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Lincoln"s Melancholy 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 also his closest frifinish, Joshua Speed, appeared likely to move away to Kentucky, or to marry the girl whom Lincoln did love. Under the intense strain, Lincoln fell acomponent, and also talked openly through friends around committing self-destruction. "Lincoln went Crazy," Speed created. "—had to remove razors from his room—take away all Knives and also various other such dangerous things—&—it was terrible." Soon after, Lincoln composed an emotional letter to his legislation companion in Washington, D.C.

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For not giving you a basic summary of news you must pardon me, it is not in my power to perform so. I am currently the the majority of miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the totality huguy household, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever before be much better I cannot tell; I awcompletely forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it shows up to me.

That Lincoln struggled through intense depression would not have actually been a surprise to his contemporaries, or to those who read accounts of Lincoln created in the beforehand part of the twentieth century. But as fads in history changed, this part of Lincoln"s story fell right into shadow. In Lincoln"s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and also Fueled His Greatness, excerpted in the October concern of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk returns the topic to importance. Depression, Shenk suggests, did not just haunt Lincoln as a young man; it plagued him throughout his life—on the day Lincoln passed away, his bodyguard sassist that he seemed "more depressed than I had actually ever before seen him." Depression was an integral part of that Lincoln was—it shaped him in ways both excellent and bad, and also aided provide him the gravitas and humility necessary to lead the nation with a time of bitteremainder battle. The goal of his book, Shenk writes in the advent, is not just to "view what we have the right to learn about Lincoln by looking at him via the lens of his melancholy," yet to "view what we deserve to learn about melancholy by looking at it in the light of Lincoln"s endure." And though he touches on it only lightly, Shenk"s very own suffer with depression offers depth and texture to the book, helping him to melted light on Lincoln and the ways that melancholy both tore him acomponent and offered him strength.


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Joshua Wolf Shenk (Photo by Greg Martin).

How did you decide to take on this topic? Were you searching for a book topic and came upon this, or did you come upon the topic first and also then decide it would certainly make a great book?

I was looking to write around mental-wellness issues, at a time once I was likewise struggling via mental-health and wellness problems of my very own. Later, as it transforms out, I would write a fair amount around my very own endure. But at the moment, having actually been trained as a journalist, I wanted to occupational on other people"s stories with the lens of policy or history. So I was analysis most history books and also anthologies, partially because I found it helpful to hear various other people"s stories as I was suffering and partially because I was searching for somepoint to create around. One of the publications I gained was called On Suicide: Great Writers on the Ultimate Question. This book consisted of an essay around Lincoln and also Meriwether Lewis and how Lewis had eliminated himself and also Lincoln had not, and what we deserve to learn by looking at these two characters. I was flabbergasted—not just at the truth that Lincoln was so troubled, but at the passperiods from some letters that he composed, and also in specific a poem that he composed in the mid-1840s. It was so effective and also beautiful and also stvariety next to the image I had of Lincoln as a good yet decidedly distant guy, who—at least as I had recognized him—mutual nopoint of my earthly comes to or earthly troubles.

As journalists, we acquire in the mindset that if something seems brand-new or amazing to us, then maybe it would seem brand-new and exciting to other people. I wasn"t a scholar by any kind of stretch, so I simply composed to some world in the Lincoln human being to acquire their advice. Contrary to what many people expect, I discovered it a friendly environment. For the most part, civilization at the peak of the field were interested in younger voices and they motivated me both to learn even more around Lincoln and to learn even more about the society of medication, psychology, ideology, and faith surrounding him, which came to be a really important part of the story.

In regards to your very own problems that you had actually been and also are facing, did writing the book aid you through that struggle?

Yes, it assisted in a pair of means. Number one, it was my occupational, and also work is the best therapy. It provided me a way to get out of myself and also to carry out somepoint that I really believed in, even as soon as it was really difficult. I got sustenance from being involved in a task that had most interpretation for me and that I hoped would have some definition for others. And also though creating about a man"s depression is really hard, it"s enriching, as well. Lincoln lived in an very amazing duration, with all the motions in viewpoint and psychology that feel choose a completely various human being from our civilization of organic psychiatry and also Freudian-derived psychotherapy. It"s choose stepping into this alternative universe of madguys and showmen and delightful characters who have most prevalent sense and also many bizarre concepts. So that"s the first means it helped—just to have actually somepoint cool to work on. And the second means it aided was that Lincoln"s route has actually so much to offer in the method of instruction. He became a sort of mentor to me, and also I expect that many the lessons will certainly continue to unfold as I have more experience in my life. I"m still a young man, and also a lot of what his story uses us is the wisdom of accumulating endure and the power of change and development.

I think so frequently you hear of someone doing well at somepoint in spite of depression and I believed it was amazing the way you talked about it—that it wasn"t in spite of, it was partially bereason of his depression that Lincoln was able to perform the things that he did and also had the perspective that he had actually.

Yes, they"re so intertwined. It"s all clearly part of the very same person; it"s tough to also recognize exactly how to linguistically differentiate in between this point dubbed depression and the rest of him. If you admire or appreciate Lincoln and if you think that depression is pudepend a debility—purely a medical problem that needs treatment—then you really have to pausage and look at things in different ways, bereason all these features of his morbid experiencing were wrapped up in his great occupational.

I couldn"t help wondering, and also this is just one of those "What if" inquiries that is maybe tough to answer, but what if Lincoln had lived in the age of Prozac? These days human being most likely would certainly say to him, "You"re so depressed. Why don"t you just take this pill, and it will make points all better." If he"d taken medication, how various would certainly he have actually been? Would he have been able to attain the exact same things?

It would certainly be fascinating to check out just how someone choose him communicated through a contemporary society, bereason he"s so much a creature of his time. He"s so much a creature of a civilization in which psychology and faith were wrapped up together; he"s so a lot a creature of this ethos of the self-made guy. He"s likewise very strongly a creature of the Romantic mythology that organized depression and also melancholy to be a source of wisdom and strength and also depth of character. On an additional level, though, tright here are many kind of aspects of our culture that have their parallels in him. He likewise sought therapy, and choose a shockingly high variety of depressed people this particular day, he simply didn"t find that much aid from it. The counter-intuitive part around the Prozac question is that the majority of world execute take Prozac this day and also still find themselves through suffering that they can not account for and really battle to control. If we had uncovered a cure or a solution for human experiencing, then you and also I wouldn"t be having actually this conversation, I would certainly never have composed this book, and also no one would certainly be interested in this element of Lincoln"s life. It is specifically because we haven"t uncovered a way to vanquish it that these kinds of stories are still handy. Even people who are enormously helped by medication, as I have actually been, still need a feeling of interpretation, still need to uncover some narrative for their lives that helps them obtain up in the morning and also seek a much better life.

You create that "Lincoln"s sensitivity functioned for him... Undoubtedly, once Lincoln remained in ditension, he can count on receiving aid as sucount as he provided it to stray animals." This feels choose a strange question to ask, however execute you think that to some extent Lincoln manipulated people with his melancholy to obtain what he wanted? Was it in any kind of way a political tool?

Some world think that outcome amounts to intention—that if you gain something, it should stop in some method to your intention. And Lincoln certainly gained a lot out of being troubled in the feeling that, as soon as he had actually these two disastrous breakdowns as a young guy, his friends and also the neighborhood at huge really rallied about him. That was particularly the case in his first breakdvery own. He stayed in a small village where he had actually no family connections, which were extremely necessary, and also this entirety village became a surrogate household for him and also ongoing to support him all via his early on 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 acquired the sense that he was faking or dramatizing in order to achieve that result. It really feels choose his melancholy came from an organic location and also was overpowering for him. At the very same time, had actually he resided in an atmosphere that was much less friendly and also that treated him even more harshly, he may have stuffed it under. It might have been that the environment gave oxygen to his depression, let it prosper and also flourish. And you see this in his late twenties particularly, when he really came out, so to soptimal, as a melancholy fellow. In his early twenties he was not well-known to anyone as depressed or morbid. On the contrary he was well-known for being exceptionally sunny and bucking up human being roughly him. But in his late twenties, he came to be known as a melancholy fellow and that stuck with him his entirety life.

Things changed after his second breakdown in his at an early stage thirties. The reaction there was various. Among Lincoln"s friends there still was this sense of rallying approximately him and also making sure he was okay physically and doing what they could for him emotionally. But there was a feeling in the broader community of, "What"s taken place to this guy? He really seemed to have somepoint and he"s really shedding it." And that"s once the reality that he came from a poor background and also had no relations would certainly have been significant in people"s minds. I think it was a genuine precipice that he uncovered himself hovering over, and it was really around that time that you observed Lincoln reining himself in and finding methods to attract his feelings right into himself and to channel them and expush them via art and various other precise means, rather than going roughly and talking broadly around just how hard the world was for him.

Around the moment of his marriage—he was thirty-three-years-old—you gain the sense that he witnessed he had actually no alternative however to live with his melancholy. Ironically, when he ended up being a more mature figure and also the world about him acquired much harder, you check out the style of his early on life coming earlier aacquire. In the White House he was really open up about his troubles in a means that is shocking compared to the type of rectitude and also shielded life of the majority of our public numbers this particular day. But anyone can go right into the White House and also check out Lincoln talking around exactly how badly he was shaken by the battle and also exactly how much he feared disaster. This was not a quiet thing that he shared with a couple of civilization. There"s this endmuch less stream of stories of human being seeing Lincoln and feeling favor they have actually access to this torment.

You create that Lincoln lived at a time once the approach of individualism was simply coming to the fore, when people were just founding to think that you can be a self-made male and also carry out something various from what your parents did. Would you say that the stinging feeling of ambition that Lincoln felt was an outlet for his melancholy or a reason of it?

Lincoln"s is a strange story because tbelow are two opposing strains. It is plainly a heroic story—a male who becomes more powerful, clearer, and also better; who suffers and then copes via his suffering; that achieves wisdom. But it"s additionally the story of a guy whose life gets worse and also worse and worse till he"s shot. It"s not like he sat approximately 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 with the lens of his melancholy helps us view in a very painful way simply how hard it was. Even though scholars have identified, in piecemeal, the melancholy in his early life, tbelow is a feeling in other biographies that he should have actually left that behind. But I was shocked by the way melancholy stayed through him. I retained expecting to uncover a moment in the story once the soundtrack would start to play and he"d just be relocating calmly with life through a feeling of serene function. But I ongoing to discover, all the method with to the end of his life, these stories of him falling right into pretty major funks.

You wonder what would certainly have occurred if he hadn"t been swarm. Would the end of the battle have lifted his spirits? My guess is that the funks would have actually continued with his life and also tright here would certainly never have been that minute of the soundtrack founding to play.

When I talked around this situation via Kay Jamichild, who is a forea lot of authority on suicide and also depression, among the initially points she shelp to me was, "You must look at his habits roughly his fatality. You don"t have to kill yourself to be engaging in suicidal actions." And it is true that Lincoln was cavalier about protection in a means that his contemporaries believed bordered on the reckless. I do not desire to check out into that too deeply, but it would be really exciting to recognize whether he would certainly have been able to take pleacertain in his accomplishments, had actually he truly had actually distance from them. That shelp, he really did seem to change in his last few days, as the war finally involved an finish. I find his last speech really moving. He began, "We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart." He really appeared to check out light coming up on the horizon. He had 3 days left to live.

You also describe Lincoln as a fatalist, who thought that "occasions on earth were preordained and humans powerless to change them." To me, this would seem to conflict with the principle of oneself as a self-made man, which connotes someone who has real manage over his very own destiny. How were those 2 strands reconciled in Lincoln?

It"s hard to perfectly reconcile them. I think they are opposed, and also I think most civilization live through them without really noticing the opplace. On any given day, I can feel favor life is fundamentally fate and I am in the hands of something a lot even more effective than I am—but I can additionally job-related really difficult to enhance myself or make points much better. The nature of human agency is just one of the disputes of the human heart and also certainly it"s a straightforward thoughtful difficulty. With Lincoln, I think the essential suggest is to show that they are both extremely solid aspects and also that they did come together in specifying the poles of his character. It"s nearly as if those poles are planted at either end of a field and there"s some kind of invisible wire running in between them.

Lincoln was extremely meticulous in his job-related both materially and emotionally. He really developed a style for himself to endure what he referred to as "defective nerves." That style ranged from mundane strategies for obtaining through the day to the bigger philosophical comforts that he soaked up poetry and so forth. At the very same time, he constantly described a sense of being powermuch less in the grand plan of points. That sense came to be intensified as time went on and the job-related that he was doing had actually better and also better stakes. I"m not certain if I ca solution the question perfectly; I"m not certain it has actually a response. One of the pleasures for me is in making an discussion and also identifying facets of Lincoln"s life in an accurate method, yet I"m likewise telling a story in which tbelow are complicated, inconsistent facets that don"t settle themselves but fairly gather force and keep relocating on.

You talk in the afterword about the differing views of dental history over the years—exactly 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 even more in the latter camp, but are tbelow any kind of concerns you have around oral history? How carry out you take right into account the unavoidable vagaries of memory?

It is an essential tool that has its limitations. One of the limitations is that memories are not constantly specific. But tright here are methods to attend to the troubles. First of all, just prefer we all immediately get a sense of world we fulfill, you automatically acquire a feeling of someone once you begin analysis their letters or interviews. And the more I did this, the even more I noticed my instincts about people— who is reputable or complete of warm air. That"s not foolproof, clearly, yet it"s nevertheless worth paying attention to. And then the second suggest is that wright here I"m using dental background, I"m often drawing on multiple recollections of the exact same incident. There are locations where they all agree and also places wbelow there"s some disagreement. And that"s commonly telling. For circumstances, Lincoln"s initially suicidal breakdown, which is the place in Lincoln researches wbelow oral history has actually been most controversial, happened in the wake of the fatality of this young womale named Ann Rutledge. Virtually all the recollections of people who knew him at the moment allude out just how he was really troubled about the time she passed away. That part is really tough to conflict, bereason so many different human being noticed it, and also their memories mesh. At the exact same time, the occurrence raised questions in people"s minds, and among the questions was, "Well, so what was going on between Lincoln and this young woman? Were they simply friends? Were they lovers? Might they have actually been engaged?" And that is a topic wbelow memories conflict. In my mind it is totally inconclusive. We do not understand just what Lincoln thought of Ann Rutledge, nor is their partnership essential to explain his depression. You do not must be in love via someone or be involved to them to be provoked by their death into a damaging depression, especially if you are vulnerable to depression. I quote the writer Charles Bukowski as saying, "It"s not the huge points that send a guy to the madhouse. No, it"s the continuing series of tiny tragedies ... a shoelace that breaks, through no time left."

I think that most wright here historians obtain into trouble is by trying to do too a lot. For instance, world have regularly believed that, if they"re to cite Lincoln"s depression, they should have actually some type of definitive cause. Believing that, you start squeezing the proof, trying to make more of it than it really shows. But there"s no need for that. It just flat10s the story, whereas pointing out the genuine questions—the gaps and doubts that run via even the best-recorded stories—makes it all the even more real.

You write that research study over the previous few years has actually shown that "depressive realists" favor Lincoln regularly have more "essentially precise perceptions" of the human being than those who tend to watch the civilization in an optimistic light. This has most resonance right currently, I think, once we"re led by someone that declares "I"m an optimist," and also that doesn"t seem to constantly identify the gravity of a offered case. Could the lens via which you"ve stupassed away Lincoln be effectively applied to other presidents, specifically to Bush? If so, what would certainly it tell us?

I think it does use, and I do not think it"s especially flattering to President Shrub, although you can look at it one more means and say that Shrub has actually embraced a mantle of depressive realism as soon as it suits him. His justification for the war on terror was that things are so bad that we need to be constantly at battle. That"s even more or less what he said after 9/11. But via the tragedy in the Gulf Coast it"s fairly simple that both on a regional and also on a national level, people simply didn"t anticipate the worst. No one ready for the worst. And we paid a price for that.

But it"s amazing to view wbelow this started. At least in current history it goes earlier to the distinction between Carter and Reagan. According to the conventional wisdom, Carter was dour and also he created a sort of miasma that affected the nation for the worse. I do not buy that, yet it"s a prevalent perception. According to the same story, Reagan, by being optimistic, produced a feeling of optimism, and also collection the country on a far better path. Ever considering that then, it appears, we"ve had a cult of optimism—and also no room in political conversations for doubtful, questioning, difficult thought.

Now, it"s true that human being regularly produce truth by their moods, and that optimism is frequently proper. But it"s additionally true that, if your moods are essentially out of step with truth, truth is going to come up and also smack you from behind. It might be that a lengthy era of valuing optimism to the exemption of all other formats is receding. It will be exceptionally interesting to watch and check out if this recent crisis contributes to that.

If a candiday with a well-known depressive streak were to arise today, would certainly Americans be appropriate to worry that he could break dvery own under the strain of office? I guess I simply can not imagine someone through the depressive-realist temperament being elected these days.

It is difficult to imagine, because mental condition is taken into consideration incompatible via obligation and also additionally bereason of the media culture and also exactly how intensely the light can be shined right into these personal locations. There"s likewise a destructive paradox at occupational, where the exceptionally things that human being carry out to acquire aid have the right to lead to a crucifixion in the public arena. There"s the famed instance of Thomas Eagleton, who was compelled off the 1972 presidential ticket as soon as it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression. What"s fascinating around the Eagleton affair—you view this analysis the coverage at the time—was that the mental trouble didn"t really sink him; what sunk him was that he"d obtained electroshock therapy. That freaked world out. No matter that electroshock at the moment was a leading treatment, exceptionally commonly used for all kinds of instances. This is the blended message, and it"s incredibly confmaking use of, all the more so today. On the one hand the surgeon general of the United States states, "Suicide and depression are big troubles, and also if you have these troubles you need to look for help." Yet, as soon as President Clinton was reeling over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his spokesmale refused to think about that the president would ever before obtain any kind of type of counseling. It would have actually been politically damaging even to acexpertise that he thought about it.

What are you reasoning will be following for you? You have actually been functioning on this for salso years and it seems prefer a subject that is incredibly close to your heart and has actually offered you many toughness. So it should be difficult to contemplate the project"s coming to an finish.

It"s been so hard to write and at the very same time it"s been tough to let go. It"s favor an old frifinish who"s a pain in the ass yet is reliably tbelow. I have lots of concepts about what"s following. I"ve been working on my own for a long time, so I"d like to work-related through human being. I"ve been working in what"s been a pretty standard literary create, and I"d favor to try something very various. My financial life has been simply entirely screwy, and also so it would certainly be nice to earn a regular earnings. I don"t recognize if I deserve to execute all these things, however they"re all on the table. In terms of subjects, I invested so long staring at the absences and also pain and suffering of life, which I think is really crucial. I really essential to shine light on that for myself and also for others, also. But currently I"m exceptionally mindful of needing to go to the other side and also look at life from the suggest of check out of health and wellness 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 also experiencing one"s topic. It has actually been a difficulty, and in many kind of means it"s a relief to be able to set that aside.

One even more point I want to ask you around is a quote from the afterword which really struck me. You shelp, "To some level, it"s an inherent flaw of biography that in order to wrestle a figure on to the page, 3 dimensions acquire turned right into 2." And I"m wondering if by concentrating on Lincoln"s melancholy you were, in a feeling, trying to add that measurement back in?

I"m trying to make it as live and also genuine as feasible, however I also intfinish that as a self-criticism of my own endeavor. I"m very humble about what I understand around this character, who is just one of the excellent elusive, enigmatic, and mysterious personalities of all time, one that continues to be essentially past our master. So both in a big feeling and also a little feeling there"s a good deal that I don"t understand. To make the story occupational, I focused on what I learned—what I"m confident around. But it"s like I"m walking in the great woods via a huge torch. I can shine the light on a path, and also lead a means with. And by walking about tright here for years, I gain to know the terrain, and get a sense of the landscape. But there"s still a large civilization about me that"s in the dark.

Writing around a man"s character, his inner life, just renders the woods bigger. And it renders me more mindful of my constraints. So even though this is a book around feeling, it is developed on a skeleton of observation and also empirical phenomenon. I"m never beginning via, "Lincoln felt this or Lincoln wanted that." I"m always beginning through, "Lincoln said this or someone else observed that." I"m trying to usage their language, set out the facts, and also follow wbelow they lead. As a historian, if you understand that Lincoln acquired up and walked across the room, it"s tempting to compose a passage that claims, Lincoln was feeling anxious to gain to the other side of the room. But we don"t know just how he was feeling. All we know is that he stood up and walked. A lot of histories, because they are about exterior occasions, have actually totally free array to imagine just how people think and feel. But exactly bereason I was examining psychology, I was really mindful about being restrained. Eincredibly time I made any type of type of presumption I was conscious of it.

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I think that, if you"re careful around finding what"s true, and sticking to it, readers deserve to carry their own lives to the text. The story deserve to take on all kinds of brand-new shadings and also definitions in people"s minds. One of the good points around Lincoln is that we all have him in common—all ages and also races and also ethnic backgrounds and also nationalities. To me that"s really practical, especially once it pertains to depression. Depression is isolating by its nature. I began to job-related on this story because I desperately wanted call with civilization that had actually gone with some version of what I was going with. That longing for call is innate to the endure of depression, and also I hope that the book have the right to assist people make contact. Not just via Lincoln and his story, but also with world approximately them that they may struggle to connect with. It could be that someone is experiencing intensely from depression and has no genuine means of expressing it to a parent or a lover. It may be that a caretaker is deeply involved for a depressed frifinish, however battles to imagine their suffer. I would hope that, via Lincoln"s story, they both have the right to find things that interemainder them and also at leastern begin to talk. That was all the even more reason to be restrained in the conclusions that I came to and in the existence that I made for myself in the narrative. I wanted to capture the global facet so that this deserve to be a springboard for conversation, a start fairly than an end.