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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.