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Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest Hardcover – February 16, 2000

2.4 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The greatest of all American historical legends, Abraham Lincoln's life has been told and retold countless times. Good, old Abe stands alone, a colossal figure of peerless achievements: the Great Emancipator, the deliverer of the Gettysburg Address, the president who saved the Union and paved the way for the destiny of the modern United States. It's more or less impossible to look beyond the layers of myth and legend now, but this is a different kind of biography: Whimsical, imaginative, empathic, it ambles through his life sketching an endearing though not unquestioning portrait of an American icon, seeking out the essence of the man. Jan Morris's motivation was the somewhat irritated incomprehension she felt when faced with the all-pervasive sainted status of the man on her first visit to the States in the 1950s. Since then she has explored and written about America extensively and it's clear that Lincoln was always somewhere at the back of her mind. After many years of gestation, her insightful musings make for an absorbing, fresh perspective on the man and his legacy.

The narrative follows a journey through the country, a manner of pilgrimage, tracing the remarkable transformation of Lincoln's life as he migrated from humble beginnings in Kentucky, via social respectability as a lawyer and politician in Springfield, Illinois, and on to his ultimate destiny of the presidency and Civil War leader. The picture that emerges is of a somewhat eccentric man of deep contradictions: feisty and capable of ruthlessness yet genuinely kind; prone to periods of misanthropy yet also blessed with an appealing sense of humor apparent from self-deprecating remarks and aphoristic stories of enchantingly universal appeal and simple, homespun wisdom. Through it all, though, right up to the tragedy of which he reputedly had a premonition, this great man of destiny shines through as, essentially, a decent and straightforward man. The book does lack any pictures of the people and places in his life, perhaps a slight oversight, but, then again, in view of the richly evocative nature of her portrayal, easily overlooked. --Alisdair Bowles, Amazon.co.uk

From Publishers Weekly

The Lincoln revealed by British writer Morris is a far cry from the Honest Abe of popular myth: she finds an "unpleasant side" to the president's nature, an "element of the mountebank" that "led him into spite or mayhem." But what else, Morris seems to ask, should we expect from someone who was "surely only another party politician anyway"? Morris confesses that ever since the 1950s, when she (then a he, named James Morris) first set foot in the U.S., she has been skeptical of the American veneration of Lincoln. In this indulgent excursion, she combines considerable (but idiosyncratic) historical homework and some extensive travel around the U.S. with a lot of imaginative license to paint a thoroughly subjective picture of Lincoln. Morris, the author of a variety of historically oriented travel books (Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire, etc.), does make some larger points, calling Lincoln "the originator of American hubris." She also gleefully reports on Lincoln's well-known ambivalence toward slavery as though she, for the first time, is revealing that Lincoln was not the unconflicted emancipator portrayed in grade-school history books. And it's not just Lincoln who irritates her. She is affronted as well by the Lincoln lookalikes she finds in museums and gift shops. (But then most Americans she meets in her travels seem to be stupid, not to mention obese.) More than anything, Morris is surprised and dismayed at Lincoln's folksiness, not recognizing that this is one of the qualities most prized in American presidents, from Jackson to Truman. In this book, it's not only Lincoln that Morris fails to understand; it's an entire culture. Agent, Julian Bach.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (February 16, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684855151
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684855158
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,392,045 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
First of all, some negatives: the book could have done withsome acquaintance with recent Lincoln scholarship. For example, onLincoln's atheism, there exists evidence from independent witnesses that Abe was secretly 'dunked' i.e. baptised into the German Baptist Church, the faith of his mother. Also, the Ann Ruttledge story (the love of Lincoln's youth) has been too well verified to be doubted, despite the cloying sentimentality attached to the story, rightly castigated by the author. On the Civil War, there are egregious errors - General George Pickett was never Lee's 'second-in-command' and Appromattox Manor House, which never existed, stands in for the McClean House at the village of Appomattox Court House, which seems to be confused with Grant's HQ at City Point. Yet, the book has merits. For admirers of Lincoln (and this is one) there is the winning over of a doubter, as the author once was. There are fresh insights and the book makes the reader almost an eavesdropper was the author stolls with Old Abe through his career. Despite the persistence of the hard-nosed politician in the war-time President, Jan Morris is correct in showing how Lincoln somehow transcended his time of trial as an artist might overcome his vicissitudes and produce a great artistic work. For the Lincoln detractors (and they are many!) there is the challenge of unravelling Morris' change of heart in succumbing to the spell of Lincoln, without subscribing to Lincoln mythology. Do not read this book as a biography of Lincoln, rather it is an essay on one person's encounters with the man. Use it as an introduction to the pursuit of the greatest and most elusive of American Presidents. END
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Abraham Lincoln, seen by a foreigner predisposed to dislike him for his out-of-size place in the American pantheon, still has the power to win over even a jaded critic. For Lincoln was an out-of-size character whose personality and achievements were instrumental to the shaping of modern American society. This book is part breezy travelogue and part under-researched biography. It is not a great book, it contains too many factual errors, and the author's understanding of nineteenth century American history is too shallow for this effort to find a place on the shelf of the serious Lincoln scholar. For example, Ms. Morris writes that the Mason-Dixon line came about in the 1820s as a product of the Missouri Compromise, whereas in reality it was surveyed sixty years earlier. She cites well-known and easily-verified quotations inaccurately, she accepts discredited Lincoln legends at face value, and perhaps worst of all she misunderstands the fundamental meaning of the Gettysburg Address. Yet, for all that, the book is a likeable one. Morris is up-front about her prejudices, airily unconcerned about her lazy research methods, and frequently contradictory in her opinions and conclusions. By the end, she must admit that she doesn't quite know what to make of Lincoln, although she frequently evinces affection and respect for him. This is not a serious book, but it is fun, particularly for the many readers whose understanding of Lincoln is greater than Morris's, and who will enjoy revisiting him with fresh eyes.
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Format: Hardcover
Morris spins an interesting tale, a mixture of biography, travelogue, and historical fiction. While it reads nicely, it has enough errors that I had to double-check the publisher. Expecting a small publishing house, I was shocked to see "Simon & Schuster" on the spine. A few sloppy typos caught my eye, but the author began to lose credibility when I found the glaring error others have noted about the Donner Party. When I find an error in a book, I wonder how many other errors I do not realize because the information is entirely new to me. In fact, I found several other events in the book where her version of history didn't match mine.

The book has a rather awkward ending. After what I consider a balanced (though not entirely accurate) assessment of Lincoln throughout the book, Morris declares that Lincoln's presidency fomented America's imperialistic attitudes and policies. She follows with a harsh assessment of American militarism in the twentieth century. This is an interesting idea, but it doesn't fit with the rest of the book. In hindsight, I can see parts of the book that might argue for this conclusion, but such an indictment deserves better support. Instead, it comes across as a strong opinion without much corroboration. It is as if she slapped a proposal letter for a different Lincoln book on the end of this one.

Overall, this book provides a brief overview of Lincoln embellished by visits to the places he knew. While I enjoyed it, I wouldn't particularly recommend it. Though entertaining, it misses the mark. Someone less familiar with Lincoln might get lost in the author's non-chronological organization. And while Morris hits most of the highlights, there are important things left out or glossed over. At the other extreme, a Lincolnologist would find little value here. In other words, it is too scattershot for students and too frivolous for scholars. For those of us in the middle, it is a nice read but not a good history.
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Format: Hardcover
I was disturbed almost at the start of Jan Morris' "Lincoln," when I found on page 5 a reference to Mount Rushmore in North Dakota instead of South. What a shame, I thought that a careless editor had allowed such a simple, silly geographical error to reach print in the work of one our finest living travel writers.
Mistakes like this always give me pause. How many non-obvious mistakes, ones that I won't easily recognize, may have crept in elsewhere in the text? But I continued reading, because in this volume as always, Morris' eye for detail and felicity of language provided reading pleasure.
Imagine my disappointment then, when, on page 57, I read of the Donner Party perishing in the Rocky Mountains instead of the Sierra Nevada. Barely a quarter of the way through, and two startling errors, both geographical, have appeared in a travel book. That's too many, even for the sort of impressionistic writing at which Morris excels. I put the book down and didn't finish it.
"Lincoln" is about Morris' reconciliation over half a century with Americans' reverence for the 16th president. Clearly, after all those years, Morris is still British and an outsider. That very perspective informs and gives spice to much of her work. So, I don't fault the author. To err is human.
However, to catch errors before they are published is professional. On the face of it, this book was not competently prepared for publication. It should have come under the watchful and informed eye of an editor or editors familiar with American geography and culture, an editor or editors who would have caught such basic mistakes.
A writer like Morris is not "too good to edit." Good writers deserve the safety net of good editing.
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