The Battle of Abraham
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a
President and Fueled His Greatness
by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Houghton Mifflin, 2005
(350 pages, $25.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Beth Impson
All too often medical diagnosis [of historical figures] is used to end, rather than begin, a conversation,” writes Joshua Wolf Shenk in Lincoln’s Melancholy. But such diagnosis, he adds, is “no substitute for knowing how the individual figures, and the communities they lived in, understood themselves.”
An independent scholar whose work has appeared in such magazines as Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, Shenk spent seven years researching primary sources—Lincoln’s letters and speeches, the journals and letters of people who knew him, oral histories—as well as the condition of depression as seen in the past and today. He found a man who had clearly suffered from major, chronic depression but had accepted it, learned to cope with its debilitating effects, and used it to live a satisfying, purposeful life.
Shenk considers the story of Lincoln’s depression especially important today, when nearly a million people worldwide commit suicide annually, because it “illuminates not only the nature of suffering but also the way it can become part of a productive life.” Today, we consider depression a mental illness that automatically unfits someone for living well unless it is eradicated by medical treatment.
But in Lincoln’s day, “melancholy” was seen as one of several temperaments, each with its assets and drawbacks. Melancholics might have been especially vulnerable to inexplicable sadness, which could certainly spiral into illness, but also had potential for great wisdom and creativity. All of Lincoln’s acquaintances recognized his melancholy; none considered it a reason to distrust or despise him.
Man Most Miserable
Shenk lays out three main phases of Lincoln’s melancholy, which he calls “fear,” “engagement,” and “transcendence.” Lincoln suffered two major breakdowns as a young man, and in this first period refused to carry a pocket-knife for fear of harming himself. He once described himself as “the most miserable man living,” adding, “I must die or be better.”
But around 1841, Lincoln entered into a phase Shenk calls “engagement”: He accepted his depression and began seeking both ways and a reason to live. Certain techniques helped him cope: He was well known as an adept joke and story teller, once telling a White House visitor, “If I couldn’t tell these stories, I would die.” He also found an outlet in reading and writing poetry, quoting melancholic poems, and putting into verse stories of suicide and his own emotional distress.
During this period, after much consideration, Lincoln embraced a religious faith that sustained him the rest of his life. His determination to live and to believe culminated in a clear purpose: the desire to “impress himself upon [the day’s events] as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.”
Lincoln specifically pursued this desire to be of service through his battle to reject the extension of slavery and maintain the Union. He made this choice not for personal gain, but according to a deep sense of having been chosen, placed in that moment in history with “‘so vast and so sacred a trust’ that he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.”
Beth Impson is Professor of English at Bryan College (named for William Jennings Bryan) in Dayton, Tennessee, and the author of Called to Womanhood (Crossway). She and her husband have five children and eleven grandchildren and attend Grace Bible Church.
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