55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified 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.
84 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2005
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.
153 of 169 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2005
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. There is little doubt that nowadays he would be treated with anti-depressants. But, his life's achievements clearly question whether our modern psychiatric-pharmaceutical treatment is the best course.
In our contemporary culture it is a prerequisite to be an optimist and deliver the most upbeat message to be electable. But, is this the best way to choose a President? The author suggests otherwise. Referring to historians' researches, he mentions that many of our greatest minds were afflicted by more than a temporal case of the blues. Charles Darwin being a case in point. The author also mentions psychological research on perception of reality between optimists and others (slightly depressed or pessimists). Invariably, the optimists tested poorly with a more delusional perception of reality than the others less upbeat individuals.
If you like this book, I also strongly recommend Sylvia Nazar's "A Beautiful Mind" that depicts another luminary struggle with powerful mental illness. Also, "Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness" by Donald Barlett is an excellent biography. While Lincoln clearly overcame his depression without psychiatric assistance; the case of John Nash is more ambivalent. Did his psychiatric care help or hurt him? Meanwhile, Hughes clearly needed psychiatric help. But, he autocratically avoided it. As a result, he died prematurely an insane and debilitated man. In any case, all three subjects make for fascinating biographies. And, the mentioned authors succeeded brilliantly in their respective challenging tasks.
52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
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.
Second, he argues that Lincoln's struggles with melancholy were part of his larger struggles against adversity that toughened him up for the greatest trial faced by any American President since Washington. This is an old theme, but it is well constructed here. On paper, hugely successful men like Buchanan, Jefferson Davis, and General McClellan should have been the ones to lead successfully during this crisis. But in some ways their previous success was a curse. The depressive's realism and ability to solider on during adversity is perhaps far better preparation. A fascinating point and one that is completley lost in modern Presidential races.
Third, the author argues that Lincoln's mental makeup allowed him to resist the compromises and stop gap measures that seduced men like Buchanan, Douglas, and Crittenden. Lincoln saw that the country had to recognize the evil of slavery and put it on the path to ultimate extinction. This was, of course, Lincoln's greatest insight, though I'm not convinced that his melancholia necessarily predisposed him to accept it. But there is some appeal in the contention that depressives can be curiously more disposed to realism in a world that is frequently evil and unfair.
This is an insightful book, though the ability to analyze Lincoln's psyche given the absence of data and intervening culutural changes is, of course, a doomed venture.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2009
The underlying argument of this book, that coping with his depression gave Lincoln the strength and perspective to be a great leader, is intriguing and well worth considering. That argument provides a counterpoint to many contemporary assumptions about depression--primarily the drug company fueled notion that any depression can and should be medicated away. Anti-depressants are a good thing to have as an option, and they help many people, but Lincoln's life provides a provocative counterpoint to the idea that depression requires pharmacological intervention. Sometimes depression requires harnessing the strength of one's character in service of a larger goal--such as saving the union.
Beyond the excellent thesis, this book had some intriguing bits but suffered from something of a stilted progression. Throughout the entire book the priority seemed to be simply proving that Lincoln was depressed, something that seemed oriented towards historians that might not accept the fundamental thesis. But as a general reader I accepted the idea that he suffered from depression after the first bit, and wanted to move on to deeper consideration of how coping with that depression worked for Lincoln (and how it might work for others). I liked the bits where the book integrated contemporary scholarly perspectives on mental health, but found them too short. The author does note up front that he is intentionally not trying to write a psychobiography--he does not want to try and analyze the dynamics of how and why of Lincoln's psyche, just the what. But in alternating between history, biography, and psychology, the book suffers some from not fully serving any of those endeavors. Nevertheless, the combination does offer a worthwhile opportunity to think through how American attitudes toward mental health are embedded in very particular historical contexts.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Lincoln's melancholy has been referred to for years and glossed over attributing it to an unhappy marriage, loss of a child, stress of leadership and momentous times and any number of reasons.
Looking back on Lincoln through the lens of today's better, though by no means complete biologic understanding of depression does 2 things that make this a very worthwhile read.
1. It puts Lincoln into a more sympathetic position recognizing the challenges that he faced and makes his accomplishments even more amazing. Lincoln has largely grown to mythological proportions following his death than how he was seen and understood in his own day. He is second only perhaps to Benjamin Franklin in that regard in American History. This helps to pierce the veil somewhat in a way that does nothing to diminish his accomplishments, but in so doing makes him more human and accessible.
2. The treatment of depression itself helps to bring Lincoln's disease into today in a way that hopefully will help those who read this to understand and extend more compassion to those who suffer from it. Those who suffer from it as well may find in this book handles to grasp that offer some hope and understanding. American society if anything, has become less compassionate and understanding of "weakness" in any form. In this work we see such "weakness" juxtaposed with the strength of an icon and it works well.
A wonderful merger of biography, history and psychology that bears reading more than once!
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2005
Joshua Wolf Shenk's book is a must-read for anyone interested in biographies with depth and personality. Anyone can tell a story with dates, places, facts, figures and family trees, but this book draws out a fascinating side of one of history's most interesting and important figures. Gaining a more clear understanding of the human side of Abraham Lincoln gives us a greater sense of the human factors that drive politicians, businessmen, celebrities, and the everyday man in decision making and everyday living. Too often, especially in today's culture, we forget that "famous" people are actually human and have flaws. Sometimes, those flaws can have disastrous effects in a culture's idolatry of a person (hello, Paris Hilton), and other times those flaws can help us empathize with a situation or person's choices, and give us the proper perspective to help understand their path in life.
I swore off biographies a few years ago because I felt as if most of them were written with the same boring formula and outline, and I didn't feel I was getting to know the person they were writing about. That's where this book is different. This is one of the best biographies -- best books, actually -- I have read in a long, long time. I look forward to reading other things Shenk has written and will write.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2006
Mr. Shenk's book is superbly researched and deeply insightful as well as a very good read. His analysis of the historiography of the early Lincoln scholars indicates how some historians have overemphasized some aspects of the man's personality and accomplishments while ignoring one of the principle aspects of his character, thus evolving myths that persist to this day.
Here we see Lincoln's life and times from an entirely new perspective, one that does not diminish the man but made this reader wonder at the courage he brought to the struggle to go on with his life despite often crippling mental illness, and to persevere through political and personal defeat after defeat and the despair that inevitably followed.
Shenk also illustrates how such mental illness was experienced, perceived and dealt with in the era before it became "shameful," "embarrassing," and something that must be denied by family and friends and hidden from public view. He dispenses with the folk tales surrounding the early manifestations of Lincoln's illness, and presents a good deal of information about how, even in its throes, he dealt with social conventions and expectations of the day regarding marriage, professional advancement and political pursuits.
This reader came away with a different view of Mary Todd Lincoln as well. While Shenk does not undertake an analysis of her, he offers a sympathetic and balanced picture of a woman who had to deal with her husband's illness, his powerful urge to isolation, the loss of three of her four children and the subjugation of her personality and intellectual interests to the the constraints of her social culture and marriage. Whatever inherently troubling aspects of her personality she brought to her union with Lincoln, they did not blend well with those he carried in.
One more thing -- Shenk's presentation of current research on depression further illuminates Lincoln's struggle, and his review of the research on "depressive reality" will certainly drop a jaw or two.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2006
How does depression fuel Lincoln to become one of the icons of democracy when depression is an incapacitating condition? Shenk attempts to answer this question by painting in his very thorough book a deep, personal, and touching picture of Lincoln. After reading the book, Lincoln became a man I have known for a long time, with his struggles and failures. One of the nice features of the book is Shenk's review of the history of writing Lincoln biographies.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Joshua Wolf Shenk's approach to Abaraham Lincoln is that he suffered from depression most of his adult life but that this melancholy "fueled his greatness." He discusses Lincoln's problems with depression throughout his life, drawing on both Lincoln's letters, oral history and early biographies of this great man. Shenk attempts to prove his thesis by narration rather than the case study approach. At one time Lincoln was considered suicidal and would not carry so much as a pocket knife, having once said that "I am now the most miserable man living." Early in the Civil War, he said that "sometimes he thought his only escape would be to hang himself from a tree. . . He did not pretend to be anything other than what he was." In Lincoln's time, unlike later in our history, there was nothing unmanly about being depressed and talking about it. He wept openly upon hearing of the first Union casualty of the war and freely showed his emotions throughout his life.
It is obvious and most unfortunate that a person such as Lincoln in our age of focus groups and television soundbites could never be elected president as he was way too honest. Candidates for high office cannot afford to let their guard down, and any show of emotion is taboo. We have to look no further than Senator Edwin Muskie's crying in public when he was a Presidential candidate, Governor Howard Dean's being portrayed by the media as being mercurical when it came to controlling his temper or Thomas Eagleton's admitting in 1972 that he had received psychiatric treatment for depression. Such actions by these decent men contributed to their early exits from further national politics: the Presidency in the cases of Muskie and Dean and Eagleton as running mate of Senator George McGovern when he ran for President. One cannot conceive either of Lincoln's changing his wardrobe (Al Gore) or his vacation plans (Bill Clinton) in an effort to impress voters.
People with access to the same historical materials on Lincoln often come away with radically different conclusions. Both Shenk and Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instance, disagree with C. A. Tripp's conclusions about Lincoln's sexuality in his recently published book THE INTIMATE WORLD OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. While Shenk is confident that Lincoln suffered from chronic depression (p. 99), Ms. Goodwin in a recent speech stated that there is no evidence that the President was chronically depressed. Perhaps each student of Lincoln takes his or her own preconceived ideas and agenda and as well as emotional baggage to his or her study.
While we may never know for certain-- and does it matter-- about the sex of the persons Lincoln slept with or whether or not he was sporadically or chronically depressed, we can get from practically any new biography of Lincoln a glimpse of his complexity and insight into his greatness. Although he lived during a time of great religious fervor, he believed in evolution, was a fatalist and certainly did not believe in the conventional God of the day. He expessed his consternation that both the North and South claimed that God was on their side and suggested that we should hope that we are on God's side. (Can you imagine how this message coming from a Presidential candidate would play in any one of the dozens of mega-churches on any given Sunday today?) Lincoln found consolation in the tragedies of Shakespeare and loved a good ribald joke, even if it was his own. It is both sad and touching to learn that on the day of his death he had expressed his hope of traveling to California, a place he had never been, when he left the presidency-- and that he liked popcorn.
Finally in Shenk's "Prelude" he recounts a visit that Tolstoy made to a remote village in the Caucasus where the chief wanted to hear of "the greatest ruler of the world," one Abraham Lincoln, an example of how he is revered the world over.
This thoughtful book is certainly worth reading, a new look at Lincoln from yet another angle.