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Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness Hardcover – September 27, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Abe the Emancipator, argues Washington Monthly contributor Shenk, struggled with persistent clinical depression. The first major bout came in his 20s, and the disease dogged him for the rest of his life. That Lincoln suffered from "melancholy" isn't new. Shenk's innovation is in saying, first, that this knowledge can be illuminated by today's understanding of depression and, second, that our understanding of depression can be illuminated by the knowledge that depression was actually a source of Lincoln's greatness. Lincoln's strategies for dealing with it are worth noting today: at least once, he took a popular pill known as the "blue mass"—essentially mercury—and also once purchased cocaine. Further, Lincoln's famed sense of humor, suggests Shenk, may have been compensatory, and he also took refuge in poetry. Unlike Americans today, Shenk notes, 19th-century voters and pundits were more forgiving of psychological and emotional complexity, and a certain prophetic pessimism, he notes, was appropriate to the era of the Civil War. Occasionally, Shenk chases down an odd rabbit trail—an opening meditation on whether Lincoln was gay, for example, is neither conclusive nor apposite. Still, this is sensitive history, with important implications for the present. (Sept. 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–In 1835, Lincoln, a likable, gifted law student, was so depressed that his community, who accepted his mental state as a component of his brilliance, put him on a suicide watch. The reaction to his depressions by those who knew him, and by Lincoln himself, is a revelation of 19th-century thinking. In his day, melancholia was seen as a personality type that, along with disadvantages, had attributes such as deep self-reflection. Blessed with insight into his condition, Lincoln used it as a resource, providing self-therapy in an era when professional therapies were scant. The man also was blessed with a sense of humor and, above all, good friendships that alleviated major life traumas, including the loss of two children. This is not a full biography. Emphasis is placed on aspects of Lincolns life that contributed to his mental burdens, such as his estrangement from his father. The value of this book is the authors ability to assess his subjects mental state based on eyewitness accounts and Lincolns own words. Shenk assumes his readers have a grasp of the periods history, making the book challenging, but teens interested in Lincoln or psychology will find the content compelling.–Jo Ann Soriano, Lorton Library, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 27, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618551166
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618551163
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (154 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #89,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Dale J. Bjorklund on January 30, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I learned more about this damn disease from this book that anywhere else I've ever looked or inquired. How Shenk describes Lincoln's use of the tools this malady provides the victim to survive, indeed thrive, in the pressure-cooker scenario of a Civil War Presidency is unlike anything I've ever read on the subject, and is perhaps also dead on. I agree, never are the words of Nietzche "That which does not kill me makes me stronger" more apt than for the survivor of a major depressive disorder. I must say I was quite moved by the insights on how melancholy was viewed as a sort of respectable problem in the mid 1800's. Heck, you were 'deep', not crazy. How nice compared to the general view today.
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88 of 94 people found the following review helpful By John Truslow on September 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I purchased this book after reading the excerpt in The Atlantic magazine and have been very pleased. Shenk approaches this material in a fair, objective, and straightforward manner, and yet with a profound empathy for his subject that resonates with the reader. I found the book intelligent, thorough, and yet at the same time, insightful and easy to read. Perhaps most fascinating to me is the author's treatment of the reaction to (and acceptance of) Lincoln's society to such melancholy in others, and a general cultural understanding of the value and potential growth inherent in human suffering. I feel that this book will be interesting to Lincoln scholars, mental health professionals, and readers who have come to see depression as something that must be dealt with behind closed doors, away from public view.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful By CJA VINE VOICE on April 27, 2008
Format: Paperback
Carl Becker said that every man is his own historian, and so it seems fitting that Lincoln be reinterpreted in the light of modern approaches to depression and mental illness. What is most admirable about this book is the author's respectful approach to Lincoln and the past; he insists on viewing Lincoln's behaviors in the context of the mores and culture of his time, which were far different from those prevailing today. The author persuasively argues that there was a romantic connotation to melancholy back then. This, combined with the cultural acceptance of greater emotion from single young men, explains some of Lincoln's publicly expressed emotional troubles as a young man

On the other hand, the author insists on defining Lincoln as suffering two "breakdowns." It's not clear what relevance this modern term has, nor can the author distinguish between mental illness and the culturally acceptable level of melancholy and love-sickness a young man was permitted to manifest at the time.

In short, given the lack of data (most notably the inability to interview the subject, Mr. Lincoln) and the different culture back then, why even try to import these modern day notions of depression to the 1830's-1860's?

Still, the book does make three points exceptionally well, which makes this a very worthwhile effort.

First, he destroys the idiotic notions that Lincoln was gay by virtue of close emotional relationships with men that were permitted and encouraged by the culture back then. Superficial modern day notions of sexual identity have no place in a different time with different (and perhaps healthier) approaches toward the permissibility of emotional intimacy between men.
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157 of 173 people found the following review helpful By Gaetan Lion on September 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book on several counts. First, besides revisionist historians it is not known that Lincoln was a lifelong depressive. Second, the author advances that Lincoln's depression was more a source of insight than a mental flaw. In other words, Lincoln's character and intelligence seemed greater because of his depression it. That's a pretty radical concept in our modern "Prozac Nation" when depression at any level is considered a serious mental illness that should be eradicated at all costs.

Lincoln lived in an era way before anti-depressants. But, just like John Nash of "A Beautiful Mind" fame who preserved his cognitive capabilities by not taking the drugs he was prescribed, Lincoln had no choice but to do without. And, according to the author the history of our Nation has been so much the better for it.

The author describes how Lincoln through the ages managed his depression through several different stages, including: Fear, Engagement, Transcendence, Creativity, and Humility. While the first stage [Fear] had a familiar and serious clinical component including recurring suicidal thoughts, the other four stages lead Lincoln to greater self-actualization, philosophical insights, spirituality, and commitment to guide and save our Nation.

The message from this original biography is powerful. By accepting one's humanity, we can actually grow. Some serious introspection even if painful is actually good for you. There is no need to medicate all your blues away. You may actually learn and grow for them. And, what Lincoln dealt with was not just the occasional blues. As depicted by the author, based on thorough historical research, he had a very serious case of depression.
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