Monday, May 18, 2009

Just finished reading - Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk

As mentioned in an earlier post, Abraham Lincoln is with little doubt the most written about man in American history. Just about every aspect of his life has been examined....and still the books keep coming. This book largely interested me because, also as I have also mentioned in other posts, I like to learn about individuals of history; flaws and all.

In Lincoln's Melancholy author Joshua Shenk contends that Lincoln came by his depression tendencies honestly. According to period accounts both Lincoln's mother and father were both prone to bouts of "the blues." Shenk also explains that a melancholic disposition was viewed much differently in the nineteenth century than it is today. It was believed then that many contemplative individuals, especially philosophers and literary figures were prone to melancholy due to their deep thinking natures. In addition, life brought Lincoln many things to be depressed about. His youth was full of hard work. His mother died at a relatively young age. His first loved died. He failed in business. He was often in debt. He lost elections. Two of his sons died in youth. His life's theme song could have been "A Man of Constant Sorrow."

Shenk's work explains that Lincoln went through at least two extremely deep periods of depression. The first, in 1835, after the death of a young woman he deeply cared for; Anne Rutledge. The second was in the winter of 1840-41 when he had broken off his engagement to Mary Todd. In both of these instances friends believed that Lincoln came quite close to suicide.

Lincoln handled his depression in a number of ways. One was humor. He memorized humorous stories, jokes, tales, and riddles and shared them with friends and associates, often without contemplating their result or the setting in which he related them. Lincoln once said that, "If it were not for these stories - jokes -jests I should die; they give vent - are the vents of my moods & gloom." Another coping mechanism of Lincoln was throwing himself into his work. It seems that Lincoln's creativity flourished most during or near one of his episodes. Lincoln also relied on his friends. After his spell in the winter of 1840-41 he visited his old Springfield roommate Joshua Speed at Speed's Louisville, Kentucky plantation, Farmington. There Speed's mother noticed Lincoln's depression and offered the gift of a Bible. Apparently Lincoln took the Bible to heart, as once, when he was president, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, once saw him reading Job during one of his bouts with melancholy.

Although Shenk says Lincoln's Melancholy is not a psycho-biography it has many parts that read that way, and I see no reason not to claim it as such. It as an interesting book and it illuminates the potential that individuals have even when possessed by the demons of depression in our age of narcotic treatments. I think this book can give some level of hope and understanding to those that suffer from depression today. And after all, aren't we supposed to gain lessons and understanding from reading history?

1 comment:

  1. I agree. In fact, I've always identified with deep thinking individuals who are prone to in time, not rolling with the punches altogether too well and that's what I think happened to me. I'm still coping. But, I'm glad for the now known about medications.