Lincoln's Melancholy
Joshua Wolf Shenk
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Buy *Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness* by Joshua Wolf Shenk online

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness
Joshua Wolf Shenk
368 pages
October 2006
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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Click here to read reviewer Br. Benet Exton's take on Lincoln's Melancholy.

“For most of Lincoln’s life, scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life.”

It was a different era in American medical philosophy, a time when melancholy and its special characteristics were more often ascribed to men, a testament to their sensitivity rather than a condemnation of their fear and weakness. Women, who today are more often diagnosed with depression or bi-polar disorder, were in Lincoln’s time so well typecast as weak and prone to vapors that melancholia was in general deemed too dignified for those of the female gender.

The examination of Lincoln as primarily a depressive personality (rather than as primarily a homosexual or a sufferer from Marfan’s Syndrome) is the theme of this factual account, taken from letters, memoirs and other evidence collected by author Shenk, a member of the advisory council of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. His book is not so much a biography as a medical case file. Beginning in early childhood, Lincoln had anger issues with his father (as we would say today). The man who would become a somber and burdened President had a deeply lined face that seemed always to be envisioning his tragic end.

There are many clues to support Shenk’s theory. The boy Lincoln once rescued two baby birds who had strayed from their nest, and he chided childhood companions who harmed animals. He exhibited both a shy, withdrawn tendency and a bright leadership quality, expressing to his friends the sense that he had a greater destiny ahead.

After the death of Anne Rutledge, who may or may not have been his sweetheart, Lincoln “became plunged in despair” and had to be watched over by friends lest he take his own life. As is typical of depressed males according to modern psychology, this sudden fall into grief occurred when Lincoln was in his late twenties. He regained his stability only to lose it again after a lengthy courtship with the flirtatious and notably unstable Mary Todd. It is sometimes supposed that Lincoln’s marriage to Mary was for him simply an arrangement of convenience, not a love match at all, and that in losing Anne he lost the one romantic attachment of his life. It is also possible that he realized that in marrying Mary he would drift away from his dear male friend, Joshua Speed.

Lincoln had to preside over the most anguishing years of American history, when the country was divided in war. Nowhere is his own personal identification with the soldiers and their families more poignantly expressed than in his letters to grieving families of the fallen slain. Lincoln wrote to an acquaintance whose father had been killed late in the war: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to expect it…you cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is this not so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say…” Here we have not only the compassion of a tender-hearted human being for the sorrows of another, and the extraordinary efforts of a hugely busy public servant to reach out to the little people whom he served, but proof enough of Shenk’s proposition that Lincoln did indeed experience depression, and that his struggles with his condition made a greater man of him.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2006

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