How Depression Challenged a President and
Fueled His Greatness
By Joshua Wolf Shenk
Houghton Mifflin. 350 pp. $25
President Buchanan is reported to have said to President-elect Lincoln as they rode down Pennsylvania Avenue on the latter's Inauguration Day: "My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [Buchanan's Pennsylvania home], you are a happy man indeed." But Abraham Lincoln did not expect to attain "happiness" in the White House or, as this intellectually energetic book shows, anywhere else. Lincoln's Melancholy sounds again the half-forgotten, minor-key background music of his life. Joshua Wolf Shenk rejects the notion that Lincoln got over his melancholy under the demands of the presidency; his Lincoln is never too busy to be gloomy. And, drawing on modern studies of depression, Shenk even has a reference -- humorous, I think -- to "happiness" as a mental disorder.
In 1998, Shenk (a young essayist who frankly mentions his own battles with depression) read a reference to Lincoln's melancholy in an essay on suicide and set about learning more. In his researcher's zeal, he read Lincoln scholars and also sought them out and interviewed them; he went to Lincoln's birthplace and Ford's Theater, stood where Lincoln delivered the "house divided" speech, held in his hand Lincoln's letters to his friend Joshua Speed, saw the fatal assassin's bullet and, since heredity is one ingredient inclining a person to depression, obtained the records admitting Mary Jane Lincoln, Lincoln's father's cousin, to the Illinois Hospital for the Insane in 1867. He even attended a convention of Lincoln impersonators, borrowed a Lincoln suit for himself and joined in. His book has page after page of acknowledgments, to the point that one may be tempted to say: No wonder a writer with this many friends could produce such a strong book.
"The goal," Shenk writes, "has been to see what we can learn about Lincoln by looking at him through the lens of his melancholy, and to see what we can learn about melancholy by looking at it in light of Lincoln's experience." He has effectively cast light in both directions.
Lincoln's sorrowful moods were no secret; contemporaries said things such as, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked." But that theme was shoved aside by professional historians in the middle of the 20th century, especially by the towering James G. Randall and his wife, Ruth, who led a generation of scholars to produce ungloomy Lincolns. More recent research, restoring oral testimony taken from Lincoln's own time, has brought back into view two "major depressive episodes" in Lincoln's life, as well as providing a cloud of witnesses to his melancholy disposition.
His family history and his youthful experience planted the seed; his mother, said to be intelligent and sad, died when he was 9; he endured other deaths and a distant relationship with his father. Nevertheless, as a youth Lincoln was reported to be not only amiable, bright and funny but also happy. The first serious depressive episode came -- as Shenk says such attacks often do -- in Lincoln's mid-twenties, during the late summer of 1835, when he was 26. Ann Rutledge, a charming young woman often rumored to have been his first love, died, and he seemed particularly distressed when rain fell on her grave; his friends were worried enough about him to set up a suicide watch. The Randalls dismissed Lincoln's love for Ann as a myth, but the next part of the story could not be denied: Something drastic happened in January 1841 that left Lincoln exuding gloom and unable to attend to his duties in the state legislature. The prevailing (Randall) story, which Shenk carefully corrects, had Lincoln splitting up with his fiance, Mary Todd, on "that fatal first of Jany. '41," falling briefly into depression as a result, getting help from his friend Dr. Aaron Henry, leaving depression behind, reuniting more or less happily with Mary and going on to glory. Except for the glory, Shenk argues, that whole story is mistaken.
We don't know exactly what happened on "that fatal first of Jany.," but Shenk gives it a painstaking examination. The onset of depression involved not only Lincoln's misery about feeling tied to Mary Todd while being much drawn to another young woman, Matilda Edwards, but also professional calamities not usually connected to this episode. Shenk shows that they should be. Lincoln had been a chief proponent in the Illinois assembly of an ambitious scheme to build canals, railroads and roads, which had just then collapsed, destroying the state's economy and, perhaps, his political career. His old friend Speed left town and got married. The weather turned cold. And after Henry's horrific treatment, Lincoln did not just get over his depression. (If Henry followed the aggressive program we know he approved for others, the doctor would have "bled him, purged and puked him, starved him, dosed him with mercury and pepper, rubbed him with mustard, and plunged him in cold water.") He did go on with his life, but with both a new strength of purpose and a new susceptibility to melancholy.
Depression emerging in his mid-twenties, taking a deeper hold in his thirties and staying with him for the rest of his life: That is the story Shenk tells. It is not a story of crisis and recovery but of crisis and coping -- and of that coping leading to stunning creativity. The link between depression and artistic creativity is often affirmed; why not also (asks Shenk) with a creative politician like Lincoln? "In his mid-forties, the dark soil of his melancholy began to bear fruit," Shenk writes. "When Lincoln threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a role in his great work."
The book's title is carefully chosen. The older word "melancholy" has more flavor than our depressing modern word "depression"; it also had a broader meaning, including some positive aspects that Shenk finds illustrated by Lincoln. The president treated his melancholy not as some mysterious mental invasion by spooks but as something he could deal with in a rational way. That yielded an intense concentration on a high purpose. It also made him austerely realistic. "Lincoln saw the world as a deeply flawed, even tragic, place where imperfect people had to make the best of poor materials," Shenk argues. "The ethic that he proposed for his country -- continued struggle to realize an ideal, knowing that it could never be perfectly attained -- was the same ethic he had used to govern himself."
"Depressive realists" like Shenk (and Lincoln) would expect there to be a touch of the negative in a review, so I provide the following: First, sometimes this almost seems to be a pro-depression book; second, sometimes Lincoln's depression seems to be presented as the sole source of his greatness; and third, some readers, coming across page after page about gloom, misery, melancholy and depression, will say, "Enough already."
Shenk argues that the suffering that Lincoln "endured lent him clarity, discipline, and faith in hard times." But surely suffering does not do all that unless there is something strong that the suffering prods into action. Lots of people suffer; not all of them become great. I would suggest that Lincoln had intellectual and moral self-confidence, deep conscientiousness, a powerful desire to achieve something worthy, a romantic idea of his country and an unusual sympathy for creatures in distress -- all independent of his being depressed.
On the other hand, by treating Lincoln from this angle, Shenk does gain a dimension that not all Lincoln books achieve: Looking at his subject's darkness also means approaching his depth. Shenk deals well with the recently discovered Lincoln poem on suicide ("Yes! I've resolved the deed to do,/ And this the place to do it"); with Lincoln's alleged homosexuality; and with Lincoln's humor, a not-so-easy topic that the author tackles with the seriousness it deserves. Lincoln's Melancholy poignantly captures the subtle last phase of the president's life -- when his belief in an ordering Providence became more pronounced, when he insisted that "events have controlled me" even as he vigorously did his duty. "In his strange mix of deference to divine authority and willful exercise of his own meager power," Shenk writes, Lincoln achieved not happiness but "transcendent wisdom, the delicate fruit of a lifetime of pain." *
William Lee Miller, of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, is the author of "Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography." He is at work on a new book, "Lincoln's Duty."