Book Reviews

Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression challenged a President & Fueled His Greatness

By Joshua Wolf Shenk

This is an excellent book about Lincoln’s depression. The principle lesson is one of wholeness, about integration…that we cannot understand another person without seeing the whole being, the whole person, the whole or integrated life. While President Lincoln fit the definition of mental illness in that he suffered from chronic and severe depression (to the point of contemplating suicide), he also exemplified marvelous mental health through incredibly productive use of his talents, establishing healthy enduring relationships/friendships and dealing with and overcoming tremendous adversity.


  • In three key criteria – factors that produce depression, the symptoms of what psychiatrists call major depression and the typical age of onset – the case of Abraham Lincoln is perfect. It could be used in a psychiatry textbook to illustrate a typical depression. Yet Lincoln’s case is perfect, too, in a very different sense: it forces us to reckon with the limits of diagnostic categories and raises fundamental questions about the nature of illness and health. Pg 11
  • Can we say that Lincoln was “mentally ill”? Without question he meets the U.S. surgeon general’s definition of mental illness, since he experienced “alterations in thinking, mood or behavior” that were associated with “distress and/or impaired functioning.” Yet Lincoln also meets the surgeon general’s criteria for mental health: “the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity” By this standard, few historical figures led such a healthy life. Pg 25
  • For some people, psychological health is a birthright. For many others, like Abraham Lincoln, it is the realization of great labor. Pg 69
  • Lincoln never joined a church, but this didn’t mean he was indifferent to moral and existential matters. To the contrary, his mind was on fire with ideas and beliefs and concerns. Indeed in the early days of the nation, having a roving, doubting mind was itself a kind of august tradition. A number of the Founders – including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – were freethinkers. “Often defined as a total absence of faith in God,” writes Susan Jacoby, in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, “free thought can better be understood as a phenomenon running the gamut from the truly antireligious – those who regarded all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence in every aspect of society – to those who adhered to a private, unconventional faith.” Turning away from orthodox religion, many freethinkers constructed a faith in their own minds, working with evidence from the natural world. The American tradition of separation of church and state grew directly from the freethinking of the Founders. Pg 83
  • H. L. Mencken joked that Puritanism was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. Pg 87
  • Had he chosen to take high doses of opium [often used in his day to treat a myriad of illnesses], he might have found relief from his pain, but at the expense of a great loss of energy. Had he devoted himself to a guru or medical practitioner – spending months each year taking the water cure or attaching himself to a talented mesmerist – he may have found comfort in someone else’s prescription for him, at the cost of a vision that he’d already come to understand – that is, his desire to do something meaningful for which he would be remembered. In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, the odds that he would accomplish anything worthy of remembrance looked increasingly small. Lincoln held on to his dream along with his fears: “Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain, Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain.” Pg 125
  • The suffering he had endured lent him clarity, discipline and faith in hard times – perhaps especially in hard times.
  • It was not what we would call a recovery and certainly not what we would call a cure. Lincoln’s story confounds those who see depression as a collection of symptoms to be eliminated. But it resonates with those who see suffering as a catalyst of emotional growth. “What man actually needs,” the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl argued, “is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.” Many believe that psychological health comes with the relief of distress. But Frankl proposed that all people – and particularly those under some emotional weight – need a purpose that will both draw on their talents and transcend their lives. For Lincoln, this sense of purpose was indeed the key that unlocked the gates of a mental prison. Pg 126
  • “If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.” Viktor Frankl pg 65
  • [See “depressive realism” or the “sadder, but wiser effect” from the Abramson and Alloy Study and the discussion of happiness being (humorously) described as a Major Affective Disorder – pleasant type”.] Pgs 134-135
  • Lincoln concluded his speech citing an old parable, of an Eastern monarch who charged his wise men to invent a sentence that would apply to all times and in all situations. The wise men returned with “And this too shall pass away.” Lincoln lingered over the line. “How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride – how consoling in the depths of affliction.” Pg 157-158 [“If you can meet with triumph and tragedy, and treat these two impostors just the same/yours is the earth and all there is there in. Rudyard Kipling”]
  • Living a good life often requires integrating a bundle of contrasts into a durable whole. The psychiatrist Leston Havens explains, in his book Learning to Be Human, that mental health depends on both freedom and compliance, radical independence and persistent loyalty. “My model will be Lincoln”, Havens writes “who seemed as hard as granite and as soft as a cloud. I will learn to be as strong and as weak as I need to be.” Pg 159
  • Lincoln, of course, is not the only nineteenth-century figure in whom intense suffering coexisted with great achievement. Modern researchers have identified one or more major mood disorders in John Quincy Adams, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Disraeli, William James, William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert Schumann, Leo Tolstoy, Queen Victoria and many others. We may accurately call these luminaries “mentally ill”, a label that has some use – as did our early diagnosis of Lincoln – insofar as it indicates the depth, severity and quality of their trouble. However, if we get stuck on the label, we may miss the core fascination, which is how illness can coexist with marvelous well-being. Pgs 165-166
  • The psychiatrist George Vaillant has shown that the bedrock of character comes not by good fortune, but by how people deal with problems. Vaillant has identified a series of discrete adaptations, or defenses, that people repeatedly turn to. “If we use defenses well,” Vaillant writes, “we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant and society brands us immoral.” What striking is that all five of the “mature” defenses Vaillant identifies were present in Lincoln as he managed the country and himself. Humor, as we’ve seen, allows a person to fully engage with reality while enjoying its absurdities. Healthy people also practice suppression, which, quite unlike denial, is the selective forceful act of pushing away oppressive stimuli; anticipation, which involves dealing with the moment in part by looking ahead to the good and the bad that lie in the future; altruism, or placing the welfare of others above oneself; and sublimation, which involves channeling passions into art. Pgs 182-183
  • Like a compass of a sailor in a mounting storm, Lincoln’s eye on the future became increasingly vital as the war dragged on and slavery became inextricably bound up with it. Pg 183
  • “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is this not so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again.” From a letter to Fanny McCullough on the loss of her father. Pgs 188-189
  • William James, the great philosopher and psychologist, objected to the rigid separation of religion and psychology. Having written the standard psychology textbook, James turned to study how spirituality could benefit suffering people. In the masterpiece that resulted, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James defined religion broadly, giving equal value to such diverse systems as Christianity, Emersonian transcendentalism, Buddhist mysticism and civic or personal ideals. The essence of religious experience, he wrote, is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
  • Lincoln is an example of what William James calls the “ripe fruits of religion” – also called saintliness and enlightenment. Earlier I described it as transcendent wisdom. People who are guided by a sense of something larger than themselves will look past the petty concerns of the self – the wounded pride that comes from personal insult, for example, or the wish to seem stronger or better than other people. “Magnanimities once impossible,” James writes, “are now easy; paltry conventionalities and mean incentives once tyrannical hold no sway.” Lincoln clearly operated in this spirit. He said, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.” Lincoln’s letters exhibit patience and grace. Pg 202
  • The key word was humiliation. Lincoln knew the tendency of victors in a grueling conflict was to seek vengeance, and the vanquished to turn bitter. He argues that both sides should bear in mind their share wrong and see their common opportunity. He concluded “With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Pg 207
  • When Lincoln died he had in his pockets a penknife, two pairs of spectacles, a Confederate five-dollar bill and some newspaper clippings – among them a letter from the English reform leader John Bright praising Lincoln’s “grand simplicity of purpose.” Pg 210
  • “The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity and joy are possible in life…Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there, and all that it continues to take. In the Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser writes that the ‘images of history’ can ‘reach us imaginatively. The life of Jesus; the life of Buddha; the life of Lincoln, or Gandhi, or Saint Francis of Assissi – these give us the intensity that should be felt in a lifetime of concentration, a lifetime which seems to risk the immortal meanings every day…These lives, in search and purpose, offer their form, offer their truths. They reach us as hope.’ The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await.”