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Lincoln's Melancholy

A Conversation with Joshua Wolf Shenk

How did you get the idea for this book?

I was looking for a topic in mental illness, something I could dig into for a long magazine piece or a book. I was also struggling with depression myself. So I was doing some reading that doubled as research and personal exploration. One night I came home and flopped down on my bed with a book — a literary anthology of writings on suicide. There was an essay in it by Howard Kushner — an excerpt, actually, from a book of his called Self-Destruction in the Promised Land. The piece talks about two historical figures: Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), who almost certainly killed himself, and Abraham Lincoln, who came close but never did. This was the first I'd ever heard of Lincoln's depression. I found it amazing. It was instantly recognizable but also totally mysterious. I had all kinds of questions, and the biggest one was how come I hadn't heard of this before. I went around to Lincoln scholars and asked, Has there ever been a book on Lincoln's melancholy? It turned out there hadn't been.

What did you hope to learn from his depression?

I had two goals for this book. I wanted to see what we could learn about Lincoln by looking at him through the lens of his depression. I also wanted to see what we could learn about this thing we call depression by looking at it through the lens of Lincoln's story.

Did Lincoln have clinical depression?

Yes, in the sense that modern clinicians who look at the facts of his case say — as they've said to me — If this guy showed up in my waiting room and gave me this history, I'd want to treat him. Also, Lincoln meets the criteria for major depression and for major depressive disorder. This is a guy who had two major breakdowns as a young man. In both instances, he was talking about killing himself — and his friends took him seriously enough that they took active measures to keep him safe. But I believe that diagnosis is the beginning, not the end, of the story. It's a way for us to see how troubled Lincoln was, but then we have to ask: How did he conceptualize his suffering? What language did he use? And, of course, what did he do about it?

It seems as if the topic of Lincoln's depression would be awfully hard to research. How did you go about it?

The first and most important project was to gather all the significant primary evidence on Lincoln's depression. That means everything he said — and everything that anyone who knew him said — about his temperament, his moods, his breakdowns, his philosophy, his coping strategies, and so on. I spent three or four years in libraries, going through card catalogues, combing archive boxes, and filling suitcases with books and photocopies to take home. Everybody who knew Lincoln well had something to say about his depression. So a lot of the work was reading these reminiscences and memoirs with an eye out for this kind of material.

Then I put everything I found on a timeline. (This was pretty straightforward for things like dated letters, but a bit trickier for reminiscences, where I had to ask. How and when did this person know Lincoln? What part of Lincoln's life is this referring to?) When I plotted it out, I could see the movement of his melancholy against the movement of the rest of his life, and I started to grasp the outline of a story. The big picture is that, over his whole life, we can see, first, when Lincoln initially recognized and articulated his mental trouble; second, that he found ways to survive it, deal with it, and sometimes distract himself from it; and finally that he found ways to make his temperament and his moods work for him.

From there, I chased down all kinds of material to help me really understand the story and how to tell it. I had to get to know all the characters in Lincoln's life, like his friend Joshua Speed, his disastrous love interest Matilda Edwards, and his doctor Anson Henry. I had to get to know the psychology of the time, which meant studying nineteenth-century medicine, religion, philosophy, popular culture, and so on. And I was also reading today's literature, trying to understand topics like humor and its relationship to depression, the nature of suicidal thinking, the relationship between depression and creativity, and so on.

How did Lincoln's depression fuel his greatness?

First, in dealing with his depression head-on — addressing it, staring it in the eye, grappling with it, and getting hold of it within himself — Lincoln did work that turned out to be enormously character-building and valuable to him. In one sense, the "muscles" he developed over a lifetime of suffering prepared him for the challenges that he faced in his presidency.

Second, he had a tendency to look upon the dark truths of a situation, and he drew on this powerfully in his rhetoric and his actions. Experiments have shown that people who suffer from depression also exhibit something called "depressive realism," and this applies to Lincoln.

Finally, the depths of emotion that he explored as a result of his depression contributed to a deep creative capacity as a writer and thinker. In his first inaugural address, he stated that the divided nation would be healed when touched by "the better angels of our nature." He didn't say that the worse angels would be killed or that they would go away. To the contrary, the image suggests that people and nations are multifaceted, capable of better and prone to worse, and locked in a struggle. It's a justifiably famous phrase, and it reaches deep into the psyche, because it reflects an experience that every human being knows intuitively, one of conflict and harmony, suffering and reward. These were ideas that Lincoln lived and struggled with for much of his life.

What do you say to the idea that in romanticizing depression and claiming it fuels greatness we end up belittling how serious a disease it is and discouraging people from getting the treatment they need?

I don't think I'm romanticizing depression. Lincoln suffered terribly, and it never went away. If anything, his life got harder as it went on. If people want to look to his life for instruction, they'll see that the first response to depression is to confess it, articulate it, ask for help for it. By the time he was thirty-three, Lincoln understood that he had a "nervous debility," that he was going to suffer more than other people, and that he was going to have to find help for it and live with what couldn't be helped. It was part of who he was. And by working extremely hard and dedicating himself to some purpose that transcended his own meager life, he did go on to do great work.

I think there is a much broader discussion here, and perhaps Lincoln's story can contribute to it. A lot of people think that suffering is just a problem that we haven't quite "beaten" yet. But my experience and my interests point me in another direction. Also, while I think a lot of discussions about depression are hypothetical, I'm looking at the real stories of how a real person lived. Lincoln did suffer. And he was great. And I am telling a story about how there is a relationship between those things.

Was Lincoln a homosexual, and did that contribute to his depression?

We have no idea if he ever had sexual contact with another man. It's true that he often shared beds with men, which was about as common in his time as it is for men today to share apartments. The argument for his being gay is just a pile of assumptions. The amazing reception this thesis has gotten is perhaps an indication of how hungry people are to see Lincoln as a real human being. I certainly have that desire. And I've tried to understand the things he did and said by studying the world around him. For example, the whole "Lincoln is gay" business starts with Joshua Speed. This was the young man with whom Lincoln shared a bed when he was in his late twenties and early thirties. I've studied this relationship closely, because it was a huge factor in Lincoln's life at a time when he was just coming out, so to speak, as a depressed man. My sense is that Lincoln did love Speed, and that this was very much in the pattern of "romantic friendships" between young men of the time, which were in no way incompatible with ordinary, and in modern terms heterosexual, manhood. It's also interesting that the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy is bound up with issues of gender identity. There was a way in which melancholy was the outlet for men to express their "feminine" side. But this wasn't seen as an aberration, nor was it all taboo. To the contrary, there was a strong sense that melancholy men would end up being more powerful — more "manly" — than those of other temperaments.

Wasn't his wife also mentally ill?

Probably. I talk about Mary Lincoln in the book, but only insofar as her life intersected with and influenced her husband's. So I don't pretend to tell her story or get to the bottom of her suffering. She really deserves her own study, because she and Lincoln lived very different lives, and women faced a whole other burden when it came to living well in the face of suffering. That said, it's hard to escape the conclusion that she had what we now call manic depression. She comes up in the story a few times. First, she played a large role in Lincoln's second breakdown, around the "fatal first" of January 1841. After their marriage, her tendency to express what were then called "passions" seems to have helped push Lincoln in the opposite way, toward dispassion and control. And in the White House years, she again provides a kind of counterexample. She is a sad story and a pretty elusive character. I wish I could understand her better. But to say that Lincoln was depressed because his wife was a nut, that's pretty silly. He had a suicidal breakdown years before he ever knew that Mary Todd existed.

What was it like spending seven years with this story?

It was hard work. On my first trip to Springfield, Illinois, I was mugged outside Lincoln's home, and that is an apt symbol of what it was like to try to get into Lincoln's world. It was humbling. But one of the most valuable lessons of Lincoln's life is that humility and determination can make a very powerful combination. I've learned a lot from his example. I'm inspired by how hard he worked and by his abiding faith. The movement of his story is a helpful way of looking at how to deal with trouble — first, recognizing it and articulating it; second, dealing with it and enduring it; third, finding some meaning in it. And, as much as possible, keep laughing.

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