Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk

My wonderful boyfriend got this book for me for Christmas, after hearing about it on NPR. I was worried it would be terribly dry, but it was a pretty interesting, fast read.

Today, people who are depressed are told to "snap out of it!" or go to a doctor and get on drugs. In Lincoln's day, melancholy was looked at romantically, as a sign of deep thinking and deeper feeling. Many great poets came out of his era, frequently lauded for their melancholy, and Lincoln himself loved poetry and occasionally tried his hand at it.

Mr. Shenk methodically explores the past theories and research and makes a good case for throwing out some old theories (that he stood up Mary Todd initially, that his heart was broken by a woman named Anna), and for backing up some other, less popular ones (he and Mary had a good marriage, considering). He explains the personalities and political leanings behind historians over the years who slanted their research and/or conclusions to suit their theories and wishes for Mr. Lincoln, and how history is not something that occurs in a vacuum. It is amazing the amount of materials (letters, poems, eyewitness accounts) left behind regarding Lincoln, and yet also amazing how much guesswork is still involved.

Lincoln's depression or melancholy made him a better president and a better human being. He was empathetic to an extreme degree, mostly pardoning deserters during the war, and writing heat-felt letters of sympathy to survivors. He had suffered tragedy frequently and early, losing his mother, his brother, and his son. His melancholy made him appreciative of his accomplishments and position, and made him open to others' opinions. It is sad that he suffered considerably, including a period in his early 20s when his depression was so severe and obvious that his friends arranged and sat up for a suicide watch. And yet, we are all fortunate recipients of the results of his depression, which made his disinclined to rule by fiat, punish the South, or impose strong-arm policies. (After his death the South was punished by his successors which created havoc, the consequences of which occasionally can still be seen today.)

Mr. Shenk doesn't get bogged down in minutia, nor does he get sidetracked from his primary thread. We don't hear much about certain things we might think, such as his failure with multiple generals and the bickering amongst his cabinet. You will learn a lot about Lincoln from this book, but not being a general biography, one might be surprised at certain events that are glossed over. It can be very reassuring to hear that Lincoln thought himself to be a complete failure just two years before his election as President, and lamented that he would be able to do nothing for history, while the name of Stephen Douglas would be remembered for all time, he thought. If a failed shopkeeper, twice defeated for Senate, can rise to such heights despite his great flaws, what can we accomplish if we set our minds to it?

I received this book as a gift.


Jen said...

Nice review! You really make this sound like an interesting book, and I don't think I would have looked for it, or picked it up, otherwise. Now, I'm kind of curious, so I might seek it out for a read.

After going to Springfield, IL last year, and the Lincoln library, I definitely have more curiosity about Lincoln.

Jenny said...

Hmmm, this sounds really interesting. Especially the argument that his being depressed led to his decisions as president... I would think that it was some other factor that maybe made it easier for him to become depressed but that also led to good decisions as president, rather than the depression itself that contributed to that. I've been interested in presidential books lately and combined with my interest in mental health, I think I need to add this one to my list!