Commander in Grief

Joshua Wolf Shenk on how melancholy both tore Abraham Lincoln apart and gave him strength

book cover

Lincoln's Melancholy
[Click the title
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by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Houghton Mifflin
368 pages

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.

Katie Bacon

Joshua Wolf Shenk
Joshua Wolf Shenk (Photo by
Greg Martin).

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.

I couldn't help wondering, and this is one of those "What if" questions that is perhaps hard to answer, but what if Lincoln had lived in the age of Prozac? These days people probably would say to him, "You're so depressed. Why don't you just take this pill, and it will make things all better." If he'd taken medication, how different would he have been? Would he have been able to achieve the same things?

It would be fascinating to see how someone like him interacted with a present-day culture, because he's so much a creature of his time. He's so much a creature of a world in which psychology and religion were wrapped up together; he's so much a creature of this ethos of the self-made man. He's also very strongly a creature of the Romantic mythology that held depression and melancholy to be a source of wisdom and strength and depth of character. On another level, though, there are many aspects of our culture that have their parallels in him. He also sought treatment, and like a shockingly high number of depressed people today, he just didn't find that much help from it. The counter-intuitive part about the Prozac question is that a lot of people do take Prozac today and still find themselves with suffering that they can't account for and really struggle to manage. If we had found a cure or a solution for human suffering, then you and I wouldn't be having this conversation, I would never have written this book, and no one would be interested in this aspect of Lincoln's life. It is precisely because we haven't found a way to vanquish it that these kinds of stories are still valuable. Even people who are enormously helped by medication, as I have been, still need a sense of meaning, still need to find some narrative for their lives that helps them get up in the morning and pursue a better life.

You write that "Lincoln's sensitivity worked for him... Indeed, when Lincoln was in distress, he could count on receiving aid as surely as he gave it to stray animals." This feels like a strange question to ask, but do you think that to some extent Lincoln manipulated people with his melancholy to get what he wanted? Was it in any way a political tool?

Some people believe that outcome equals intention—that if you get something, it must speak in some way to your intention. And Lincoln certainly got a lot out of being troubled in the sense that, when he had these two terrible breakdowns as a young man, his friends and the community at large really rallied around him. That was especially the case in his first breakdown. He lived in a small village where he had no family connections, which were extremely important, and this whole village became a surrogate family for him and continued to support him all through his early career. And the depression made him all the more appealing to them, it seems. He's in this ambiguous territory—so you ask a good question. But I should say also that I never got the sense that he was faking or dramatizing in order to achieve that effect. It really feels like his melancholy came from an organic place and was overpowering for him. At the same time, had he lived in an environment that was less friendly and that treated him more harshly, he may have stuffed it under. It may have been that the environment gave oxygen to his depression, let it flourish and grow. And you see this in his late twenties especially, when he really came out, so to speak, as a melancholy fellow. In his early twenties he was not known to anyone as depressed or morbid. On the contrary he was known for being very sunny and bucking up people around him. But in his late twenties, he became known as a melancholy fellow and that stuck with him his whole life.

Things changed after his second breakdown in his early thirties. The reaction there was different. Among Lincoln's friends there still was this sense of rallying around him and making sure he was okay physically and doing what they could for him emotionally. But there was a sense in the broader community of, "What's happened to this guy? He really seemed to have something and he's really losing it." And that's when the fact that he came from a poor background and had no connections would have been prominent in people's minds. I think it was a real precipice that he found himself hovering over, and it was really around that time that you saw Lincoln reining himself in and finding ways to draw his feelings into himself and to channel them and express them through art and other precise ways, rather than going around and talking broadly about how hard the world was for him.

Around the time of his marriage—he was thirty-three-years-old—you get the sense that he saw he had no choice but to live with his melancholy. Ironically, when he became a more mature figure and the world around him got much harder, you see the style of his early life coming back again. In the White House he was really open about his troubles in a way that is shocking compared to the kind of rectitude and shielded life of a lot of our public figures today. But anyone could go into the White House and see Lincoln talking about how badly he was shaken by the war and how much he feared disaster. This was not a quiet thing that he shared with a few people. There's this endless stream of stories of people seeing Lincoln and feeling like they have access to this torment.

You write that Lincoln lived at a time when the philosophy of individualism was just coming to the fore, when people were just starting to believe that you could be a self-made man and do something different from what your parents did. Would you say that the stinging sense of ambition that Lincoln felt was an outlet for his melancholy or a cause of it?

Lincoln's is a peculiar story because there are two opposing strains. It is clearly a heroic story—a man who becomes stronger, clearer, and better; who suffers and then copes with his suffering; who achieves wisdom. But it's also the story of a guy whose life gets worse and worse and worse until he's shot. It's not like he sat around as president relaxing in the pleasures of high station. It was just one bloody mess from the moment he took the oath of office. Looking at his life through the lens of his melancholy helps us see in a very painful way just how hard it was. Even though scholars have acknowledged, in piecemeal, the melancholy in his early life, there is a sense in other biographies that he must have left that behind. But I was shocked by the way melancholy stayed with him. I kept expecting to find a moment in the story when the soundtrack would begin to play and he'd just be moving calmly through life with a sense of serene purpose. But I continued to find, all the way through to the end of his life, these stories of him falling into pretty serious funks.

You wonder what would have happened if he hadn't been shot. Would the end of the war have lifted his spirits? My guess is that the funks would have continued through his life and there would never have been that moment of the soundtrack starting to play.

When I talked about this case with Kay Jamison, who is a foremost authority on suicide and depression, one of the first things she said to me was, "You need to look at his behavior around his death. You don't have to kill yourself to be engaging in suicidal behavior." And it is true that Lincoln was cavalier about security in a way that his contemporaries thought bordered on the reckless. I don't want to read into that too deeply, but it would be really interesting to know whether he would have been able to take pleasure in his accomplishments, had he truly had distance from them. That said, he really did seem to change in his last few days, as the war finally came to an end. I find his final speech really moving. He began, "We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart." He really seemed to see light coming up on the horizon. He had three days left to live.

You also describe Lincoln as a fatalist, who believed that "events on earth were preordained and humans powerless to change them." To me, this would seem to conflict with the idea of oneself as a self-made man, which connotes someone who has real control over his own destiny. How were those two strands reconciled in Lincoln?

It's hard to perfectly reconcile them. I think they are opposed, and I think a lot of people live with them without really noticing the opposition. On any given day, I might feel like life is essentially fate and I am in the hands of something much more powerful than I am—but I might also work really hard to improve myself or make things better. The nature of human agency is one of the conflicts of the human heart and certainly it's a basic philosophical problem. With Lincoln, I think the important point is to show that they are both very strong elements and that they did come together in defining the poles of his character. It's almost as if those poles are planted at either end of a field and there's some kind of invisible wire running between them.

Lincoln was extremely meticulous in his work both materially and emotionally. He really created a style for himself to endure what he referred to as "defective nerves." That style ranged from mundane strategies for getting through the day to the broader philosophical comforts that he took in poetry and so forth. At the same time, he constantly referred to a sense of being powerless in the grand scheme of things. That sense became intensified as time went on and the work that he was doing had higher and higher stakes. I'm not sure if I can answer the question perfectly; I'm not sure it has an answer. One of the pleasures for me is in making an argument and identifying elements of Lincoln's life in a precise way, but I'm also telling a story in which there are complicated, contradictory elements that don't resolve themselves but rather gather force and keep moving on.

You talk in the afterword about the differing views of oral history over the years—how some distrusted it as "reminiscences" while others have seen it as a valuable tool for helping to capture one's subject. You obviously are more in the latter camp, but are there any concerns you have about oral history? How do you take into account the inevitable vagaries of memory?

It is an important tool that has its limitations. One of the limitations is that memories are not always precise. But there are ways to deal with the problems. First of all, just like we all immediately get a sense of people we meet, you immediately get a sense of someone when you start reading their letters or interviews. And the more I did this, the more I noticed my instincts about people— who is trustworthy or full of hot air. That's not foolproof, clearly, but it's nevertheless worth paying attention to. And then the second point is that where I'm using oral history, I'm often drawing on multiple recollections of the same incident. There are places where they all agree and places where there's some disagreement. And that's usually telling. For instance, Lincoln's first suicidal breakdown, which is the place in Lincoln studies where oral history has been most controversial, happened in the wake of the death of this young woman named Ann Rutledge. Virtually all the recollections of people who knew him at the time point out how he was really troubled around the time she died. That part is really hard to dispute, because so many different people noticed it, and their memories mesh. At the same time, the incident raised questions in people's minds, and one of the questions was, "Well, so what was going on between Lincoln and this young woman? Were they just friends? Were they lovers? Might they have been engaged?" And that is a subject where memories conflict. In my mind it is totally inconclusive. We don't know just what Lincoln thought of Ann Rutledge, nor is their relationship necessary to explain his depression. You don't need to be in love with someone or be engaged to them to be provoked by their death into a terrible depression, especially if you are prone to depression. I quote the writer Charles Bukowski as saying, "It's not the large things that send a man to the madhouse. No, it's the continuing series of small tragedies ... a shoelace that snaps, with no time left."

I think that a lot of where historians get into trouble is by trying to do too much. For instance, people have often believed that, if they're to mention Lincoln's depression, they need to have some kind of definitive cause. Believing that, you start squeezing the evidence, trying to make more of it than it really shows. But there's no need for that. It only flattens the story, whereas pointing out the real questions—the gaps and doubts that run through even the best-documented stories—makes it all the more real.

You write that research over the past few decades has shown that "depressive realists" like Lincoln often have more "fundamentally accurate perceptions" of the world than those who tend to view the world in an optimistic light. This has a lot of resonance right now, I think, when we're led by someone who declares "I'm an optimist," and who doesn't seem to always recognize the gravity of a given situation. Could the lens through which you've studied Lincoln be successfully applied to other presidents, particularly to Bush? If so, what would it tell us?

I think it does apply, and I don't think it's especially flattering to President Bush, although you could look at it another way and say that Bush has adopted a mantle of depressive realism when it suits him. His justification for the war on terror was that things are so bad that we need to be constantly at war. That's more or less what he said after 9/11. But with the tragedy in the Gulf Coast it's quite plain that both on a local and on a national level, people just didn't anticipate the worst. No one prepared for the worst. And we paid a price for that.

But it's interesting to see where this started. At least in recent history it goes back to the difference between Carter and Reagan. According to the conventional wisdom, Carter was dour and he created a kind of miasma that affected the country for the worse. I don't buy that, but it's a common perception. According to the same story, Reagan, by being optimistic, created a sense of optimism, and set the country on a better path. Ever since then, it seems, we've had a cult of optimism—and no room in political conversations for skeptical, questioning, challenging thought.

Now, it's true that people often create reality by their moods, and that optimism is often appropriate. But it's also true that, if your moods are fundamentally out of step with reality, reality is going to come up and smack you from behind. It may be that a long era of valuing optimism to the exclusion of all other styles is receding. It will be very interesting to watch and see if this recent crisis contributes to that.

If a candidate with a known depressive streak were to emerge today, would Americans be right to worry that he might break down under the strain of office? I guess I just can't imagine someone with the depressive-realist temperament being elected these days.

It is hard to imagine, because mental illness is considered incompatible with responsibility and also because of the media culture and how intensely the light can be shined into these private places. There's also a terrible paradox at work, where the very things that people do to get help can lead to a crucifixion in the public arena. There's the famous case of Thomas Eagleton, who was forced off the 1972 presidential ticket when it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression. What's fascinating about the Eagleton affair—you see this reading the coverage at the time—was that the mental trouble didn't really sink him; what sunk him was that he'd received electroshock therapy. That freaked people out. No matter that electroshock at the time was a leading treatment, very commonly used for all kinds of cases. This is the mixed message, and it's very confusing, all the more so today. On the one hand the surgeon general of the United States says, "Suicide and depression are big problems, and if you have these troubles you should seek help." Yet, when President Clinton was reeling over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his spokesman refused to consider that the president would ever get any kind of counseling. It would have been politically damaging even to acknowledge that he considered it.

What are you thinking will be next for you? You have been working on this for seven years and it seems like a subject that is very close to your heart and has given you a lot of strength. So it must be hard to contemplate the project's coming to an end.

It's been so hard to write and at the same time it's been hard to let go. It's like an old friend who's a pain in the ass but is reliably there. I have lots of ideas about what's next. I've been working on my own for a long time, so I'd like to work with people. I've been working in what's been a pretty conventional literary form, and I'd like to try something very different. My financial life has been just totally screwy, and so it would be nice to earn a regular income. I don't know if I can do all these things, but they're all on the table. In terms of subjects, I spent so long staring at the absences and pain and suffering of life, which I think is really important. I really needed to shine light on that for myself and for others, too. But now I'm very conscious of needing to go to the other side and look at life from the point of view of health and grace and connections between people, seeing that side of things and trying to shine a light on it. It is very trying to make depression and suffering one's subject. It has been a challenge, and in many ways it's a relief to be able to set that aside.

One more thing I want to ask you about is a quote from the afterword which really struck me. You said, "To some extent, it's an inherent flaw of biography that in order to wrestle a figure on to the page, three dimensions get turned into two." And I'm wondering if by focusing on Lincoln's melancholy you were, in a sense, trying to add that dimension back in?

I'm trying to make it as live and real as possible, but I also intend that as a self-criticism of my own endeavor. I'm extremely humble about what I know about this character, who is one of the great elusive, enigmatic, and mysterious characters of all time, one who remains fundamentally beyond our grasp. So both in a big sense and a little sense there's a great deal that I don't know. To make the story work, I focused on what I learned—what I'm confident about. But it's like I'm walking in the great woods with a big torch. I can shine the light on a path, and lead a way through. And by walking around there for years, I get to know the terrain, and get a sense of the landscape. But there's still a huge world around me that's in the dark.

Writing about a man's character, his inner life, only makes the woods bigger. And it makes me more aware of my limitations. So even though this is a book about feeling, it is built on a skeleton of observation and empirical phenomenon. I'm never beginning with, "Lincoln felt this or Lincoln wanted that." I'm always beginning with, "Lincoln said this or someone else observed that." I'm trying to use their language, set out the facts, and follow where they lead. As a historian, if you know that Lincoln got up and walked across the room, it's tempting to write a passage that says, Lincoln was feeling anxious to get to the other side of the room. But we don't know how he was feeling. All we know is that he stood up and walked. A lot of histories, because they are about external events, have free range to imagine how people think and feel. But precisely because I was examining psychology, I was really conscious about being restrained. Every time I made any kind of assumption I was aware of it.

I think that, if you're careful about finding what's true, and sticking to it, readers can bring their own lives to the text. The story can take on all kinds of new shadings and meanings in people's minds. One of the great things about Lincoln is that we all have him in common—all ages and races and ethnicities and nationalities. To me that's really valuable, especially when it comes to depression. Depression is isolating by its nature. I began to work on this story because I desperately wanted contact with people who had gone through some version of what I was going through. That longing for contact is inherent to the experience of depression, and I hope that the book can help people make contact. Not just with Lincoln and his story, but also with people around them who they may struggle to communicate with. It might be that someone is suffering intensely from depression and has no real way of expressing it to a parent or a lover. It may be that a caretaker is deeply concerned for a depressed friend, but struggles to imagine their experience. I would hope that, with Lincoln's story, they both can find things that interest them and at least begin to talk. That was all the more reason to be restrained in the conclusions that I came to and in the presence that I made for myself in the narrative. I wanted to capture the universal element so that this can be a springboard for conversation, a beginning rather than an end.