Mr. Lincoln's neighborhood

Jan Morris discovers that the inspiring spirit of Abe Lincoln lives still in the streets of Springfield, Ill.

By Jan Morris

Published March 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

At a loose end for a few days in the United States of America, I decided to go to a very epitome of Americanness, Springfield, Ill., which is situated in the heart of the Midwest at 39.49 degrees north, 89.39 degrees west -- more or less on a line, that is to say, with Lisbon one way and the Galapagos Islands the other.

I offer up this detail because the American prairies have always seemed to me less an actual place than a geographical notion -- a sprawled and unenticing plain, sometimes icy cold, sometimes appallingly hot, over which combine harvesters perpetually grind their way through the illimitable fields of corn, and in which very slow-speaking raconteurs swap laborious anecdotes in provincial and all too likely teetotal saloons. Springfield was just the place to go for a short immersion course in prairiedom, and having sorted out which Springfield it was I wanted to visit -- there are at least 14 Springfields in the United States -- I found myself one morning on the train called the Ann Rutledge, which stops at the Prairie Capital on its daily way from Chicago to Kansas City.

On the train? Of course. Who would not wish to take the train on such an expedition? It was the train that enabled these prairies to grow rich, and made it possible for Springfield itself, situated more or less in the middle of nowhere, to become the capital of Illinois -- still, with its 106,000 inhabitants, the political superior of Chicago up the line.

It was winter when I made my journey, and Amtrak itself would not claim that there was much to see through our windows. The prairies may look wonderful in summer, when the tall grass waves and the wildflowers blossom, but at my time of the year it all looked pretty dismal out there. The towns we passed through reminded me of Albania, so run-down seemed to be their railside factories and warehouses, and the wide prairie itself, speckled with farmhouses and windbreaks, was like some stretch of wartime ocean, in which the masts and superstructures of sunken ships protruded here and there from the swell.

The man across the aisle from me, who took his jacket off the better to cope with the mass of papers and correspondence he took from his briefcase, was also bound for Springfield, and the very look of him cheered me up. Surely he was a state senator, or at least an influential political lawyer, and was a portent of the vivid political goings-on that I was going to find in the capital, the sotto voce conferences in smoke-filled corners of the Sangamo Club, the politicos intriguing arm-in-arm as they strolled up to the State Capitol. I watched him with professional satisfaction as he resumed his jacket and his expensive overcoat, gathered up his papers and looked out of the window expectantly, I thought, for his waiting limousine.

But no, he stumbled out of the train like everyone else, and I last saw him wandering rather helplessly around the station yard looking for a taxi. I had forgotten it was a holiday season. The Illinois Legislature was not in session, the Sangamo Club proved to be anything but smoke-filled, the governor was out of town and there were remarkably few people about.

"Which hotel would you suggest," I asked a chattily homespun bystander as I waited for my own cab to appear, "the Hilton or the Renaissance?"

"Six of one, half a dozen of the other," he said, metaphorically spitting out his tobacco chaw, "and there'll be plenty of room in either."

He was right. I chose the Hilton, the only skyscraper in town, towering even over the dome of the State Capitol, which is itself, so the man told me, higher than the Capitol in Washington. It seemed to be entirely empty of guests. I found a clutch of tourist publicity material in my room on the 22nd floor, and tried to identify, in the vast melancholy expanse outside my window, some of the tourist sites it recommended. Could I see, for example, the site of the Old Tyme Tractor Show at Hillsboro, or the Two-Story Train Depot Museum at Greenup, or Taylorville where Kay the Circus Elephant is buried -- only the second elephant, as my brochure winningly told me, to die in Illinois?

But a veil of cloud and mist lay low over the prairie, and if these varied marvels were ever visible from the Hilton, I could not see them that day. On the other hand, I could make out, close beneath the lee of the skyscraper, a little cluster of clapboard houses that was identified on my map as "Mr. Lincoln's Neighborhood." I hastened there at once -- down my 22 floors on the elevator, past the municipal parking garage on Seventh Street and the First Presbyterian Church on the corner, turn left and lo! all my supercilious feelings about Springfield and its prairies evaporated.

The streets might be empty, the mist lay low, the restaurants were deserted, the doors of the First Presbyterian Church were locked, but there before me stood one of the best-known and best-loved houses in all America at Eighth and Jackson streets, Springfield, Ill., the only house Abraham Lincoln, Esq., ever owned in his life. O Captain, my Captain! O sweetest wisest soul! From that moment on I saw Springfield through new eyes, and every symptom of its prairie origins, every dismal wisecrack I pretended to laugh at, the very silhouette of the Springfield Hilton Hotel, looming apparently lifeless above me, I saw as emblems or products or origins of the Gettysburg Address.

Of course Springfield never lets you forget that Lincoln was the most famous of all its citizens. There are Abe Lincoln markers all over the place, an Abe Lincoln Garage, an Abe Lincoln hairdresser, Lincoln's tomb of course, Lincoln's law office, the railway station where Lincoln set off for the presidency in Washington, D.C. For me, though, skeptic that I was about the attractions of prairie culture, what made the place so marvelous was the fact that out of an environment so fustian, so fascinating a hero should have emerged. Like it or not, when we consider Springfield and all it represents, we must remember that for 25 years Abraham Lincoln was part of it.

I bumped once again, for instance, into that man from the train, who did indeed turn out to be a lawyer, and I realized now that he was just the kind of man Lincoln might have had as a partner long ago. I thought again about that philosopher of the station yard, and easily imagined the two of them outdoing each other in prairie anecdote. At the Caffe Capitol one day I introduced myself to the assembled Poetry Society of Springfield, a very hospitable crew, and could easily imagine old Abe, holding an awful ode of his own, unfolding his lanky limbs to greet me. In Downtown News & Books I swear I saw him dropping in for the day's State Journal Register (which has his portrait on its masthead).

A day or two later, several hundred adolescents, attendants at some kind of church convention, unleashed themselves upon the Springfield Hilton, monopolizing the elevators, sitting in corridors eating pizza, laughing and shouting and ringing random telephones in the small hours; but even as I swore at them and resolved to claim my money back from the management in the morning, it occurred to me that young Abe, visiting the big city from his log cabin home down the Sangamo River, might perhaps have let off his American high spirits in rather the same way.

I will be frank with you. I was not altogether at a loose end when I went to Springfield. Actually I went there because I was having trouble with Lincoln. Somehow I could not reconcile his historical presence with the United States that he, more than anyone, bequeathed to us. His gentle character seemed incompatible with the style of modern America, or for that matter with the style of the prairie society he sprang from. The more I read about him, the more I saw of the United States today, the more it seemed to me that he must have been some kind of historical freak, one of those prodigies who appear to have no connection with their own origins, but are flung into the world at God's whim.

My few days in Springfield taught me otherwise. Late one night I went wandering around Mr. Lincoln's Neighborhood all by myself. So inescapable is his presence still, even in the imagination, that over the years countless people have reported seeing his ghost down on Eighth Street. I cannot claim a similar experience -- the whole neighborhood has been prettified, sanitized and made suitable for tour group experiences by the National Park Service -- but I did most powerfully sense his influence lingering there. And when I pottered somewhat aimlessly toward Capitol Avenue, just around the corner I looked up and saw, magnificently floodlit, the not very beautiful dome of the Illinois State Capitol, which is said to be considerably higher than -- oh, but I told you that before.

I was greatly stirred, despite myself. Lincoln never even set eyes upon that structure (it went up after his time), but for all the shenanigans that, I do not doubt, go on inside it -- for all the rogues and scoundrels who have been, at one time or another, elected to its membership; for all the corruptions that it has witnessed and the conspiracies that it has fostered -- still as I looked at it, that night in Springfield, I remembered that out of that very milieu, his genius recognized if not cherished by those very people, Honest Abe went off to Washington and the possession of the ages.

I returned to Chicago again myself on the Ann Rutledge, which is named, by the way, for Lincoln's original girlfriend, probably one of those screaming harpies who kept me so furiously awake all night in Room 2212.

Jan Morris

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Jan Morris has written more than 30 works of travel literature, including "Fifty Years of Europe," "The Matter of Wales," "Hong Kong," "Venice" and "Spain."

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