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by Joshua Wolf Shenk
In the winter of 1841, Abraham Lincoln's life was a shambles. His political career was stalled; he felt bound to a woman, Mary Todd, whom he did not love; and his closest friend, Joshua Speed, seemed likely to move away to Kentucky, or to marry the girl whom Lincoln did love. Under the intense strain, Lincoln fell apart, and talked openly with friends about committing suicide. "Lincoln went Crazy," Speed wrote. "—had to remove razors from his room—take away all Knives and other such dangerous things—&—it was terrible." Soon after, Lincoln wrote an emotional letter to his law partner in Washington, D.C.
For not giving you a general summary of news you must pardon me, it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.
That Lincoln struggled with intense depression would not have been a surprise to his contemporaries, or to those who read accounts of Lincoln written in the early part of the twentieth century. But as trends in history changed, this part of Lincoln's story fell into shadow. In Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, excerpted in the October issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk returns the subject to prominence. Depression, Shenk argues, did not just haunt Lincoln as a young man; it plagued him throughout his life—on the day Lincoln died, his bodyguard said that he seemed "more depressed than I had ever seen him." Depression was an integral part of who Lincoln was—it shaped him in ways both good and bad, and helped give him the gravitas and humility necessary to lead the country through a time of bitterest war. The goal of his book, Shenk writes in the introduction, is not just to "see what we can learn about Lincoln by looking at him through the lens of his melancholy," but to "see what we can learn about melancholy by looking at it in the light of Lincoln's experience." And though he touches on it only lightly, Shenk's own experience with depression gives depth and texture to the book, helping him to shed light on Lincoln and the ways that melancholy both tore him apart and gave him strength.
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How did you decide to take on this topic? Were you looking for a book topic and came upon this, or did you come upon the topic first and then decide it would make a good book?
I was looking to write about mental-health issues, at a time when I was also struggling with mental-health issues of my own. Later, as it turns out, I would write a fair amount about my own experience. But at the time, having been trained as a journalist, I wanted to work on other people's stories through the lens of policy or history. So I was reading a lot of history books and anthologies, partly because I found it helpful to hear other people's stories as I was suffering and partly because I was looking for something to write about. One of the books I got was called On Suicide: Great Writers on the Ultimate Question. This book included an essay about Lincoln and Meriwether Lewis and how Lewis had killed himself and Lincoln had not, and what we can learn by looking at these two characters. I was flabbergasted—not just at the fact that Lincoln was so troubled, but at the passages from some letters that he wrote, and in particular a poem that he wrote in the mid-1840s. It was so powerful and beautiful and strange next to the image I had of Lincoln as a great but decidedly distant man, who—at least as I had known him—shared nothing of my earthly concerns or earthly troubles.
As journalists, we get in the mindset that if something seems new or interesting to us, then maybe it would seem new and interesting to other people. I wasn't a scholar by any stretch, so I just wrote to some people in the Lincoln world to get their advice. Contrary to what a lot of people expect, I found it a friendly environment. For the most part, people at the top of the field were interested in younger voices and they encouraged me both to learn more about Lincoln and to learn more about the culture of medicine, psychology, philosophy, and religion surrounding him, which ended up being a really important part of the story.
In terms of your own issues that you had been and are facing, did writing the book help you with that struggle?
Yes, it helped in a couple of ways. Number one, it was my work, and work is the best treatment. It gave me a way to get out of myself and to do something that I really believed in, even when it was really challenging. I got sustenance from being involved in a project that had a lot of meaning for me and that I hoped would have some meaning for others. And even though writing about a man's depression is really hard, it's enriching, too. Lincoln lived in an incredibly interesting period, with all the movements in philosophy and psychology that feel like a totally different world from our world of biological psychiatry and Freudian-derived psychotherapy. It's like stepping into this alternate universe of madmen and showmen and delightful characters who have a lot of common sense and a lot of bizarre ideas. So that's the first way it helped—just to have something cool to work on. And the second way it helped was that Lincoln's path has so much to offer in the way of instruction. He became a kind of mentor to me, and I expect that a lot of the lessons will continue to unfold as I have more experience in my life. I'm still a young man, and a lot of what his story offers us is the wisdom of accumulating experience and the power of change and growth.
I think so often you hear of someone succeeding at something in spite of depression and I thought it was interesting the way you talked about it—that it wasn't in spite of, it was partly because of his depression that Lincoln was able to do the things that he did and had the perspective that he had.
Yes, they're so intertwined. It's all clearly part of the same person; it's hard to even know how to linguistically distinguish between this thing called depression and the rest of him. If you admire or appreciate Lincoln and if you think that depression is purely a debility—purely a medical condition that requires treatment—then you really have to pause and look at things differently, because all these qualities of his morbid suffering were wrapped up in his great work.