Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on Lincoln's Melancholy.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States most likely suffered from chronic depression all of his life. It was a continuous fight for him to keep his sanity and not to commit suicide.
Joshua Wolf Shenk’s research, including information collected from the writings of Lincoln himself as well as those with whom he lived and worked, shows that his family suffered from depression. His wife most likely suffered from some form of it, and was eventually committed to an asylum.
Reading this book one wonders how Lincoln survived such agony for so long. In those days, depression was diagnosed as “melancholy”, hence the book’s title. Shenk provides quotes from many people about Lincoln sitting in a corner and trying to gather his wits about him. On one occasion early in his life before he married, many feared that he was going to commit suicide because his depression had gotten so bad. His friends and neighbors kept him in a house and watched him for 24 hours until he eventually regained himself.
Lincoln was notorious for jokes and stories; humor was one way by which he was able to control his depression. Others who worked with him as part of the circuit legal system in Illinois noted that he would be very quiet during their traveling from court house or towns to another. He could, though, be convinced to tell stories and jokes - some quite earthy.
Some sufferers of chronic depression become very involved in their work; they might be labeled workaholics. Keeping his or her mind on work can keep the mind off their miserable situation – and keep them from suicide. Unfortunately, if their work does not go well, a person suffering from depression may well sink deeper into misery.
Some who suffer from depression use art or literature or some other hobby to help relieve themselves from the pain; Lincoln used poetry. Some of his poetry has gone unknown and some has been rediscovered. Many times he published his poetry in newspapers anonymously. The examples Shenk shows are quite good but very dark.
Lincoln predicted that he would come to a bad end. Many have suggested that he was predicting his assassination in 1865, but he may have meant that his life might become so miserable due to depression that he would commit suicide.
This is a great study of a well-known American hero and president who happened to suffer from depression. As Shenk shows, Lincoln was able to control his depression well enough to be elected the sixteenth president of the United States and to lead the Union to victory in the Civil War. Lincoln’s days as president were probably the hardest of his life, enduring agony like the death of his son, the death of many soldiers on both sides of the war, and having to deal with the politics to save the Union.
This is a great study on depression, but those themselves suffering depression should take care to not let the book overwhelm them with Lincoln’s misery. It is highly recommended to those interested in depression, Lincoln, the Civil War, and the presidency.
Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist and independent scholar. He has written articles for
The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly,
The Economist, the Washington Monthly, and other publications. He also contributed to the book,
Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (2001). He is a faculty member at the New School University and he has received fellowships from the Carter Center’s mental health program and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. He serves on the advisory council for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
and also served as a consultant for films on Lincoln - Times Making of America series and the History Channel’s
The Other Side of Abraham Lincoln.