Drawing on a wealth of his own research and the work of other Lincoln scholars, Shenk reveals how the sixteenth president harnessed his depression to fuel his astonishing success. Lincoln found the solace and tactics he needed to deal with the nation's worst crisis in the coping strategies he developed over a lifetime of persevering through depressive episodes and personal tragedies. With empathy and authority gained from his own experience with depression, Shenk crafts a nuanced, revelatory account of Lincoln and his legacy, and in the process unveils a wholly new perspective on how our greatest president guided America through its greatest turmoil.
Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist and the director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, among others, and in the national bestseller Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey. He is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, which was named one of the best books of 2005 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and has won awards from The Abraham Lincoln Institute, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the National Mental Health Association.
Shenk is a 2005-06 fellow in non-fiction literature at the New York Foundation for the Arts. His other honors include the Rosalynn Carter fellowship in mental health journalism at the Carter Center, the Frank Whiting scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Blue Mountain Center.
Shenk serves is a member of the advisory council to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the Maryland Center for the Book. He serves on the general council for Stories at the Moth and as a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He is also a member of the advisory council to the Shul of New York.
I am starting this review with two caveats. First, this book is engagingly written, and Joshua Wolf Shenk has done his research. In spite of this, I don't think it's a good first book for anyone to read on Lincoln, because much of Shenk's focus is on revisionist history. Although he does a laudable job providing brief overviews of some of the historiography on Lincoln, many readers will get more from this if they have a more detailed understanding of major events in Lincoln's life.
Second, as a medieval historian who gravitates to social and cultural history, I have profound concerns about psychological interpretations of the past. As a graduate student, I was influenced by Thomas S. Kuhn's study of the role of paradigms in science, and as someone who teaches history of sexuality I can point to many examples of how medical professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, and scientists have constructed understandings of normality versus abnormality via frameworks that stem from the societies in which these scientists were trained and lived. I'm not suggesting that there is no physical or biological "truth" independent of culture; however, I am arguing that cultural norms play an influential role in how people construct paradigms to explain the world around them, and that these paradigms are not restricted to myths and legends, but extend to other areas of life, including not only religion but also science. I have particular concerns about applications of Freudian theory to other societies -- for example, Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, in which Erikson applies psychoanalytic theory to understanding Martin Luther's life, made me alternatively laugh and grind my teeth.
Because of these concerns, I was happy to read Shenk's very clear statements in Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness that he was not interested in applying modern views of depression and mental health wholesale to his analysis of Lincoln's sadness. I agree with the importance of his project, to expand studies of Lincoln into a his ideas, thoughts, emotions, contextualizing all these elements in Lincoln's culture. The three stars I have given to this book show that, in my opinion, Shenk achieved this goal in part, but not completely.
Shenk divides the book into three sections. In the first, he explores Lincoln's childhood, family background, and young adulthood, while also providing a basic framework to understand how his life exemplifies certain aspects of depression. In this discussion, he moves back and forth between modern definitions, and contemporary understandings of melancholy and hypochondriasis, delving both into literature on the history of medicine and primary sources written by Lincoln and his friends and associates. Shenk also revisits historiographic controversy over Lincoln's relationship with Ann Rutledge, whose death occurred at the time of Lincoln's first major breakdown in 1835. Shenk carefully sifts through existing sources, and provides a cautious revisionist interpretation of what Rutledge may have meant to Lincoln. Shenk concludes this section with a lengthy discussion of events in Lincoln's life leading up to his second major breakdown in 1840-1841. Once again, Shenk questions some historians' assumption that a temporary parting with Mary Todd led to the breakdown, instead discussing the vague nature of evidence, recreating timelines, and expanding his consideration of stresses in Lincoln's life beyond the romantic to Lincoln's political career. He spends much time discussing Lincoln's close friendship with Joshua Speed, drawing some parallels between their experiences and using Speed as a source on Lincoln's life in this period. Throughout this section, Shenk argues that Lincoln's emotions fit patterns for melancholy in his time, and, to some extent, depression in our time. I found particularly interesting Shenk's discussion of treatments of hypochondriasis and melancholy in Lincoln's time, and wish he had continued to focus on this context through, rather than relying as much as he did on ore current thinking about depression.
Ann Rutledge and Abraham Lincoln -- truth or myth?
In the second section of the book, Shenk shifts his focus to Lincoln's determination in the face of his melancholy. He bore certain pressures as a self-made man, a new role that put Lincoln particularly at risk to be intensely self-critical and pessimistic, as he bore the responsibility for his achievements. Shenk also explores some of the intellectual currents of Lincoln's time that fueled his intense self-examination. Throughout this discussion, Shenk provides some context to understand Lincoln's fatalism and sense of destiny, not only through cultural context, but also through an analysis of Lincoln's writings.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Shenk's approach to understanding the persistence of Lincoln's melancholy after he was married shows a renewed reliance on modern understandings of depression:
"From the perspective of modern clinicians, the persistence and quality of Lincoln's symptoms call for a new diagnostic framework. Major depressive disorder, which applies to Lincoln's earlier years, best describes a series of discrete episodes, even if they go on for many months at a time. But when a condition lasts for more than two years, even with some breaks in symptoms, it is considered to be a chronic depression. Episodic and chronic depressions have much in common, but the distinction matters. Imagine a person who begins to travel abroad as a tourist. The first few trips are memorable—when they started, how long they lasted. But if the trips grow in frequency and duration, at some point the tourist would become known as an expatriate. The destination need not have changed, but the nature of the journey would call for a qualitative, not just a quantitative, distinction.
"As it turns out, the "land" of chronic depression is one for which few guidebooks have been written. The psychologist James P. McCullough, Jr., one authority on the condition, describes it as "grossly misdiagnosed, understudied, and undertreated." This poses both a challenge and an opportunity in the study of Lincoln. The existing literature can't definitively contextualize his experience. But his life, supplemented with the shards of knowledge on chronic depression, can offer a new and valuable context. In particular, it shows how depression, for good and for ill, can blend slowly, subtly, but surely with a person as he works to bring himself into balance."
I think that Shenk's approach, looking to Lincoln's life to lend perspective to depression, and looking to research on depression to understand Lincoln's life, leads him to rely too much on this modern perspective and research, especially in the second and third parts of the biography. He did not have to take this approach -- in places, he discusses the 19th-century view that melancholy led not only to suffering, but also to gifts for the sufferer. And this argument constitutes Shenk's main thesis, which he explores in detail throughout his third section -- that Lincoln responded to his melancholy and breakdowns by deciding, at a certain point, that he had to continue on to fulfill a destiny much greater than he was, one that grew over time to be tied to the realization of the Founders' view for this country as a place of freedom. Lincoln recognized the gaps between this ideal and the reality of the Founders' views as implemented, but he viewed American history as unfolding and leading towards progress. According to Shenk, over time Lincoln saw the abolition of slavery as a means to help achieve this goal. In addition, Lincoln's fatalism provided him with strengths during his Presidency, as he did not tend to be over optimistic in his assessment of the Union's progress in the Civil War.
As a whole, I did like this book. It's thoughtful, well-researched, and engaging. Shenk also provides some useful statements about the dangers of relying on modern definitions of depression to understand Lincoln. His analysis of Lincoln's breakdowns after Ann Rutledge died in 1835 and in 1840-1841 provide some excellent examples of historical analysis of vague primary sources. And many of Shenk's analysis of Lincoln are engaging, as in his chapter exploring Lincoln's coping strategies, including humor. In the end, though, I found Shenk to be overly-reliant on these models and research. I wish he had devoted some more time to expanding on some of the fascinating contextual information he provides, as I think he's at his best when focusing on Lincoln's time period. I also wish he had been more consistent in his analysis in differentiating between contemporary reflections on Lincoln (in letters and writings from the time), and retrospective reflections by Lincoln's associates and friends. As a whole, though, this is a biography that provides a different emphasis to undertand Lincoln, as well as some new topics and themes to explore in studying the emotional and intellectual world of Lincoln and his contemporaries.
I really enjoyed this book and getting to know more about Lincoln because I never knew how humorous and kind he was. It's hard when learning history in school to see people who lived before you as being human too and I really enjoy these biographies for humanizing people for me. I think the author did a good job in presenting the different opinions people had on events in Lincoln's life we aren't completely sure about. I really adore Lincoln now and I really enjoyed that anecdote about him being president during the civil war and reading the satire about himself. The only thing is that towards the end the book started to feel redundant because the author's overall theme for the book was talking about Lincoln through the lens of his supposed depression and it just was a flat ending but again ending books is harder so.
"Don't you find", he said, "judging from his picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow?" - A young Circassian rider to Leo Tolstoy, when presented with a photograph of Abraham Lincoln (originally told by Leo Tolstoy toe the New York World shortly before Tolstoy died
"Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!" - Eugene O'Neill
Abraham Lincoln has reached one of those levels of recognition and reverence that is typically reserved for saints and prophets. His character, linked to his words and his dramatic life and death, all contribute to a continued and massive interest. A Wall Street Journal article on the Lincoln publishing industry noted:
16,000: Number of books publishers estimate have been written about Abraham Lincoln. 5,796: Number of Lincoln biographies 249: Number of biographies on Lincoln published in 2009, the bicentennial of his birth 42: Number of books Harold Holzer, a Lincoln historian, has written, edited, or co-edited on the 16th president 2,972: Number of biographies of George Washington
The Ford's Theatre for Education and Leadership in Washington built a three-story tower of Lincoln books.
I understand the attraction a bit more than most. I own several dozen Lincoln books and biographies, I am six feet six inches tall, walk with an awkward gate, and also suffer from a disease that Abe Lincoln is thought by many to have had (Marfan Syndrome, see page 22 of this book). I share many physical proximities and many intellectual affinities with Lincoln (a love of politics, poetry, humanism, individualism, justice, and an affection for the Godly and a skepticism of the dogma of those who profess to speak for God). Anyway, I have been curious about this book for years.
'Lincoln's Melancholy' attempts to: (1) investigate how "Lincoln's melancholy manifested itself in his early life and young manhood and how it fits--and challenges--the diagnostic categories of modern psychiatry", (2) show "what Lincoln did in response to his melancholy, the strategies he used to heal and help himself", and (3) address "how Lincoln's melancholy became intertwined with his mature character, ideas, and actions". It is a three act play, a hero's journey complete with crisis, struggle, and resolution/spiritual awakening.
Shenk doesn't sketch a perfect picture. There are many gaps and contradictions and mysteries that will always surround a true inquiry into the inner Lincoln. I think, however, the author was humble enough to understand the limits of his efforts. The book was short enough to not waste time and interesting enough to keep me reading. I think his theory of Lincoln's melancholy is fascinating. It further complicates the story of a complicated, beautiful, and sad man who just may have ended up by fortune and misfortune being one of the greatest of all men.
I just don't know what to make of this book. It's interesting and filled with all sorts of delectable detail, but as far as the major premise goes, I remain skeptical. The author's assumption is that because melancholy and depression change your focus on how you see the world and because Lincoln suffered from what seems to be perpetual gloom, that this enabled him to become the great man he became, moving through stages of fear and on to insight and creativity. Well, maybe.I have to admit that my crap detector went into overdrive on several occasions while reading this book.
Frankly, given the multiple tragedies in Lincoln's life he had every reason to be gloomy. Death was an ever present reality. (More on the barbaric medical practices of the time later.) Secondly, the 19th century seems to wallow in gloom. Just read some of Hawthorne, Poe, and others of the early 19th and you'll feel gloomy by osmosis.
Now for some of the really juicier and fun parts of this book. I laughed out loud at the passages on studies on depression and the realization that "happiness" is really a mental disorder: "Abramson and Alloy termed the benefit that depressed people showed in the experiment the "Depressive Realism" or the "Sadder but Wiser" effect. . . For example, one standard definition of mental health is the ability to maintain close and accurate contact with reality. . .But research shows that by this definition, happiness itself should be considered a mental disorder." (Priceless) "In fact,'much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events." The lesson? Get Gloomy, folks. Happiness psychologist Richard Bentall suggested (only half-facetiously) should be classified as a psychiatric disorder: "major affective disorder (pleasant type.)"
Lincoln's "hypochondriasis" as it was known was treated in his day according to Dr. Benjamin Rush's Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, the stand text. This included "drastic interferences" with the body. Starting by bleeding (usually 12.5 pints in two months - we are really talking about a total flush here), then "blistering" by applying "small heated cups at the temples, behind the ears, and at the nape of the neck." Of course, leeches could also be used. Next, drugs were given to induce vomiting and diarrhea, all the while, requiring that the patients fast, Rush noting that elephant tamers make their charges more docile by starving them. Following this regimen was a diet of stimulants including quinine and black pepper in large doses. Mercury was used to purge the stomach (also arsenic and strychnine. Of course, mercury also causes depression, anxiety and irritability.) Green stools were a positive sign, indicating the "black bile" cause of the illness was leaving. Apparently the more the patient suffered the better as it was evidence the body was being cleaned out. Whether Lincoln underwent all of these treatments is unclear, although we know that Dr. Henry, his physician was an advocate of Rush's treatments.
Shenck appears to approve of Nietzsche's (and probably Frankel would approve, too) remark "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Well, maybe.
Occasionally, I felt that the author might have done better to write a long journal article to make his point. Long digressions on the Missouri Compromise and other historical niceties while fascinating (and they were, I really enjoyed his lucid presentations of all sorts of historical facts) seemed unnecessary to his thesis. BUT, I really did enjoy the read and would recommend it.
"[Lincoln] had learned from severe experience that suffering had to be acknowledged and tolerated and it might, with patience, lead to something 'purer, and holier' than could be known without it . . . The qualities associated with his melancholy - his ability to see clearly and persist sanely in conditions that could have rattled even the strongest minds; his adaptations to suffering that helped him to be effective and creative; and his persistent and searching eye for the pure meaning of the nation's struggle - contributed mightily to his good work [during his war-strifed presidency]." -- page 189
Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy was an often very good but yet not quite great book on the sometimes turbulent mental health issues of the most revered and highly respected of the U.S. commander-in-chiefs. To steal a sentiment from another review this book was rather engaging for the initial 100 or so pages, but then seemed to hit a plateau until diving into his lone presidential term (1861-1865), and the exceptional type of stress / concerns related to it, in the final chapter. To be fair, author Shenk has done some exceptional research - detailing biographical information that was previously unknown to me and/or was illuminating - and Lincoln's Midwestern sense of decency and work-ethic gumption (a farmer's son raised in a log cabin ascending to the White House is something Americans are unlikely to see ever again, in whatever modern analogy you choose) is cheer-worthy.
Having just read "Lincoln: Biography of a Writer" by Fred Kaplan, I found that a lot of the information contained in this book was also contained in Kaplan's book. In fact they even used most of the same historical quotes throughout the books. And I sense I felt like I was reading the same book just with a different directive approach, this one being focused on Lincoln's depression instead of his reading and writing. It's not a bad but by any means in fact it's very good book. I just kind of wish that I would have read them separately instead of back to back. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with interest in the subjects of Abraham Lincoln, mental illness, an American history.
I felt like I'd read ALL about Abraham Lincoln, especially when it came to his years in office as President. After finishing this book, I feel like I now know LESS about him than I did before.
Shenk has done a remarkable and thorough job poring over vast collections of papers, letters, correspondence and previously published works in regard to a Lincoln we rarely see:
-The young Lincoln (passionate, somewhat volatile, and full of wicked wit and humor, but equally prone to "dark moods"). -The resigned Lincoln (who, in his mid to late 20's-- after suffering through a myriad of personal griefs and tragedies-- went through what could be called his first bout of serious depression).
In addition, this served as a great explanation in the contrast between how society and medicine (now vs. then) perceived melancholy/depression.
There's far too much here to sum up succinctly and well in a review, so I can only encourage those who are either interested in more on Lincoln's personal character or interested in the realm of depression as a whole to please read this incredibly well-written and documented book.
As far as how Lincoln's melancholy fueled his greatness, one paragraph stood out to me as a prime explanation:
When a depressed person does get out of bed, it's usually not with a sudden insight that life is rich and valuable, but out of some creeping sense of duty or instinct for survival. If collapsing is sometimes vital, so is the brute force of will. To William James we owe the insight that, in the absence of real health, we sometimes must act as if we are healthy. Buoyed by such discipline and habit, we might achieve actual well-being. As Lincoln advised a grumbling general who felt humiliated at having only three thousand men under his command, "'Act well your part, there all the honor lies.' He who does something at the head of one Regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred."
Had my full attention from the prologue, which recounts Tolstoy's infatuation with Lincoln. Bottom line: this is a book that is carefully researched; rarely overreaches; and makes a compelling case that Lincoln's life was punctuated by a depression so severe and defining that we might as well call it a relapsing and incurable illness.
I appreciate Shenk's absolute refusal to color inside the lines of contemporary psychology or psychiatry; an underlying point here (barely disguised) is that while depression is real and deadly, Lincoln muddled through largely because he lived in a world where men could be vulnerable without necessarily exposing themselves to career-ending suspicions. And because he had the presence of mind to see that there were far more important things at hand besides feeling better immediately.
Wasn't at all the same for women, of course; Shenk plays fair with the abysmal treatment of Mary Lincoln, who he refuses to call "Mary Todd" for the simple reason that her contemporaries never called her that. Closest thing possible to giving a voice to someone that is and was essentially voiceless. But to the broader point on Lincoln's own ability to harness the doldrums and hell of "melancholy," Shenk is pretty clear that our contemporary paradigm for thinking about depression is about as imperfect as 1850s-era America -- and perhaps a fair bit worse.
I'm interested enough in this subject matter that I'm probably overlooking some stylistic decisions and omissions I'd like to learn more about from other Lincoln biographers. Whatever.
One final point: Shenk's work is needed at this moment precisely because well-meaning (knock on wood) professionals have taken it upon themselves to diagnose the current Oval Office occupant from afar; see Bandy X. Lee, "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," and the "Duty to Warn" conference at Yale. Popular interest in Trump's mental state dodges the question of his dangerous politics; perpetuates the myth that mental illness makes one inherently unable to serve in elected office; and applies to Trump exactly the same "sensibilities" that would preclude a more transcendent and inspiring "mentally-ill" candidate from seeking office.
The solution to Donald Trump isn't to diagnose him. It's to impeach him if possible; to reconfigure institutions of presidential selection to ensure similar candidates are not selected in the future; and any number of other things. Maybe the solution is to elect another Lincoln even - who I'm now absolutely convinced had the presence of mind, precisely because he was so somber, to have called the present bullshit exactly what it is.
I will note at the beginning that I am very glad that someone has written a book that treats this subject as thoroughly as Shenk has treated it. It seems likely that Shenk has established depression as an element of Lincoln's biography that the industry can no longer ignore. I think also that the subject can be treated much more effectively than Shenk has managed.
Allow me to offer two personal disclosures (pd's) at this point. First, I have not ventured into the domain of Lincoln biography apart from a handful of titles that have been awarded Pulitzers or Lincoln awards. My reason is quite simply that I don't find politicians particularly interesting human beings, for the most part, remarkable only for their vapidity, and I don't care to spend much time in their company. Exceptions obvious to anyone who follows my reviews: Stalin, Hitler, Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace. I can give no reasons for these exceptions. Second, my perspective on Shenk's material derives from long (decades long) personal experience of "severe, recurring major depression (without psychotic features)," followed by much less virulent forms, which now, after sixty years of depressive episodes, at my advanced age, rather annoy from time to time but do no harm. I am not a clinician. I will say, however, that I found the subject rather compelling at one point in my life. But no longer.
I have often compared acute depressive episodes to bouts of one stomach virus or another. Obviously the duration is shorter. Nonetheless, both diseases are overwhelming, and one is utterly powerless to prevent or delay their onset. They come and they go, and then one feels crappy, groggy, weakened. Then what? In my case, I was married, had two wonderful little daughters, who are still wonderful, by the way, a house, a mortgage, car loans - the "whole catastrophe," as Zorba would say. I had to recover under a burden of fatigue and numb indifference (and no despair, whatever), the like of which I have never experienced at any other time. But I did - doing the next thing on the list, knowing full well that it mattered not one whit, whether I wanted to or not. Imagine shopping for groceries with a seemingly endless list in hand - for months.
My sense is that Shenk doesn't really understand the course of major depression, especially severe, recurring major depression. (I wish I could recall the DSM identifier). He describes stages in Lincoln's experience of depression over his life, but he does not convey the insight that depression of each type, whether major or "chronic" (whatever that may mean) - in each stage of life - also involves a disease course, a cycle with a beginning, middle and end.
For example, he describes certain episodes of acute depression during the first "stage" of Lincoln's experience of the disease in early adulthood, and I have no doubt whatever that these episodes actually occurred exactly as Shenk has described them. But I also suspect that his descriptions are incomplete. Certainly his narratives include accounts of the precursors and most excruciatingly painful - and dramatic - hours or days of these episodes. What he doesn't describe - and seems not to understand - is that these days and hours are but segments of a cycle that can consume months. He focuses on the beginning and middle - and leaves out the end altogether, i.e. the recovery from these early episodes.
And it's exactly this phase of recovery, which can take months and months, that is quite frankly the most difficult - for me at least. I presume, although Shenk doesn't tell us, that Lincoln had to earn a living throughout. He had to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, every day without ever knowing when exactly the "hangover" - as I call it - would end. So what did Lincoln actually do during the leaden months of recovery? How did he cope? That's what I want to know.
I also wish that Shenk had developed a coherent clinical perspective/understanding on the disease and inserted that perspective into his book as sub-text, using it to form his account. Pick one, any one. His quotes from one psychologist or psychiatrist or another every few pages didn't establish credentials or credibility - in my mind at least. He quotes William James and Victor Frankl more frequently than other "authorities," without establishing why exactly it is that I should consider this hodgepodge of texts 60 to 100 years old authoritative, quite as if their authority is self-evident and for all time. I would much rather have read a clinically comprehensive, complete account of Lincoln's experience of depression - and intervals between episodes, if he ever experienced relief - that is informed by a medical perspective that Shenk found convincing. He might well have explained it all in footnotes or in a technical appendix - all of which I would have read eagerly. I've recorded similar comments in Capper's biography of Margaret Fuller.
I won't carry on much further, but I really can't resist commenting upon Shenk's explicit comparisons of Lincoln with Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi. Perhaps such comparisons are entirely merited. I can't say. I can only remark that I read this book to learn of Lincoln's experience of depression. Expressions of worshipful adoration - even during the Christmas season - do not advance my understanding of the man and his experience, and I do believe - still - that Lincoln was fully human. [Another pd. I was raised in the Southern Presbyterian Church - so we held very low opinions of idols, graven images, popes, priests, Billy Graham, and other assorted self-appointed and extraordinarily wealthy messiahs and intermediaries - unless, of course, one were concerned with certain passages in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643, of course - and no other edition) regarding the "sainthood of all believers." I've not yet recovered from that experience.]
The content of this rant, notwithstanding, I am grateful to Shenk for giving us this book. I look forward to the book that supersedes it.
I keep suggesting this very readable nonfiction book to people – both privately to individuals and publicly whenever I present my new storytelling program for adults about Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln were alive today, he would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression. More than once when he was a young man, his friends went on what we would today call a “suicide watch.” Lincoln himself stopped carrying a pocketknife because he was afraid he would do himself harm. He tried different treatments for what he called his “bouts of melancholy,” but he was never cured. He struggled with them all of his life. Yet he chose, again and again, NOT to kill himself because he felt he had some special purpose to fulfill. Deciding to stay alive did not make his life easier. In some ways, it made it harder because he had no idea what his life’s purpose was! He had to keep doing his best each day and just trust that the big picture would eventually become clear to him. I learned a lot about our 16th President from reading this book but also a lot about depression as a disease. The author made me feel more sympathetic both towards A.L. and towards anyone who suffers from the disease. I borrowed this book from my public library but I would like to buy a copy for myself.
Okay, where should I begin with this book? Yikes, and yowzers--I'm simply mad about Lincoln, like stalker kind of mad. After reading this book, had Lincoln been alive, he would most definitely have to hide from me, because I just fell in love with him even more.
Keep in mind I read this about three years ago, so I'm a bit rusty with details, but what I remember most about this great read is the display of Lincoln's character. WolfShenk wrote about Lincoln being a common man, and he was. Lincoln was a man who utterly despised the ill treatment of slaves, and loathed the existence of slavery. He was a man who dared to go against the majority, expose crimes against our fellow human beings, and suffer ridicule and persecution from the public so that he could earnestly strive toward a better future for America.
What I love most about Lincoln is that he was self-aware. Lincoln was not afraid to admit his love for YHWH, and after his admittance, was quite quick to tell anyone interested, that he didn't feel it necessary to attend church all the time, if even at all. Lincoln was also deeply aware that he was a flawed man and relied heavily on his faith to keep him from stumbling. Lincoln cried openly in public forums, agonized over tough political decisions, and wasn't ashamed to walk among the common men and women of America.
Overall, I recommend this book to lovers of Lincoln, and I even recommend it to those that don't really know anything about the man. I think this book is the best representation of Lincoln as the man he was, and the legacy he left America, then any other work on Lincoln I have ever read.
A fascinating book about Lincoln and about depression as well. The research and scholarship is excellent. He included many references from many disciplines and that added great value to the author's credibility and thoughtfulness of the topic. He was very realistic about how history can be so tainted by the teller and that was refreshing and enlightening. Mr. Lincoln was a complex human and this refreshing analysis of him added a great deal to Lincolnography, while still admitting some things cannot truly be "known". This book was a true page turner for me. I have read a bit about Lincoln and this added nicely to it.
Though debilitating at times, Abe Lincoln's melancholy probably accentuated his deep thinking and allowed him to face the overwhelming obstacles he faced. There are many accounts of Lincoln's overall sadness that has been largely ignored by contemporary historians. There has been much conjecture about the death of Ann Rutledge causing this aspect of his personality but the author doubts the Rutledge myth. I am sure that it did have a great effect on Abe regardless of whether he was in love with her and I doubt that it affected his ability to love. This is definitely a book all Lincoln historians need to read.
Great book. I think it's changed my life. To see that someone as great as Abraham Lincoln suffered through depression is encouraging. I also wonder what hope there is for the rest of us. Does greatness always entail this kind of pain? I think Shenk does a good job of presenting letters from Lincoln and friends to support his claims: that Lincoln was a depressive and that his depression helped to make him the great President that he became. Shenk's book is not a biography however. If you are looking for a start-to-finish account of Lincoln's life, start with a more traditional biography. This book centers on a theme, melancholy, and follows it throughout Lincoln's life. Shenk relies in spots on McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" to supply the historical context, particularly during Lincoln's presidency. I'm really grateful that there are scholars willing to compile historical documents to create what I hope is a more complete image of a mythological feature such as Lincoln. I do think Shenk could have left some of Lincoln's faults to stand on their own, such as Lincoln's early and mid-life racial humor. I think in Shenk's admiration he tends to defend or justify Lincoln's fault in one way or another, or painting them as a necessary part in the path to greatness at other times when it would have been fine to let Lincoln stand as a flawed figure in more ways than just melancholy alone would suggest. Great book though - well researched I think (Shenk has his own quirky footnote style - no numbers, it's hard to follow what came from where). But yeah, great book. Definitely worth the read.
Excellent treatise of the lifelong "melancholy" (as it was called at the time), one step away from the lunatic asylum in the 19th century, that consumed Abraham Lincoln almost all of his life. Anyone who has suffered or knows someone who has suffered from clinical depression (which is not the same thing as sadness, something that overcomes all of us from time to time) will find this helpful and insightful. This should not, however, be considered a biography of our arguably greatest president but instead a history of his illness, which he embraced and thought deeply about. Lincoln broke with theologians of the time who believed melancholy/depression was a sin. Lincoln knew it was far more than that. And he knew that the medical science of his day did not have answers either; he'd tried it. An already suffering human being, as Mr. Lincoln was, was put through torturous methods of "healing." Of course, no healing of depression can come about through doctor-prescribed physical pain. The patient lives within a tortured mind already. Inducing more pain is counterintuitive, much less a matter of science.
Shenk makes a major contribution in this book not only for our increased understanding of Abraham Lincoln but also of ourselves and humankind.
I loved this book. I learned a great deal about Lincoln. I learned a great deal about myself. I knew, from previous biographies that I've read about Lincoln, that he had a 'melancholy disposition', but never realized until this book that it was full on depression. At one point he was put on suicide watch by his friends. Shenk explains how earlier accounts of Lincoln purposely ignored this aspect of Lincoln, primarily because it was not 'in vogue' to discuss mental illness. Lincoln overcame his illness by his desire to do something meaningful with his life. He also found coping mechanisms through humor and reading. I found it interesting (and profoundly sad) that he finally felt he had accomplished his life's mission (emancipation, 14th amendment) and for the first time in his life was truly happy, then, of course, was assassinated. One of the more interesting discussions was about Lincoln's religious life. He was a deeply faithful, god-fearing person, yet also full of questions, which prevented him from embracing traditional Christianity. I enjoyed seeing his humanity.
The only time I ever saw both of my parents cry at the same time was when we visited the Petersen House where Lincoln died. I was about eleven. It was unnerving, but even growing up steeped in Civil War history, it was the first time I realized how much Lincoln meant, on a personal level, to people.
I was drawn to this book because I come from a family of depressives. Those who aren't on medication are self-medicating drunks. (A couple of them are both.) Somehow, some of us have managed to pull ourselves together and get on with the business of life. I often wonder if we would accomplish more (or less) if we lived in a different time, or if we were happier people, or if we weren't medicated. One of my parents stopped taking medication and said, "I can't think clearly on this. It makes me stupid." (It was an odd thing to say to me; I had just finished law school...on anti-depressants.)
In a nutshell, this is a survey of Lincoln's life and his depression (or melancholy), and how it worked to his detriment and to his advantage in public and private life. It is intriguing. I was fascinated by the completely different view of melancholic temperament vs. depression now. It was something of an asset 150 years ago; it's still shameful today. Can you even imagine electing a man president who'd once been put on a suicide watch?
The book kept me turning pages quickly. At first, it was because I was enraptured. Then...it was because I just wanted it to be over.
Because the thing is, the book is about 50 pages of great history and 150 pages of filler. And the filler...the author explains de Toqueville is French and what Democracy in America is about; the author explains the book of Job, after Lincoln is seen reading Job; the author explains Henry Ward Beecher was the Billy Graham of his day; the author explains the Kansas-Nebraska Act in excruciating detail; the author explains popular remedies for depression based on purchases Lincoln made at a pharmacy, even though there's no evidence whom the medications were for.
And so on. And on. For all that, there was scant attention paid to Lincoln's marriage, which you'd think would be fairly critical to his mental state.
Great notes, though. Seriously, I'd give this book three stars (how I hate to be patronized), except the historiographical essay and the notes are good resources.
As a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, I leave each book I read about him thinking that surely this must be the limits of our knowledge about him. Yet I find myself always pleasantly disappointed to find that there is always someone willing to look at the great man from a different angle. Such is Joshua Shenk's book about Lincoln's battles with depression. He documents two specific and major psychological breakdowns that while incapacitating for a short period of time (reading Lincoln's correspondence during these periods 'I am truly the most miserable man on earth' or his sadly concise 'I am not well' is truly heartbreaking) also provided the foundations to spur him forward and achieve the greatness he believed he was destined for. What I really enjoyed about this book is the author does not claim to know Lincoln as few of even his closest friends could claim that. What he does is examine not only the documented record, but gives weight to the oral histories of the people who knew him and his melancholy best. By way of example, I wasn't aware of the shift at the turn of the 20th century by scholars away from oral histories as legitimate source material. While it can no doubt be unreliable and subject to the motivations of the person giving the testimony, it is also an invaluable resource. We can read Lincoln write that he is miserable, but to have the oral history of a friend describing how he would enter a room and find Lincoln sitting in a chair, staring into space with a look of incalculable grief on his face humanises Lincoln and adds a layer of complexity that is vital to understanding the man. This book is a very specific look at one aspect of Lincoln that while often overlooked, is vital for understanding who he was.
This book succeeds very well at applying modern sensibilities toward mental illness to an otherwise well-covered topic. It's at its best when it compares the ways Lincoln's peers viewed his melancholia vs. the ways we tend to view depression today. I was floored to learn that people in the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution turned non-stop back-breaking labor into a national virtue, were actually *more* accepting of depressive traits than we are now. In fact, Lincoln's contemporaries discussed his mental illness far more openly, and far less judgmentally, than we possibly could approach a president's emotional problems today.
"I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me." (Quote from Lincoln) (Not a quote from me as I struggled through reading this book...)
When I started reading this book, Obama was still president. Women in Saudi Arabia still weren't allowed to drive. The UK was still a part of the European Union. The spire of Notre Dame still stood in pristine glory. And Meghan Markle...who dat?
It took me over three years to finish this book, but I think that has more to do with my inability to focus and finish when it comes to historical nonficition, rather than any problems with the book itself.
Overall, I am glad to have read Lincoln's Melancholy, as much as I didn't enjoy the slog at times. It gave me a much richer understanding of not only Lincoln (who BTW, is totally a 4w3), but also mental illness and culture's historical perception of depression.
Before reading this, I'd never heard of Lincoln's lifelong battle with severe chronic depression. I was shocked to learn his friends put him on suicide watch multiple times. I'd never read his poems full of despair and suicidal ideation. I didn't know that nearly everyone who knew or met him remarked on his deep sadness and melancholy. And I wonder why I'd never learned of this. Is it because mental illness is not something we'd find desirable in a great historical leader? Or maybe because "'biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a "breakthrough" or arrives at a "turning point" before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains.' Lincoln's melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative."
The main point of this book isn't that Lincoln was strong DESPITE of his depression, but that he was actually strong BECAUSE of it. "The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth, wisdom- even genius... Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted for as an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is not a story of transformation but one of integration. Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy. The problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work." Shenk argues that when our culture treats all mental suffering as something to be cured, as well as something unmasculine and weak, we miss out on great works of creativity and ingenuity that often grow out of adversity and mental suffering. "The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await." (This isn't to say that one should never take medicine or get mental health treatment, FYI.)
I think my overall favorite thing about this book was how connected it made me feel to Lincoln as a person. Obviously, I am not saying that I am basically the female version of Honest Abe, but it was really fascinating for me to see how much I could relate to a person who had previously seemed like a stiff historical figure who started every sentence with, "Four score and seven years ago..." The way that Lincoln described his depression was spot on, and the way he used humor as a coping mechanism was something I could fully relate to. This humor, incidentally, often left his friends feeling whiplashed. How could he go from so sorrowful and despairing one minute to cracking a joke the next? But when you've been in that place of despair, you understand that humor and laughter are sometimes the only things that make you feel sane. "The psychologist George Vaillant... identifies humor as the most effective [coping mechanism] of all, even among a handful of other 'mature strategies.'.. One can be lively without pushing from his mind what is painful and real."
While the author doesn't shy away from Lincoln's faults, overall, I left this book with a greater respect for him as a man and leader. One of my favorite quotes: "Once a minister remarked to Lincoln something along the lines of 'I hope the Lord is on our side.' Lincoln said he didn't agree, adding, in substance, 'I hope we are on the Lord's side.'" Would any president now even dare to venture that his side might not be the right side/the Lord's side?
I'll leave you with one last note from Lincoln: "I will make no apology, gentlemen, for my weakness."
This was the 3rd book I've read on Abe Lincoln (the 1st reviewed on Amazon). I will refer to him as Lincoln or AL.
The author/ journalist (hereafter JWS) relayed historians described Lincoln's mother as "sensitive & sad" & father had "spells of 'the blues.' Melancholy was attributed more so to men than women in Lincoln's era. The word meant gloominess, deep reflection, perserverance, & great energy of action. JWS thought melancholy and (modern) clinical depression had many symptoms in common.
Lincoln admitted he had melancholy, so how did he cope? Home remedies, comedy, poetry, a solid goal. Lincoln used "blue mass," (a pill of pure ground mercury with a bit of rosewater and honey), opiates, camphor, sarsaparilla, and once: 50 cents worth of cocaine, purchased @the pharmacy. The FDA came into being in 1906 & thereafter regulated food + drugs. People knew Lincoln for his story-telling and ability to mimic accents, facial expressions and body movements. AL looked morose in most photos, but the folks in Springfield, knew him as witty, often w/ a clever joke or pun. He even joked during court proceedings.
Lincoln had several instances of deeper depression, after: the death of Anna Rutledge (friends removed his razors & knives), the broken engagement of AL & Mary Todd, his loss in a run for a Senate seat etc. Historians had conflicting ideas on Anna Rutledge's & Lincoln's relationship: friends? sweethearts? his only love?
JWS explored some Lincoln controversies: religion, homo- sexuality, slavery. Lincoln had a Calvinist-like upbringing. He later attended church w/ wife Mary & read the Bible, but didn't join a church. Lincoln & Joshua Speed became great friends in Springfield Illinois & shared a room & bed above Speed's store. Lincoln wanted love & marriage but his limited funds held him back. Speed reportedly fell in love too easily with ladies, loved a young lady and wed her and Speed moved back to Kentucky. So Lincoln sought a room elsewhere. Men, including AL, on the lawyer circuit from county to county 2x a year shared beds, mostly due to limited # of beds & the cost factor.
Lincoln called slavery "a moral, social & political evil." He opposed slavery expansion to the Western territories & via Emancipation Proclamation (EP) freed slaves in Confed- rate states only. In private, AL confided in trusted advisors, EP was, in part, a strategy to help Union troops win the Civil War. Lincoln wanted all slaves in the US emancipated but didn't call himself an abolitionist. Once emancipated, he thought they'd prefer to live in Liberia? He went "against the (political) grain" in favoring emancipation. He didn't envision former slaves having social or political rights; now called civil rights. Yet he spoke of giving them suffrage, along w/former Union soldiers. Lincoln informally spoke on this suffrage issue on the White house lawn, to a small group of people, reportedly including John Wilkes Booth.
An interesting book. JWS barely mentioned Mary Todd Lincoln, except in the afterward section. And he didn't ? the motives of Lincoln's former law partner Wm Herndon who apparently spread untruths about AL after Lincoln's death.
"Lincoln's Melancholy" gives the reader a rare glimpse into the inner world of one of the greatest men who has ever lived. Joshua Shenk delves very deeply into Lincoln's formative years, and how Lincoln's depressive disorder (referred to as "melancholy" in the 19th century) fueled his greatness as America's Civil War president.
It becomes clear while reading "Melancholy", that Lincoln's personal suffering, including his own battle with depression and suicidal ideation, the loss of three out of his four sons (two sons died while Lincoln was in office), and his tumultuous marriage to Mary Todd, are sufferings that led him to a profound understanding of the unspeakable tragedy of war, and how this understanding enabled Lincoln to persevere and triumph in the face of America's most devastating crises.
Tremendous biography with a great mix of: (a) fascinating historical and psychological context for some of the most-trod Lincoln stories, (b) some fascinating less-known nuggets, (c) very strong, surprisingly propulsive writing, and (d) a good sense of how to ground this particular element of Lincoln's story in modern times, without beating you over the head with it. Best of all, Mr. Shenk builds a compelling thesis, and allows it to guide him, but he never lets the thesis overtake the rest of the story. I imagine there would be a temptation, given the overwhelming evidence of Lincoln's melancholy, to find signs of the import of that part of his character in every corner of history, but Mr. Shenk avoids that temptation, and delivers a portrait that is nuanced, compelling and appropriately uncertain... Loved it.
Read this from the public library, but loved it and underlined the Kindle edition so much that I'm just going to have to purchase my own copy.
The 'independent scholar' label of the author has me less than enthused (too often a more pretentious way of saying 'armchair expert who read a couple of books once'), but there is some very good work done in this book; it's also communicated in an accessible way while being quite informative regarding history and psychology. Getting into the mind of a historical figure is a very tricky business, but Shenk appears to have done a good job avoiding most of the pitfalls. The book includes an afterword on historiographical issues as well as a considerable amount of footnotes and bibliographical information.
Personally, I found the book comforting, inspiring, and challenging, and it's one of those I'm very glad to have encountered.
"For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me." - Abe Lincoln, Jany. 23rd. 1841- Springfield, Ills. Most of us, someday, have felt, feel, or will feel the same way.
A book ago I realized that I have a habit of underlining text as I read, thankfully, though, with a pencil. I mostly read while I am travelling on Indian roads(!) so the lines are never straight but squiggly. Sometimes it'd start from an underline and end up being a strikethrough! I wanted this to be minimal, I mean with least marks. It turned out I picked a wrong book to do that.
Book: Look at the photo above. Don't you see sadness drooling from his face? The book is about that sadness. Looking at him through the lens of his melancholy, and learning about melancholy in light of Lincoln's experience. The book can be put into several shelves, actually. You may put it in historiography, biography, psychology, and even self-help! It is a fresh perspective of Lincoln, which had been thrown away reflecting the cliché: throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Melancholy here, being the baby. Bath water is his alleged affair with some Anna Rutledge, death of whom was an assumed cause of Lincoln's first breakdown.
First part: Here, the author traces roots of Lincoln's sadness. They being entrenched in his family, with circumstances casting their effects. The author paints a nice picture of L’s familial background which caused a biological predisposition towards depression. Description of Abraham’s inclination towards seclusion – he noted in his memoir that he “studied with nobody” – his sympathy, even towards animals, and of course, his wit and wisdom follows. Next, the author portrays how untimely death of Anna Mayes Rutledge – a bright, pretty, young woman – with whom Lincoln had befriended, caused him to be suicidal. “That was the time the community said he was crazy,” remembered Elizabeth Abell. After placing Lincoln on the scope of suicide, author neatly justifies Lincoln’s state by using collective inputs from field experts ranging from Charles Bukowski to Dr. Kay Jamison. This is succeeded by a brief description of clinical and major depression. An anecdote in which Lincoln had caught two birds in his hand to put them back in their nest gives an affirmation to L’s sympathy towards animals. “I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother” :L. A poem titled The Suicide’s Soliloquy brought some overwhelming emotions, although no one is sure who wrote that poem but suspects Lincoln might have. The passage you read at the beginning is from Abraham’s letter to John Stuart, his then law partner, in which he was trying to pass on the news about Stuart’s reelection. It succinctly gives an idea about the state of mind Lincoln was in at the time.
Second part: The second part is about how one of the great leaders on the earth made lemonade from the lemons he had got. Lincoln was aware of the labors that lied ahead, all of them: intellectual, material, philosophical and emotional. This was the time of 19th century when the science of self-help was on the horizon. The author succeeded in getting a piece of such an article from Illinois State Journal. Perseverance and forbearance became core aspects of Lincoln’s character, and he would one day give the same advice his law partner Stephen Logan gave him, that what matters is whether a person “keeps up his labors and efforts until middle life.” The author brought here a letter that Lincoln wrote to his friend, Speed, which give an idea about L’s understanding of his own melancholy. He mentioned “three kinds of trouble that could beset a person with a nervous temperament: poor weather, isolation or idleness, and stressful events.” Lincoln’s inclination to humor and poetry helped him a lot get through his middle years. A poem by William Knox, which the author tries to explain is quite overwhelming. It’s called: ‘Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!’ And yes, it is now on my desk!
Third part: “In his mid-forties, the dark soil of his melancholy began to bear fruit.” Strategies Lincoln used to come to terms with his nature, helped him build an ethic that one can never achieve perfection, but can always strive to achieve it. Political history is described subsequently in part three, ranging from the formation of political parties to political debates, including but not limited to, how L struggled through his political career. House divided speech is also beautifully explained. It was rather fun to go through the excruciating details about how Lincoln became Mr. President. “Well boys, your troubles are over but mine have just begun”: his work commences. The last chapter was a delight with 'Meditation on the Divine Will' statement, Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address in close proximity to each other.
“Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray” I can never get tired of saying this!
Lincoln’s strategy to free slaves, and thereby rendering the confederates powerless portrays a fine example of his political genius. At the end, even accounts of his last day are splendidly put by the author.
In all parts, the names of chapters could not have been better.
Epilogue: Fast facts about L: he liked popcorn. Oysters. Strong coffee. Wore silk hat on special occasions, and of beaver for everyday.
Takeaways for those who do feel melancholic: Strategies L suggested to his friend, Speed, which have not worn out till today and never will: Keep busy, even in mundane activities. Avoid being idle. Engage in some business, or go to making preparations for it, which would be the same thing.
P.S.: Another Lincoln text is staring at, compelling, me right now from my unread pile. A tome, “Team of Rivals.”
Powerful, eye opening book for anyone who’s going through/gone through some version of depression. Eye opening both for how mental illness and depression specifically had such different connotations in the past and how it affected and shaped Lincoln’s worldview and approach to his work and accomplishments.
I wanted to read Lincoln's Melancholy for two reasons. The first was my interest in the subject matter due to my reverence for this magnificent human being. The second was to quell my curiosity as to the means by which an author can successfully reconstruct a psychological autopsy 140 years post mortem.
It was a complex labyrinth transcending different planes and, though I did feel a few digressions akin to the Twilight Zone, I believe Shenk pulled off what few writers could, and provided us with an enlightening account of one of our nation's most vital periods from the very personal perspective of a man who overcame a disadvantaged socio-economic foundation, adversity at every turn and mental demons, only to become the embodiment of almost flawless diplomatic stewardship and brilliant political leadership.
Shenk's book is an interesting biography of Lincoln, examining the possibility that Lincoln suffered from (what would be termed nowadays) unipolar depression. But, the book is much more -- it's also a social history of the US, looking at how the understanding and conception of depression, mental illness, and such have changed over the last century or so.
Shenk does an excellent job of staying close to the facts, and not wandering off into idle speculation, a flaw of many other "psycho-biographies."
Those interested in history will find much gold in here. Melancholics may find some comfort that depression doesn't have to be debilitating. Sometimes, it can be the very thing that allows one to do great things.