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Lincoln's Melancholy

"An extraordinary story, for the depth of its scholarship and the lure of its style . . . It was an incredible mountain [Lincoln] had to climb, as this book so vividly shows, and it's inspiring to see the heights he was able to reach." — Mike Wallace, CBS News

"A profoundly human and psychologically important examination of the melancholy that so pervaded Lincoln's life. His suffering and his transformation of that suffering into an astonishing grace and strength are persuasively and beautifully described in this remarkable book." — Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D.

"Lincoln not only coped with his depression, he harnessed it. Explaining how is critical to understanding both him and human greatness. Shenk does so masterfully and memorably." — Walter Isaacson

"A significant contribution to the study of Lincoln and his battle with depression that will resonate with contemporary Americans . . . An inspirational tale of how suffering bred a visionary of hard-won vision." — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

About the Book

In Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk accomplishes two goals. First, he examines Lincoln's life, from birth to death, through the lens of our great president's depression; second, he shows us how Lincoln's experience sheds new light on the overall subject of depression. Starting at an early age, Lincoln devised coping methods in his personal life that he would effectively apply to his presidency as he led our nation through the grim period of the Civil War.

Shenk's interest in the subject came from a mix of personal experience with depression and a belief in the power of true stories about others. His idea for a book on Lincoln's depression grew from a piece he had read about historical figures and possible suicide. He found the section about Abraham Lincoln "absolutely shocking, exciting, vexing, and inspiring."

In his introduction, Shenk describes Lincoln's reaction when he was nominated for the presidency at the Republican convention in 1860. "The crowd went wild. Delegates and onlookers threw hats, books, and canes into the air . . . [Yet] Lincoln presented a strange figure. He didn't seem euphoric, or triumphant, or even pleased." At the end of the convention, Lincoln was observed sitting alone at the back of the hall. His head was bowed, his gangly arms were bent at the elbows, his hands were pressed to his face. He said to a political colleague, "I'm not very well."

Lincoln's Melancholy is the result of a long effort by Joshua Shenk to establish credible reports of how Lincoln lived, what he felt, and how he grew. From a young age, Lincoln experienced psychological pain and distress, to the point that he believed himself temperamentally inclined to suffer to an unusual degree. He learned how to articulate his suffering, find succor, endure, and adapt. He accepted and forged meaning from his affliction so that it became not merely an obstacle to overcome but a factor in his extraordinarily powerful life.

Shenk organized his book into three sections. In part one, he establishes that Lincoln did suffer from what is now called clinical depression, by showing how melancholy (as depression was called then) manifested itself in Lincoln's early life and young manhood, and how it fits — and challenges — the diagnostic categories of modern psychiatry.

In part two, we learn about the medical treatments Lincoln tried, what he did in response to his melancholy, and the strategies he used to help himself. Shenk chronicles both of Lincoln's mental breakdowns, first in 1835 and again in 1840–41, when he was diagnosed with hypochondriasis, a form of partial insanity. Here we also learn of the widespread fear among his acquaintances that this condition might become full-blown.

In the final section of the book, Shenk addresses how Lincoln's depression came to contribute to his work as a public figure, and how he used the tools forged during his depression to understand and work through the nation's greatest crisis.

Lincoln's Melancholy is the story of a man who combined great pain with great power. From his early letters lamenting the "peculiar misfortune" of his temperament, to the poetry he wrote on subjects such as suicide and madness, the success of Lincoln's life sprang from a search for meaning that explained, and even ennobled, his affliction. "As president," Shenk writes, "Lincoln urged his countrymen to accept their blessing and their burden, to see that their suffering has meaning, and to join him on a journey toward a more perfect union."

About the Author

Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist and independent scholar based in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, the Economist, and other publications, and in the national bestseller Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. A contributing editor to the Washington Monthly and a faculty member at New School University, Shenk has received fellowships from the Carter Center's mental health program and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. He serves on the advisory council for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and has consulted on Lincoln for Time's "Making of America" series and the History Channel's forthcoming film The Other Side of Abraham Lincoln.


Part One

February 12, 1809
Abraham Lincoln is born in Kentucky.

December 1816
The Lincoln family moves to southern Indiana.

November 5, 1818
Nancy Lincoln, Abraham's mother, dies of the "milk sick."

January 20, 1828
Sarah Lincoln, Abraham's sister, dies in childbirth. (His brother Thomas had also died, shortly after birth, when Abraham was two years old.)

Striking out on his own, Lincoln settles in the village of New Salem, Illinois. He is twenty-two years old. He later describes himself at this time as a "strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flat boat — at ten dollars per month."

March 9, 1832
Lincoln declares his candidacy for the Illinois General Assembly. He fails in this election, but wins a seat on his second try, in 1834.

August–September 1835
At the age of twenty-six, Lincoln has the first of two severe breakdowns. "He seemed quite changed," a friend reported. "He seemed Retired, & loved Solitude, he seemed wrapped in profound thought, indifferent, to transpiring Events . . . This gloom seemed to deepen for some time, so as to give anxiety to his friends in regard to his Mind." Lincoln's depression so alarms his friends that they watch over him to make sure he doesn't kill himself.

March 3, 1837
In his first known statement on slavery, Lincoln declares that "the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils."

August 25, 1838
The Sangamo Journal carries an unsigned poem titled "The Suicide's Soliloquy," which is now believed to have been written by Lincoln. Written in the form of a suicide note, the poem describes the narrator's distress — and his fateful decision.

Yes! I've resolved the deed to do,
   And this the place to do it:
This heart I'll rush a dagger through
   Though I in hell should rue it!

December–January 1841
Beset by intense professional, political, and social stress, Lincoln breaks down for the second time. Once again, his friends are so alarmed for his safety that they watch over him to make sure he doesn't take his own life. "Lincoln went Crazy," said his friend Joshua Speed, "had to remove razors from his room — take away all Knives and other such dangerous things — it was terrible." In January, Lincoln misses legislative sessions and spends about a week in medical treatment for what he calls "hypochondriaism."

January 23, 1841
Lincoln writes, "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 can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."

Part Two

January–October 1842
Lincoln writes a series of letters to his friend Joshua Speed, in which he lays bare his ideas about the origin of human suffering and the ways that he and his friend — who both have what Lincoln calls a "nervous temperament" — can endure and cope with their mental pain. Melancholy, Lincoln writes, "is a misfortune not a fault."

November 4, 1842
After several years of painful indecision, Lincoln weds Mary Todd in a small ceremony. In twenty-two years of marriage, they will have four boys: Robert Todd (Bob), Edward Baker (Eddie), William Wallace (Willie), and Thomas (Tad).

After great effort, Lincoln wins a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. At thirty-seven, he will serve in the same Congress with such dearly respected elders as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. In his only extant personal reaction to the victory, he writes that he is "grateful" for the office, but that it "has not pleased me as much as I expected." Around the same time, he writes and publishes two long stanzas of melancholy poetry, reflecting on death and madness.

Serving as law clerk for Lincoln, Gibson Harris notices Lincoln fall into his "blue spells," in which his face "wore a sad, or more correctly a far-away, expression, that made one long to wake him up, as it were, and bring him back to his accustomed geniality and winning smile." Harris doesn't consider the spells to be very serious. "It took me no great time," he writes, "to learn that a very slight thing would break up his brooding." This brooding — the silent, penetrating mood of melancholy and the look that came with it — would become more intense over time.

April 16, 1848
From Washington, Representative Lincoln writes his wife: "In this troublesome world, we are never quite satisfied. When you were here I thought you hindered me some in attending to business; but now, having nothing but business — no variety — it has grown exceedingly tasteless to me. I hate to sit down and direct documents, and I hate to stay in this old room by myself."

With a dissatisfying and politically undistinguished term in Congress behind him, and refused a patronage office, Lincoln removes himself from politics. He explains later that he was "disgusted" and that he'd made up his mind to "retire" and practice law.

February 1, 1850
Three-year-old Eddie Lincoln dies, probably of pulmonary tuberculosis.

January 12, 1851
Hearing that his father, Thomas, is sick and dying, Lincoln refuses his request for a visit. "Say to him," he writes his stepbrother, "that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant." Tom Lincoln dies five days later.

Part Three

"Thunderstruck and stunned" by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act — which allows slavery to spread into areas once guaranteed free — Lincoln begins to campaign against the extension of slavery, a movement that leads to the formation of the Republican Party.

February 8, 1855
After a long, energetic campaign, Lincoln is defeated for a U.S. Senate seat. "I never saw him so dejected," says a friend. "He said the fates seemed to be against him and he thought he would never strive for office again." But Lincoln continues to fight against the extension of slavery.

June 16, 1858
The Illinois Republican Party endorses Lincoln as their sole choice for the Senate, sending him into a campaign against the "Little Giant," Stephen Douglas. Accepting the charge, Lincoln delivers his "House Divided" speech, declaring that "this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." In the summer and fall, Lincoln meets Douglas for seven debates.

January 1859
Defeated in the election, Lincoln tells a colleague that his life has been a failure. "I never saw any man so radically and thoroughly depressed," the colleague later writes, "so completely steeped in the bitter waters of hopeless despair." Still, Lincoln's main message is defiance: "The fight must go on," he writes. "The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even one hundred, defeats."

February 27, 1860
Lincoln dazzles a packed crowd at the Cooper Union in New York City, delivering a speech that a leading newspaper calls "one of the happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this city." The speech sets Lincoln up for a shot at the Republican presidential nomination in May. Yet Lincoln, diffident and self-effacing before the speech, afterward seems to a young admirer to be modest, conscious of his defects, and "a sad and lonely man."

November 6, 1860
After a surprise nomination, and an extraordinary four-way race in the general election, Lincoln is elected president of the United States.

February 11, 1861
Lincoln departs Springfield, Illinois, for Washington, telling his townspeople, "No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this parting. To this place, and to the kindness of these people, I owe every thing . . . I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington."

April 14, 1861
In South Carolina, which was the first state to secede after Lincoln's election, militiamen fire on the federal installation at Fort Sumter. Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteer soldiers. The Civil War has begun.

May 24, 1861
Elmer Ellsworth, a young man Lincoln knew from Illinois, becomes the first celebrated casualty of the war. Hearing the news, Lincoln weeps and declares, "I will make no apology . . . for my weakness." A reporter writes that he is "not a little moved at such an unusual spectacle, in such a man and in such a place."

December 3, 1861
In his first annual message to Congress, Lincoln urges, "The struggle of today, is not altogether for today — it is, for a vast future also."

February 20, 1862
Willie Lincoln, the Lincolns' third son, dies at the age of twelve from what doctors called bilious fever — probably typhoid. His father is grief-stricken — but it is no reactive or temporary sadness. A journalist notes the president's "look of depression . . . which, I am told by those who see him daily, was habitual to him, even before the then recent death of his child, whose loss he felt acutely. You cannot look upon his worn, bilious, anxious countenance, and believe it to be that of a happy man."

July 15, 1862
After a military calamity, Senator O. H. Browning finds Lincoln in his library, looking "weary, care-worn, and troubled." He writes in his diary, "I remarked that I felt concerned about him — regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering." Lincoln took Browning's hand and said, with a deep cadence of sadness, "I must die sometime."

Winter 1862
Preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln reflects back on the winter of 1840–1841, when he was so depressed that he came close to killing himself. At the time, Lincoln said he wanted to live to do some work of lasting significance. Now, he says, "I believe in this measure my fondest hopes will be realized."

November 19, 1863
Lincoln dedicates a graveyard over the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

August 23, 1864
"This morning," Lincoln writes, "as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards." Lincoln lays plans, in the event of his loss, to encourage slaves to flee across Union lines to freedom while they have the chance.

September 1864
The tide of the war turns when General William Tecumseh Sherman captures Atlanta. Lincoln goes on to win a second presidential term.

March 4, 1865
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln steers straight into the storm that has long engaged his attention: the role of God in the Civil War. With both sides claiming God's favor, he argues, one must be wrong, and both might be wrong. When the fighting began, he says, "neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding."

April 14, 1865
On his last day alive, Lincoln tells his cabinet about a recurring dream he'd had the night before. In it, he was floating away on some vast and indistinct expanse toward an unknown shore. He said the strange thing about the dream was that it was usually followed by a great omen.

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