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by Jan Morris

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-684-85515-1
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The peerless travel writer laughs, snarls, glares in contempt, and sheds real tears in a critical but ultimately sentimental biographical essay on the martyred president. After comparing the American adoration of Abraham Lincoln to the sealed plastic, single-portion tubs of grape jelly she took with her toast in roadside coffee shops some 40 years ago on her first visit to the States, Morris (Fifty Years of Europe, 1997, etc.) seems out for blood, or at least better breakfast fare. She finds neither as she visits log cabins of dubious authenticity, Civil War battlefields, public parks, and 19th-century houses spared the wrecking ball because Honest Abe lived and (in a small room across from Ford’s Theater) died in them. Eschewing both Carl Sandburg’s six-volume hagiography and more recent Lincoln scholarship, Morris—quoting mostly from the biased memoirs of Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and Lincoln’s own letters, poetry, and speeches—discovers what any American high schooler might have told her: that the humble rail-splitter was an astute politician whose law practice represented the railroads— interests, and that the Great Emancipator was initially ambivalent about freeing slaves, possibly because his wife, Mary Todd, came from a slave-owning family. Morris finds it ironic that Lincoln worshipers, from bearded look-alikes at souvenir shops to fat tourists struggling up the marble stairs leading to his Kentucky log- cabin birthplace, ignore the man she’s sure he is: a melancholic, unsophisticated, animal-loving family man whose simple departure speech, which Morris reads at the Springfield railway station where Lincoln left to take up residence at the White House, moves her to tears. “He was essentially a nice man,” she sighs. By the time she visits somber Gettysburg, she is gushing with admiration for a rough-hewn, unrefined, but exquisitely gentle commoner who rose to meet the challenge of his times, and help promote the meddlesome idealism of millennial America. Caustic, patronizing, and misinformed: Lincoln for Dummies.(First serial rights to Preservation)