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Lincoln, a Foreigner's Questby Jan Morris
Hingham and Bryn Gwyn — white trash? — "whispering dreams, wistful dust" — the Lincoln Trail — the company he kept — on the river — TROMBO FOR JAILER
Hingham in Norfolk, England, is where Abraham Lincoln's paternal forebears came to America from, his father's great-great-grandfather having emigrated to the colonies in the late seventeenth century. It is a trim country village with a fine fourteenth-century church, some handsome eighteenth-century houses, a couple of inns, a Methodist chapel and a main road running through it. Unlike most English villages nowadays, it supports a thriving community of craftsmen and shopkeepers, and it used to bask in the local nickname "Little London."
Generations of Lincolns, we are told, lived in the ancillary hamlet of Swanton Morley, first in a cottage, then in a grander house which is now absorbed into the Angel Inn; a grassy plot of land behind the pub is preserved by the National Trust in not very evocative remembrance — it looks like a small bowling green. In Hingham church, amidst sundry Lincoln references and suitably embroidered hassocks, there is a bust of Abraham on a wall, presented by the citizens of Hingham, Massachusetts, and excellent cream teas are served at Lincoln's Tea and Coffee Shoppe along the road. All in all Hingham is a tasteful, steady, very Saxon sort of place, and the best-known British writer about Abraham Lincoln, Lord Charnwood, liked to think he could trace his hero's character to his Norfolk origins. He was of sound English rural stock, Charnwood thought, and it is true that to this day Lincoln's gaunt and lanky frame, his pinched face and his Anglo-Saxon attitudes sometimes do show among country people of East Anglia.
On the other hand, away to the west in the wild moorlands of north Wales stands a derelict farmhouse called Bryn Gwyn, near the hill-hamlet of Ysbyty Ifan, which is a place of quite another kind. It is a magical place. Fairies and magicians abounded there long ago, and princes, and elegiac bards! Melancholy songs were sung to the harp! Slippery tricks were played, ambiguous tales were told at firesides! A terrific prospect extends to the west from Bryn Gwyn, away to the clumped mountains of Eryri, white with snow in winter, blue-gray on a summer day. Not another house is to be seen from the old building, and nobody has lived here since the 1940s, but fine big ash trees stand guard behind it, and nearby are the barn and sheep pen where today's farmer shears his sheep and piles his black plastic packages of silage.
There are no mementos of Abraham Lincoln here, no fancy hassocks or scones for tea, but from Bryn Gwyn in the 1660s, so brave Welsh genealogists assure us, Elen Morys and her husband Cadwaladr Evans emigrated to America, where they became the sixteenth president's maternal great-great-great-grandparents. Charnwood liked to think of Lincoln as a Norfolk yeoman, but I am a Welsh Morys myself, with an Evans grandmother, and I prefer to see in him the charisma of a high Welsh heritage; for those Welsh scholars swear too that Cadwaladr Evans was collaterally related to Rhodri Fawr the King of Gwynedd and even to Owain Glyndwr, greatest of all Welsh patriots, who vanished from human ken in the fifteenth century never to be seen again. Let Lord Charnwood keep that patch of mown grass behind the Angel Inn, courtesy of the National Trust. Give me, for my Lincoln memorial, the windswept ruin of Bryn Gwyn, where princes ride and poets sadly sing.
Academic controversy has raged over the manner of his upbringing in the American West of the early nineteenth century — the Middle West of today. Nobody seems to know for sure what kind of people the Lincolns were. Were they predominantly (1) poor but respectable, (2) come down in the world, (3) comfortably landowning by the standards of the time and place, (4) hardily pioneering, or (5) rock-bottom bucolic? Investigators have argued all five cases, producing (Case 1) records of regular Lincoln chapel attendance, (Case 2) genteel Lincoln relatives back East, (Case 3) sizable Lincoln property holdings, (Case 4) folk-memories of true-blue Lincoln conduct, or (Case 5) evidence of unlovely Lincoln circumstances. Abraham Lincoln himself adhered to Case 5, with occasional deviations in the direction of Virginia gentry. Asked once to talk about his early life, he said there was nothing much to talk about — it was just "the simple annals of the poor." Asked another time, he said his boyhood was "stinted," by which he meant it was arid, philistine and deprived.
He is also apocryphally quoted as saying that his family was "white trash." This was a phrase devised by the black people of the American South, in the days before political correctness, to describe their indigent white neighbors, whom they considered endemically lazy and unreliable. It is still a convenient if prejudiced generic for many inhabitants of Lincoln's native region. His father Thomas (part farmer, part carpenter) had migrated with his wife Nancy (née Hanks) in an apparently somewhat listless way out of Virginia into the northern part of Kentucky, and to this day those poor hill regions, on the edge of the Bible Belt, on the border between North and South, form a white trash homeland. It is exemplified, in my own mind, by hugely bulbous young mothers in trousers smoking cigarettes, by the peculiar stale smell of downmarket motel rooms, by junk food of awful malnutrition, by trailers parked in messy woodlands, by dubious evangelical preachers and six-packs of tasteless beer and abandoned cars with grass growing over them and TV game shows and lugubrious country and western music thumping out of pickup trucks.
Was this the kind of society, mutatis mutandis, into which Abraham Lincoln was born, in the days when the American frontier, with its volatile mixture of the bold, the godly, the shady, and the plain riffraff, was fitfully pushing westward out of the Appalachian mountains? His friend and devoted biographer William Herndon defined it as "a stagnant, putrid pool," and hardly more than thirty years after the Revolution, life was certainly rough and ready at these limits of civilization. The western frontier states were still covered with forests and more or less roadless, while beyond them the vast continent was an inchoate mass of sparsely settled territories, mostly unexplored; New Orleans, bought from the French in 1803, was the solitary big city out there. Scattered Indians were the only people who had lived in the frontier regions for more than a generation: all the white people were migrants or settlers in flux — sometimes aiming to stay in a place for good, sometimes only in transit towards more promising country over the hill. If they wanted meat they shot or slaughtered it. If they wanted whiskey they distilled it. Protestant chapels proliferated, served by zealous and sometimes fanatical ministers, but here as in the Europe of the time innumerable superstitions governed the conduct of simple people — the malice of moon phases, the ominous influence of birds, breat
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