Review of “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk
It’s been quite a year for Honest Abe. January saw the publication of C.A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, which makes a strained case for Lincoln’s being gay. Now, in Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk argues that the sixteenth president suffered from major clinical depression. A comparison of the books is instructive. Tripp is both presumptuous and anachronistic, presenting polemical arguments as if they were facts. Even if Lincoln’s desires were in some (or most) instances homoerotic, which is certainly possible, the likelihood is that he didn’t perceive himself as gay in any contemporary sense of the word. Tripp falls prey to the sin of psychobiography, the retrospective study of character that was spearheaded by Freud’s dubious analysis of Leonardo. It is among the saddest truths of history that a great many secrets are carried to the grave. Attempts to excavate them, though interesting, are doomed. Speculation presented as speculation may be edifying; presented as fact, it becomes dangerous.
Although Lincoln’s sexuality is a mystery we cannot fully probe, his melancholy was extensively documented, acknowledged both by himself and by those around him; and though he would have found our understanding of clinical depression as a biological disease somewhat exotic, his symptomatology is not difficult to trace. It is well known today; indeed, Lincoln and Churchill are regularly described as the highest-functioning depressives in modern history. It is a fact, however, that was suppressed for most of the twentieth century. Lincoln described melancholy as “a misfortune not a fault,” and so it was taken in his time. But later historians did not allow this spin on what was by then held to be a fault not a misfortune, and it is a sign of social progress that Shenk can write about Lincoln’s depression without seeming to disparage him—though, as Shenk himself is quick to point out, a current presidential candidate would be significantly hurt by such a discussion.
Shenk’s book is a shapely and insightful exegesis of the Civil War president’s inner life, written with authority. It is a kind and admiring book, but it is also measured and honest. Despite occasional lapses into ponderousness and repetition, it contains some extremely beautiful prose and fine political rhetoric and leaves one feeling close to Lincoln, a considerable accomplishment given that few people felt close to Lincoln even when he was alive. Shenk’s intimacy with his subject never seems arrogant because it is enormously well-informed, predicated on a mixture of identification and awe. Further, he has the skills of historiography down pat and anticipates and engages with the implications of his arguments.
Shenk gives us a surprisingly complete story of Lincoln’s life with a persistent emphasis on melancholy and how it sat with miserable times. “It is no coincidence,” Shenk writes in a passage about Lincoln’s pessimism, “that Lincoln found his power at a time when the skies turned dark in the United States. His power came in part because he quickly saw the approaching storm.” It is perhaps gratifying to one’s sense of Schadenfreude to read of these difficulties and know that achievement comes at a price, but what one really comes away with is a sense of wonder. It would have been difficult for a cheery person to become Lincoln, and almost inconceivably hard for someone who was perennially depressed to face down so many setbacks and failures and a difficult personal life, and then to have responsibility for the day-to-day management of the Civil War and the leadership of a country divided against itself.
Both Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s Melancholy are predicated on identity politics’ tendency to claim heroes. If Lincoln was gay, that dignifies other gay people; if he was depressed, it dignifies others who are depressed. It should be emphasized, though, that these books also set a rather high standard: Most depressed or gay people (much less depressed gay people) will not be president. Most depressed people will be doing well if they can rise and shine — indeed if they can rise — on an ordinary day. Lincoln had a remarkable ability, in Chaucer’s famous words, to “maken vertu of necessitee.”
It is enlightening to realize that the very qualities that made Lincoln—exquisite empathy, transcendent humanity, prodigious intellect, and urgent moral clarity—were the ones that made him miserable, that his genius was contingent on his unhappiness. Shenk writes, “The qualities associated with his melancholy — his ability to see clearly and persist sanely in conditions that could have rattled even the strongest minds; his adaptations to suffering that helped him to be effective and creative; and his persistent and searching eye for the pure meaning of the nation’s struggle — contributed mightily to his good work.” To his greatest friend, Joshua Speed, who shared his melancholy tendencies, Lincoln wrote, “I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle; I would immediately engage in some business, or go to making preparation for it, which would be the same thing.” Lincoln handled his depression by becoming president — a novel approach, but one that served magnificently both his own interests and those of his country. In an era of victimhood, this model of someone who through steely resolve put his pain to the service of an exalted cause is exciting, even astonishing. Shenk refers throughout to William James and traces Lincoln’s story as that of mystic and martyr, in whom trial by fire took on the trappings of divine inspiration; but he never loses sight of Lincoln’s specific humanity. The real radicalism of this book (and I say this as someone who takes and has advocated for the use of antidepressants) is that it shows starkly what we stand to lose when we lose depression. Had effective psychopharmacology been around sooner, Shenk demonstrates, we might not have had the Emancipation Proclamation or the Gettysburg Address, at least not in the same form and with the same exquisite energy.