Exploring Abraham Lincoln's 'Melancholy' A new book on Abraham Lincoln explores how the young Illinois lawyer went on to become president despite suffering from lifelong depression.

Exploring Abraham Lincoln's 'Melancholy'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4976127/4976279" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The picture on the book jacket is worth thousands of words in Joshua Wolf Shenk's book "Lincoln's Melancholy." The book's subtitle is "How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness." Shenk is not a psychologist, but he is a Lincoln scholar. And there on the cover of his book is Abraham Lincoln, clean-shaven and looking as profoundly sad as any man could ever look. It's a photograph that Joshua Wolf Shenk finds especially meaningful.

Mr. JOSHUA WOLF SHENK (Author, "Lincoln's Melancholy"): The picture was taken in May 1860, shortly after Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party for the presidency. And all kinds of photographers were coming around asking to shoot his portrait, and many of these photographs are very famous. This one is not so famous partly because his gaze is odd. He is looking slightly upward. And to me, it's beautiful because there's this haunted look on his face, and yet he's looking off into the distance as if for something or to something, as if there's some meaning in the corner of his gaze that he is fixed on. And very much so, this is the sense I have of Lincoln through his struggles with melancholy. He's always looking for something; he's always trying to get better and trying to make meaning of his suffering.

SIEGEL: Tell us about Lincoln and how you think he would be diagnosed, frankly, by contemporary psychiatrists.

Mr. SHENK: When Lincoln was a young man, when he was in mid-20s, he had a terrible suicidal breakdown. I say suicidal because he was telling all of his friends and contemporaries that he was not sure that he could continue to live. And they were so alarmed by his words and his behavior, which was very strange and threatening, that they took physical steps to keep him safe. They intervened to make sure that he wouldn't hurt himself. And six years later a very similar episode took place.

And in between there's this beautiful story of Lincoln taking aside a fellow state legislator and saying, `I seem very much full of fun, and I know I seem like a vigorous fellow'--and, indeed, he was one that people thought was full of promise and potential. `But when I'm alone, I'm so full of mental depression that I won't even carry a knife in my pocket.' This emerges over and over again in stories of Lincoln; that he is not only sad, but there's a severity in it, even a danger to his sadness, that he might hurt himself.

SIEGEL: That he experienced depression for much of his life.

Mr. SHENK: Well, you know, modern clinicians would look at this and say, `Well, it's clearly major depression.' And, indeed, I talked to a number of clinicians who've made that assessment. But what's fascinating is that when you dig into Lincoln's own time and context, a whole other story emerges that's not at odds with the modern notions of depression but that certainly complicates it and enriches it.

SIEGEL: One of the problems you're up against in writing about melancholy or depression in the 19th century is that it is often said people spoke and wrote differently about their inner lives 150, 200 years ago than they do now.

Mr. SHENK: They certainly did. There was a culture around Lincoln and his contemporaries that gave much more space to emotions that we tend to keep locked up today. And so there's a sense--certainly early on in my study, I wondered, you know, `Is he just characteristic of his time?' And yet when you read the reminiscences of Lincoln's friends and you hear him described in their terms, he's always the most depressed person they've ever seen. It's always this radical gloom that they were shocked by. So he clearly stands out even in that time.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk a little bit about Lincoln's second--let's say second breakdown as a young man and put it in the context of very, very different social marital situation that people lived through in the 1840s or '50s than they do now. He was somebody who was committed to what he feared would be a terribly loveless marriage.

Mr. SHENK: Lincoln encountered a young woman named Mary Todd. This was in the frontier town of Springfield, Illinois, in the late 1830s. And he certainly had this idea that he was bound to her, and he had decided that he preferred not to marry her. At the same time his professional career as a politician was beginning to fall apart, his career as a lawyer was full of stress; he was losing his law partner, and his best friend, Joshua Speed, was about to leave Springfield. So all of these things came together around the time that Lincoln referred to in a letter as `that fatal 1st of January, 1841.'

And in the midst of this, Lincoln fully collapsed. He began to miss work in the Legislature. He was entrusted to the care of a doctor, who probably did him more harm than good. And when he emerged from that treatment, so to speak, he declared that he was `the most miserable man living,' in a gorgeous letter that I refer to as the kind of cortex of his depression. And, indeed, it's a--in some ways, the letter is to suffering what the Gettysburg Address is to the American experiment because it captures its essence.

SIEGEL: Why don't you read us that letter?

Mr. SHENK: This comes in an exchange with Lincoln's law partner, John Stewart, who was in Washington, DC, and Stewart was writing Lincoln asking him for the latest political news. And Lincoln wrote: `From the deplorable state of my mind at this time, I fear I shall give you but little satisfaction.' And then he stopped because his handwriting changed, and it grows smaller and more cramped. And he went on: `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.'

SIEGEL: I assume that you've been struck in your research into this subject by the notion of a man who was, to his friends, a very sad, melancholy figure for most of his life. It seems unthinkable that such a man today could become elected president of the United States.

Mr. SHENK: It's one of the drawbacks of living in a time when optimism and certainty is exalted as it is today; that the complexities and vulnerabilities that someone like Lincoln manifested is--really has no place in the political culture. When you look at Lincoln's story, you see that what you're losing is the original insight that he got from the depression itself, which is--really becomes clear when he's a young man and he's led to the brink and has to decide for himself, you know, `If I'm going to live'--because he did want to live--`why? What is this about?' And living gave him the chance to do something meaningful with his life.

He then turned to this diligent persistence in learning how to live and doing the hard work of living, learning how to cope and endure and developing these very conscious strategies in response to his melancholy. And, finally, he, in his last phase of life, began to flower and began to be able to apply both the original insight and the depth of character that he had developed in his long years of enduring to the problems of the nation and to, indeed, fulfill the dream that he had had as a young man to make some lasting contribution to American life.

SIEGEL: Well, Joshua Wolf Shenk, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SHENK: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Joshua Wolf Shenk, who spoke to us from New York, is the author of "Lincoln's Melancholy."

BLOCK: And you can read an excerpt from the book at our Web site, npr.org.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.