Encountering Lincoln’s Melancholy

(Posted by Paige)

I recently finished reading this intriguing study by Joshua Wolf Shenk (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), and thought it worth flagging for you. His descriptive subtitle – How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness – reflects only part of his ambitious project, as this book is not only biography but also a history of the understanding of melancholia in America and a commentary on the artful science of historiography. Though I am not widely-read enough on Lincoln to verify this, the author identifies his work as a unique contribution to the literature on our sixteenth president; certainly it is a rich encounter with the man and his times.

Shenk’s premise, that Lincoln struggled with depression at least since his young adulthood and that in his maturity this psychological pain ennobled his character, drives his research into mental illness, the agendas of presidential biographers, and the details of Lincoln’s public and inner life. Although perhaps the most cumbersome and technical part of his presentation, Shenk’s portrait of what in the 19th century was termed “melancholy” offers a fascinating glimpse of a culture’s developing understanding and (often horrific!) treatment of what we now call “clinical depression.” I’d guess that his explanations of current trends in psychology will try the patience of those who just want to know about Lincoln; but actually my favorite insight about depression comes from Shenk’s discussion of a study of “depressive realism” done in the late 1970’s. Apparently the depressive realists, like Lincoln, have the cockeyed “can-do” optimists beat when it comes to reading the times. I loved this bit:

…one standard definition of mental health is the ability to maintain close and accurate contact with reality…But research shows that, by this definition, happiness itself could be considered a mental disorder. In fact, “much research suggests that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events.” (135, quoting the researcher Lauren Alloy)

Thus a personality that tends towards melancholy has perhaps a greater chance of assessing what is really going on in this fallen world – which is, of course, insight that even non-depressives might gain beginning with Gen. 3.

In assembling his supporting data on Lincoln’s emotional health, Shenk apparently uncovered a sort of historiographical subplot: the distorting or suppressing of information in favor of a view of Lincoln that dismisses the possibility that he was melancholic. Thus Lincoln’s various biographers come in for scrutiny throughout this volume, especially in an extended appendix (“What Everybody Knows”). Shenk writes,

To some extent, it is an inherent flaw of biography that, in order to wrestle a figure onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two. Rough spots are ironed out. Minor conflicts are magnified to suit the needs of a dramatic narrative. There is good reason to speak of “Herndon’s Lincoln” or “Sandburg’s Lincoln,” because the real man can only be approximated in any of these works, and the imagination of the biographer obviously plays a large role. (237)

Armchair scholars of Lincoln might enjoy crossing swords with Shenk as he evaluates the work of the president’s major biographers; the rest of us can at least appreciate an example of the very real challenge of distilling a life into words – and perhaps marvel again at the “four-dimensional” view of a life provided to us by the Gospels.

While biographers of Lincoln have sometimes found the fact of his chronic depression expendable when composing their accounts, it is harder to tell this man’s story without some attempt to explain his relationship to God, the Scriptures, and faith. Shenk, writing from a secular perspective, evaluates Lincoln’s encounters with Christianity (especially during his presidency) in terms of the psychological benefits of religious belief and practice, rather than giving any weight to the veracity of a religion’s truth claims (see esp. pp.193-195). I suspect the author would also attribute at least some of Lincoln’s depressive tendencies to his Calvinistic upbringing. Yet even he is struck by the wisdom that Lincoln seems to have gained from close study of the ancient words of warning, judgment, and lament; and his treatment of the faith-dimension of Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses is both thoughtful and respectful (pp. 191-210).

So, worth a look. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has read the book, or any insights you armchair scholars have about Lincoln’s Christianity.