A sketch of the `president of misery'

Author: Jan Morris has been in many places, including a man's body. In her latest book she writes gracefully of Lincoln.

February 12, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CRICCIETH, Wales -- Could you imagine a better traveling companion than Jan Morris, author, historian and trailblazer?

She has been to Mount Everest and Venice, Oxford and Hong Kong. She has charted the British Empire's rise and fall and written evocatively on Manhattan in 1945.

Now, Morris fixes her gaze and intellect on a hard-scrabble slice of America, from Kentucky's backwoods to Washington's steamy streets, from the Illinois prairie to a Gettysburg graveyard.

She's in the land of Abraham Lincoln, trying to come to terms with a president -- and his myth -- that she often associated with the sickly sweet grape jelly she encountered during a mid-century American journey.

If not for her publisher's resistance, she might have entitled her newest book, "Grape Jelly." Instead, the reader gets "Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest," a slim volume that meanders through Lincoln's life, times and landscape.

"For me, kindness is the most important human quality of all, and I think Lincoln was essentially a very kind man," Morris says.

She is sitting in the upstairs living room of her stone cottage, set in jagged farm land a few miles from a bay that affords a glorious view of Snowdonia's mountains. She dresses comfortably in a peach sweater, yellow polo shirt, blue jeans and black shoes that blend seamlessly with her white hair. A smile frequently crosses her face as she sinks into a sofa and gingerly sucks on a toffee.

The cottage is a home in every respect, with its country kitchen, model schooners that ply the rafters, a self-penned print of her beloved Venice, and her ultimate pride and joy, a writer's library that author Paul Theroux once told Morris was the best he had seen.

From its delicate centerpiece table to the books that hug the wall to the windows that open to the light and the lush countryside, the library is a thing of rare beauty, a glorious writer's retreat.

When a visitor jokes the library looks like a runner-up to Winston Churchill's timbered study at his country estate, Chartwell, Morris shoots back: "Too big."

On second thought, she's right.

Through British eyes

It is a long, long way from Lincoln's America.

Those searching for a complete Lincoln biography should look elsewhere.

But readers intrigued by an impressionistic journey of sights and delights, filtered through Morris' soul and prose, would do well to dip into her book, culled from her wide reading and U.S. travels in 1997 and 1998.

"He was a man of canny calculation, a man for the slow emergency, and the very sprawl of the American rivers suggest to me his own later presence, gawky but grand," Morris writes of Lincoln, the young man on the western rivers.

There was Lincoln's combustible relationship with his wife, Mary ("rows there certainly were -- I can hear them resounding even now"), the debates with Stephen Douglas ("like fictional figures, the long and short of it") and the farewell from Springfield, Ill. ("while the locomotive hissed and the rain drooped down").

"Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States of America, was a president of misery," Morris writes.

British reviews of the book have been kind. But Morris admits the prospect of American reviews "makes my blood run cold" with fear.

"I've written 40-something books," she says. "Twelve are good."

Her best subject may be herself. Jan Morris, 73, has lived and written about a most fascinating life -- as a woman and a man.

Momentous journeys

Soldier, journalist and groundbreaking historian, James Morris was a globe-trotting writer with a wife and children.

He accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their assault of Mount Everest in 1953. Morris climbed to around 23,000 feet and grabbed one of the century's great scoops, making sure the news got back to Britain in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The centerpiece of James Morris' career was the "Pax Britannica" trilogy, a lovingly rendered portrayal of Britain's empire. It was a personal triumph, as the journalist flowered into a full-fledged historian.

But James Morris' greatest journey and creation was far more personal, as he moved from being a man to a woman, receiving hormone treatments for years before a sex change operation in a Casablanca clinic. Morris detailed the transformation from James to Jan in the 1974 book, "Conundrum," writing that, as a young child, he realized he "had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl."

It was all so long ago.

"Convergence of the sexes is almost a cliche," Morris says.

The stereotype that bedevils Morris most, however, is her categorization as "travel writer."

In the midst of an interview on a leisurely mid-January morning, Morris receives a call from a reporter with the Times "Educational Supplement" and is told that some of her works will be taught in British schools. Morris asks what writings. Your travel writings, she is told.

"I hate being called a travel writer because that's really what I'm not, but it's usually what I'm characterized as," she says.

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