. He was the only incumbent in history whose term of office was completed entirely in wartime, and the sixteenth presidency was the saddest there ever was. His Republic was hideously divided, and under his authority at least 360,000 of his people died in battle. For much of the time the armies of which he was the commander-in-chief suffered humiliating defeats. He lost a second son, his wife sank into mental illness, from first to last he was beset by political enemies within and without his own party. His capital was a hotbed of conspiracy and disloyalty, and in the end he was murdered there."

That is as deft and deep a miniature portrait as I cap, remember.

At her best, Jan Morris writes like an angel -- a voice of exquisite simplicity rooted in consummate craftsmanship. For all her grace and wit, however, there's a sort of condescending Europeanness about the first quarter or third of the book, a touch of the sort of sneering employed by left-wing British journalistic and academic hacks who make careers of detesting the United States in little-read journals and generous American dinner parties.

She overcomes that air of superiority. Sharp reportorial images that marry past and present begin to conquer her skepticism, then take control of the book's spirit. Her careful gleaning of chronological and anecdotal Lincolnalia is woven into her pilgrimage from birthplace to Ford's Theater, along Lincoin's trail, bringing his life into a vivid contemporary frame, raising questions, seeking answers, finding the man.

Increasingly, as she peels off layer after layer, the text becomes respectful. Her willful and often playful iconoclasm does not wane. Nobody's going to make her swallow grape jelly, the epitome of everything flat, excessive, artificial and banal about America.

Few readers who had a decent high-school survey of American history will learn new facts from this book -- though I was, and I suspect most will be, reminded of forgotten details. The strength is that it presents a living Lincoln who is both human and humane, both complex and monumental. One who is believable, sympathetic -- accessible despite his loneness. It's a dramatic and caring book, demanding much of the man and finding him up to it.

There can be no absolute biography ofr Lincoln -- or, arguably, of anyone. The simplest of lives are complicated, and Lincoln was never simple. Few people have been submitted so fully and often to the microscope of biography. Yet even among the major, scholarly and disciplined people who have worked at it there are profound disputes about the nature of his life and especially about his inner life.

Morris gives no quarter in self-confidence. The story is told in a tone of solid comprehension. It's clear she's done the homework, but there's no voice in her book that tries to mediate among the varying theories. There are precious few references to other works on Lincoln.

As Lincoln's life and Morris' book approach their completions, within days before the assassination, she has come to treasure him.

Above alt other characteristics, the Lincoln that Morris' pilgrimage ultimately finds is an artist, a poet in the noblest sense. In her last chapter, she movingly tracks some of the most glorious passages of Lincoln's legacy of language from early drafts through tiny amendments into the final noble forms, "the visionary sublime."

Her most enchanted assessment arrives in charmingly un-American terms:

"The challenges of war and statesmanship had finally molded his personality, and he stood for all to see as one of nature's born aristocrats -- not a gentleman exactly, as Aunt Bessie at Berkeley had perceived, but a native aristocrat. He must have realized by then that his innately patrician eccentricities, his natural disregard for petty matters of money and appearance, his indifference to bourgeois niceties of behavior, represented his proper level in life."

That's a generous judgment from a European skeptic. Morris achieves a Lincoln portrait that is original, disciplined, moving-- and masterful.

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