Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review! Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest by Jan Morris

Jan Morris notes early in the introduction of her book Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest that the desire to write and read about Abraham Lincoln is so strong that by the year 2000 "more words had been written about him than about anyone else except Jesus Christ, to whom he was frequently likened.” The number of pages-per-year, however, might skew in Lincoln’s favor after accounting for Christ’s 1,800 year head start. Why then did Jan Morris write another book about Lincoln? It seems the answer is so Morris, an Englishwoman, can play contrarian to American historical lore. She rejects Lincoln-as-Christ, instead comparing the great President to “grape jelly.” Upon her first visit to America in the 1950s, she found Lincoln and the unappetizing diner condiment equally ubiquitous and commercialized. This distaste for Lincoln kitsch fueled her skepticism of Lincoln’s legend and pointed her toward a quest to discover the man for herself.

Unencumbered by an American childhood, Morris has few preconceptions about Lincoln. To her, he is not the Great Emancipator, or, indeed, an American Christ. Instead he is just a man, and she aims to find out what sort of man he was, warts and all. At first this is refreshing. Instead of romanticizing Lincoln’s childhood, as so many others have, Morris launches into the glib dismissal of Lincoln lore that would border on sacrilege for an American: the young Lincoln to Morris is little more than white trash, a boy she condescendingly refers to as a “frontier urchin.”

It’s obvious that Morris wrote A Foreigner’s Quest with a non-American audience in mind. Beyond the book's happy deconstruction of the American Lincoln narrative, there is a reconstruction of it done in a decidedly European voice. I imagine many American Lincoln lovers might feel bemused confusion, as I did, at the following description of the fate of General George McClellan, who lost the 1864 Presidential election to Lincoln
and in the tradition of Hilaire Belloc's unsuccessful Lord Lundy--'Go out and govern New South Wales!'--wound up as governor of New Jersey.
This means nothing to me, but the passage, along with the others of its ilk scattered throughout the book, represents a new claim on Lincoln. The typical Lincoln images are indelibly American: the log cabin and the frontier of his youth; the beard, the top hat, the speeches of his Presidency. Starting from scratch, Morris attempts to recreate Lincoln, his story and symbols, in the language of British idiom.

At times this self-conscious foreignness sheds light on Lincoln's meaning in contemporary America, but not always. Morris' critiques of American geography and culture veer sometimes into cringe-worthy caricature of the stereotypically prim British tourist:
Imagine the labor of it, when the Lincolns moved to another farm, probably because of some squabble about land rights, as they loaded their implements on the wagons once again, and plodded off into the west! It is bad enough even now, as one sweeps across these landscapes in a comfortable car.
One is tempted to remind Morris that the 19th century was, relatively speaking, a pretty hard time to live. But perhaps she romanticizes Charles Dickens’ decrepit London the same way we Americans romanticize the frontier.

Lincoln is a sort of biography. The major events of Lincoln’s life are included, but only as a prism through which to study his personality. Morris is not so concerned with what Lincoln did as with how he thought about things. Her method of investigation is a detailed retelling of Lincoln's life, interspersed with bits of historical fiction in which she imagines Lincoln acting in some minor scene. Historical accuracy is not the goal, and Morris often renounces it entirely in her attempt to illuminate some aspect of Lincoln's character. She pictures, for example, an interaction between Lincoln and a "simpler" citizen of New Salem:
“What are you studyin', Abe?” inquired a farmer who found him deep in a book on top of a woodpile. “Studyin' law.” “Great God Almighty,” was all the farmer could think of replying.
These quaint vignettes are constructions in service of Morris' view of Lincoln, but she isn't implying anything radical. Though guilty of comparing Lincoln to grape jelly, she doesn’t really mean it--she only compares the overstated, hagiographical image of Lincoln, not Lincoln himself, to grape jelly. In the above "anecdote," her Lincoln is similar to "our" Lincoln. He's humble, hard-working, smart, and accessible.

This isn’t to say that Morris’ pre-Presidential Lincoln is someone we would completely recognize. She points out his unsavory activity as an Illinois politician, calling his behavior around election time “rabid.” Such rhetoric does not fit an image of the Honest Abe of lore. Later, she introduces a Lincoln ambivalent towards slavery, directly confronting the brutal truth of antebellum America in the most effective section of the book. The imagined scenes of Lincoln help describe a world in which slavery was not only tolerated, but often held as moral. His embarrassment at “the tea-party gentility” of Mary Todd’s home, perhaps exacerbated by his awkwardness around her and his childhood of poverty, is cemented when a slave enters, bearing sandwiches. Next we see Lincoln visiting the plantation of his good friend, the Kentuckian Joshua Speed, and enjoying despite himself the rustic comforts of the “Old South of wistful legend.” Though apocryphal, these brief moments of fiction transport the reader into the mind of a man opposed to slavery but unsure how to proceed. They prove a valuable respite from the popular image of Lincoln as a progressive anti-slavery crusader, an image which, if not untrue, lacks the nuance of Morris’ sketches.

But it's Lincoln as President that Morris is most concerned with. She notes that when he grew his beard after winning the election he transformed himself "once and for all into the Lincoln of all our images". Morris endorses this image, which does not distinguish itself from myth. She edges into hyperbole:
Gradually it dawned upon [Lincoln]...and upon his colleagues and rivals too, that he was the only man who could undertake the Presidency at that moment, in such circumstances.
This statement is simply untrue, and it is not even necessary to cite facts to show how: Morris has cast Lincoln’s “rivals” as his supporters, a paradox if there ever was one.

Morris' careful envisioning of a Lincoln conflicted by slavery is tossed out to make way for the Great Emancipator. No longer ambivalent, Lincoln only manages politics and bides his time until he can issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The "righteous indignation of the abolitionists and the furious resentment of the slaveholders...meant that for the first years of the Civil War [Lincoln] was unable to make a high moral cause of it," as though he had wanted to all along. Morris’ vision is of a saintly President Lincoln, and her cloying conclusion that “he was a nice man” seems to represent the unsatisfying sum of wisdom she has mustered in her study. Many historians have argued that Lincoln's greatness emanated from his ability to adapt to his circumstances, but Morris doesn't explain this aspect of him well. For a book about what Lincoln must have been like, she doesn't dedicate many words to explain how his thoughts changed over time, only rejoicing that they did. Nor does she investigate why. The “why” for Morris is self-evident: Lincoln was a great man, and a “nice” one. What great, nice man would not oppose slavery? The pre-Presidential Lincoln who Morris built with such care—someone vivid, alive, and imperfect—is unlike Lincoln as President, who she is unable to separate from cliché.

The Presidential Lincoln infatuates Morris, and she has trouble caring about his flaws, or even recognizing them. In a chapter dedicated to Lincoln's speeches Morris espouses a belief in the complete redemptive power of the Gettysburg Address:
However mean and crafty the actions [Lincoln] had allowed himself in the fulfillment of his inexorable ambition, he made up for them all with 270 words of oratory in a Pennsylvania cemetery.
This praise is made all the more strange given that Morris thinks of Lincoln's "legacy to the world as equivocal." When she finally confronts Lincoln's policies and actions as President, Morris isn’t able to reconcile what she's said about him already ("his craftiness and deceptions result[ed] in a greater good") with the reasons Lincoln prosecuted the Civil War ("His only war aim, he said at first, was to keep the Union intact--but what kind of an aim was that?"). Though Morris believes that the war for Union represented “nationalism, edging into imperialism: not patriotism,” somehow Lincoln is exculpated from responsibility. Perhaps it’s because he was so nice.

To her credit, Morris understands that any search for Lincoln is really a search for an American identity, and in her conclusion she casts him as its archetype. Somehow, despite her dim view of modern America, this is a good thing. Her image of Lincoln remains unrelentingly positive, even as she writes:
the modern American sense of privilege, so irritating to foreigners today, and the belief that the U.S.A. has the right--the duty indeed--to intervene in the affairs of other cultures, had its origins in Lincoln's victory.
Here is evidence that Morris believes Lincoln's legacy is complicated, but she can't quite bring herself to speak ill of President Lincoln himself. Though Morris set out to de-mythologize Lincoln, she has only succeeded in rebuilding an American icon. Ultimately, she views Lincoln as “a martyrdom waiting to happen,” indulging in an unoriginal fatalism that does not describe anything useful or true about Lincoln’s character. For all the irreverence in her comparison of Lincoln to grape jelly, her book never achieves the witty contrarianism promised in its introduction. For Morris, Lincoln is the American Christ, and her book is just another three hundred pages to help prove it.

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