Ugly mug, but a beautiful soul

Scott Bradfield enjoys a trip in the huge footsteps of the Great Emancipator
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Lincoln: a foreigner's quest by Jan Morris (Viking £#163;17.99)

Lincoln: a foreigner's quest by Jan Morris (Viking £#163;17.99)

FOR MORE than a century, Abraham Lincoln has meant so much to so many people that he has ended up meaning nothing at all - or so Jan Morris suspects when she sets off in search of the truth behind America's sixteenth President. Beginning at the East Anglian home of Lincoln's paternal ancestors, Morris crosses the Atlantic and make all the usual stops: a dismal one-room log cabin in Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky; some boisterous river-ports in Ohio and Louisiana; and a series of well-touristed sights, from Havana, Illinois (where Lincoln engaged the "Little Giant," Stephen Douglas, in debates about slavery) to Appomattox (where Robert E Lee surrendered).

This is the sort of well-trodden journey, Morris fears from the start, that only lets visitors see what they're supposed to: monuments, mementos and motels. And all of it will feel slightly uniform and pre-packaged, like that phoney-tasting grape-jelly that they give you in budget restaurants.

The real Lincoln, however, turns out to be a hard man to pin down. Born in the "white trash" hills of Kentucky, he worked so many odd-jobs that he once referred to himself as "a piece of floating driftwood." And after spending his first twenty-something years as an avid wrestler, a shopkeeper, a soldier, and a village postmaster, he eventually taught himself the law from borrowed books. He then joined the Eighth Judicial Circuit of central Illinois, where he argued everything from malpractice cases to charges of robbery and murder.

All elbows and ankles, he was one of those rare ugly men who feel comfortable in front of a camera. He didn't seem to mind who he was - even when everybody else did.

Eventually he married Mary Todd, whose aristocratic pretensions never made him very happy. And during his tenure as President, he presided over the most violent war in American history, lost the third of his four sons, and watched his addled wife succumb to a sort of fashion-conscious dementia. (In one notable month, Mary purchased 84 pairs of gloves.)

A chronically melancholy man whose belief in the freedom of information left his home open to strangers (Jack Straw, please note), Lincoln is not remembered for being a great President, so much as for being a good man in bad times. In other words, he didn't always make the best decisions. But he almost always suffered while making them.

In fact, for all his political savvy, Lincoln was more a poet than anything else. And it's the genuine sincerity of his prose style, and the flexibility of his convictions, which eventually win Jan Morris over:

There are moods, the contradictions, the evasiveness, the questioning of accepted truths. The sexual complexity, the play-acting, the sad resolution and the power to move the spirit, all made a poet of this consummate politician. When Lincoln saw the Niagara Falls for the first time, he told Herndon that "the thing that struck me most forcibly was, where in the world did all that water come from?"

He couldn't sing a line, either, and his musical preferences were for simple ballads, opera arias of the more vibrant kind, and marches. He loved to hear Ward Lamon play Stephen Foster tunes on the banjo, and when he sponsored the first ever concert in the White House, the performers included a midget from Barnum's Circus, who sang "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," and an American Indian singer billed as "the Aboriginal Jenny Lind".

Ultimately, of course, Lincoln represented the apotheosis of the Common Man. All good boys could grow up to be him; while he, despite his ungainly stature, could perennially share in the same pleasures as little boys.

The temptation for most travel-writers would be to write about everything but Lincoln: about the mindless memorabilia of tourist gift shops, say, or the highway miles measured by come-ons, hype, and familiar beards wearing stove-pipe hats. But, of course, Jan Morris is not your usual travel writer.

Her prose is sensible and absorbing, and she always manages to knit the Then and Now into a coherent tale of understandable people - Abraham Lincoln, herself, and those she meets along the way. Like its subject, Lincoln: a foreigner's quest is funny, intelligent, and always prepared to wrestle complex ideas to a point of clarity. It's impossible to imagine Jan Morris giving her readers anything less.