by Morris, Jan
The greatest of all American historical legends, Abraham Lincoln's life has been told and retold countless times. Good ole 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 US. 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 through all this. 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 humour which manifested in self-deprecating remarks and aphoristic stories of enchantingly universal appeal and simple, homespun wisdom. Through it all though, right up to the tragic dénouement 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
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