Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, emerged from seven years of careful research into the life of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln suffered throughout his life from varieties of what we now call depression — more often called “melancholy” in his day — but history books have, until now, paid little attention. Shenk unlocks the mystery of Lincoln’s experience — his illness, his endurance, and his transcendence.
Shenk, who has been open about his intimacy with depression, spoke recently to RT Magazine about his personal experience, the book, and Lincoln’s legacy:
RT: First, tell us a little bit about your background.
JWS: I was trained as a journalist, first on staff at places like The Washington Monthly and The Economist and later writing essays for magazines like Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic. The essence of this work, I think, was to find and articulate stories that are meaningful and instructive about the world we live in.
RT: Is that why you wrote this book – you believed that Lincoln’s experience with mental illness was a story that needed to be told?
JWS: Yes. When I first learned about how deeply Lincoln suffered — and how openly he discussed it — I was amazed at both the substance of the story and the fact that I’d never heard it before. It really seemed important to me. I thought, if it were brought to light, maybe it could help us understand not only Lincoln’s life and times, but this thing we call “depression,” too.
It turns out that the time was ripe. Lincoln’s melancholy had been mostly obscured in the second half of the 20th century. Of course, biographies mentioned that he was a melancholy fellow, but no book had ever been devoted to the subject; no one had ever gathered all the evidence together to tell such a story. What’s more, a lot of the evidence had been swept under the rug. But in 1998, when I got interested in the subject, things were changing both in Lincoln scholarship and with the broader culture. There was a growing sense that even great leaders are still vulnerable human beings, with frailties and strong points alike.
RT: Like Lincoln, you have known depression. Tell us about your experience.
JWS: I have suffered emotionally and physically. I’d say that depression is one of a spectrum of problems. I’ve also been diagnosed, at various times, with depersonalization disorder and chronic pain.
For me, these diagnoses are mainly helpful insofar as they create a context for treatment. But I also think my life is more complex than a diagnosis.
RT: People with mental illness are often treated harshly today. Was there a difference in Lincoln’s time?
JWS: The big risk in Lincoln’s time lay in being judged insane, which is never a good thing, but in the early nineteenth century was especially grim, because insane people were seen to have lost their essential humanity. Before the asylums sprang up in the 1830s and 1840s, insane people might be literally kept in cages. The asylums were, in one sense, a humane response to this miserable treatment, but they soon became more like warehouses than hospitals. People often went away never to return. When Lincoln had his severe breakdowns, in his mid-twenties and early thirties, his friends feared that he’d go insane. This was a pretty serious fear.
But, at the same time, people appreciated Lincoln’s depth, his sensitivity, and his empathy. There was a sense that the melancholy temperament — distinct from the disease of melancholia — brought both difficulty and potential.
RT: In your book, you discuss at length a theory called ‘Depressive Realism.’ Can you shed some more light on that theory?
JWS: What we see in Lincoln’s life – and this is borne out in the research – is that in some instances people with depressive temperaments tend to see things more realistically. That doesn’t mean they always do. There are errors in thinking that go along with depression. Indeed, in the depths of a severe episode, people’s views are often badly skewed. But depression — over the long run — can also provide a valuable perspective about the nature of reality and how to respond to it. It sometimes strips people of comforting illusions — or maybe it’s that depression often emerges in moments when these illusions have been stripped.
RT: How do we know that Lincoln’s illness was Depression and not Bipolar Disorder?
JWS: I couldn’t find any evidence that Lincoln ever experienced full-blown mania. It’s true that he had tremendous energy – speaking for hours on end, for example. And of course he was ambitious. But we don’t see the mood swings characteristic of bipolar. People described him as prone to depth, gloom and sadness, and someone who was able to rouse himself to do his important work, but afterward would sink back into melancholy.
RT: Do you think the lessons of Lincoln translate well for individuals with other types of severe mental illnesses?
JWS: Absolutely. This is the story of a man who suffered, who acknowledged and articulated that suffering, who asked for help and who struggled to do something meaningful with his life. People with mental illness, no matter how difficult their circumstances, have an opportunity to contribute to the world around them. It may be in a very simple, humble way – like loving a friend, or even expressing gratitude to the people who care for them. The circumstances of Lincoln’s life aren’t common. But many different people can draw on the simple human aspects of the story.
Joshua Wolf Shenk is a writer based in New York City. His essays and articles have appeared in