Lincoln's Melancholy
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Lincoln's Melancholy

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  1,764 ratings  ·  252 reviews
"This is one of the most original, important Lincoln works of the young century -- certain to provoke discussion and appreciation alike and add a crucial new layer to the Lincoln story."-- Harold Holzer, co-chairman, U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
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Published April 1st 2007 by HighBridge Audio (first published September 22nd 2005)
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I am starting this review with two caveats. First, this book is engagingly written, and Joshua Wolf Shenk has done his research. In spite of this, I don't think it's a good first book for anyone to read on Lincoln, because much of Shenk's focus is on revisionist history. Although he does a laudable job providing brief overviews of some of the historiography on Lincoln, many readers will get more from this if they have a more detailed understanding of major events in Lincoln's life.

Second, as a...more
I just don't know what to make of this book. It's interesting and filled with all sorts of delectable detail, but as far as the major premise goes, I remain skeptical. The author's assumption is that because melancholy and depression change your focus on how you see the world and because Lincoln suffered from what seems to be perpetual gloom, that this enabled him to become the great man he became, moving through stages of fear and on to insight and creativity. Well, maybe.I have to admit that m...more
I felt like I'd read ALL about Abraham Lincoln, especially when it came to his years in office as President.
After finishing this book, I feel like I now know LESS about him than I did before.

Shenk has done a remarkable and thorough job poring over vast collections of papers, letters, correspondence and previously published works in regard to a Lincoln we rarely see:

-The young Lincoln (passionate, somewhat volatile, and full of wicked wit and humor, but equally prone to "dark moods").
-The resigne...more
I recommended this book to my therapist. It is really intriguing to consider the cultural norm shift when applied to melancholy and depression, and also what it meant according to gender.
Sherri Person
Okay, where should I begin with this book? Yikes, and yowzers--I'm simply mad about Lincoln, like stalker kind of mad. After reading this book, had Lincoln been alive, he would most definitely have to hide from me, because I just fell in love with him even more.

Keep in mind I read this about three years ago, so I'm a bit rusty with details, but what I remember most about this great read is the display of Lincoln's character. WolfShenk wrote about Lincoln being a common man, and he was. Lincoln...more
I loved this book. I learned a great deal about Lincoln. I learned a great deal about myself. I knew, from previous biographies that I've read about Lincoln, that he had a 'melancholy disposition', but never realized until this book that it was full on depression. At one point he was put on suicide watch by his friends. Shenk explains how earlier accounts of Lincoln purposely ignored this aspect of Lincoln, primarily because it was not 'in vogue' to discuss mental illness. Lincoln overcame his i...more
I will note at the beginning that I am very glad that someone has written a book that treats this subject as thoroughly as Shenk has treated it. It seems likely that Shenk has established depression as an element of Lincoln's biography that the industry can no longer ignore. I think also that the subject can be treated much more effectively than Shenk has managed.

Allow me to offer two personal disclosures (pd's) at this point. First, I have not ventured into the domain of Lincoln biography apart...more
This book succeeds very well at applying modern sensibilities toward mental illness to an otherwise well-covered topic. It's at its best when it compares the ways Lincoln's peers viewed his melancholia vs. the ways we tend to view depression today. I was floored to learn that people in the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution turned non-stop back-breaking labor into a national virtue, were actually *more* accepting of depressive traits than we are now. In fact, Lincoln's contemporaries...more
Hope Baugh
I keep suggesting this very readable nonfiction book to people – both privately to individuals and publicly whenever I present my new storytelling program for adults about Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln were alive today, he would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression. More than once when he was a young man, his friends went on what we would today call a “suicide watch.” Lincoln himself stopped carrying a pocketknife because he was afraid he would do himself harm. He tried different treatme...more
Marti Garlett
Excellent treatise of the lifelong "melancholy" (as it was called at the time), one step away from the lunatic asylum in the 19th century, that consumed Abraham Lincoln almost all of his life. Anyone who has suffered or knows someone who has suffered from clinical depression (which is not the same thing as sadness, something that overcomes all of us from time to time) will find this helpful and insightful. This should not, however, be considered a biography of our arguably greatest president but...more
Corey Preston
Tremendous biography with a great mix of: (a) fascinating historical and psychological context for some of the most-trod Lincoln stories, (b) some fascinating less-known nuggets, (c) very strong, surprisingly propulsive writing, and (d) a good sense of how to ground this particular element of Lincoln's story in modern times, without beating you over the head with it.
Best of all, Mr. Shenk builds a compelling thesis, and allows it to guide him, but he never lets the thesis overtake the rest of th...more
If you suffer from a mood disorder you will find great solice here. To know of one who accomplished such great things while suffering from great things, gives hope.
Heather Crabill
May 24, 2010 Heather Crabill rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anybody with an interest in the American Civil War and psychology
"Lincoln's Melancholy" gives the reader a rare glimpse into the inner world of one of the greatest men who has ever lived. Joshua Shenk delves very deeply into Lincoln's formative years, and how Lincoln's depressive disorder (referred to as "melancholy" in the 19th century) fueled his greatness as America's Civil War president.

It becomes clear while reading "Melancholy", that Lincoln's personal suffering, including his own battle with depression and suicidal ideation, the loss of three out of h...more
Apr 11, 2007 Jason rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Historians and melancholics
Shenk's book is an interesting biography of Lincoln, examining the possibility that Lincoln suffered from (what would be termed nowadays) unipolar depression. But, the book is much more -- it's also a social history of the US, looking at how the understanding and conception of depression, mental illness, and such have changed over the last century or so.

Shenk does an excellent job of staying close to the facts, and not wandering off into idle speculation, a flaw of many other "psycho-biographies...more
Bethany Royer
I had a difficult time reading this book. While the subject was extremely interesting the storyline jumped around too much. As if the author suddenly remembered tidbits throughout and fearing that he'd forget them simply slapped the info wherever he happened to be writing at the time.
I discovered "Lincoln's Melancholy" when I came across an excerpted essay that was published in The Atlantic. I was immediately intrigued by the basic premise (a biography focusing on the way Lincoln's chronic depression was integrated with his personal and political life) and impressed by the essay, so I decided to see if Shenk could sustain that level of writing for an entire book. I was encouraged by the fact that the actual biography, without the historiographic essay, notes, and bibliograph...more
A mix of history and psychology, this book is a discussion of Lincoln as a figure who suffered from depression through his life. It's both a thoughtful exploration of Lincoln and an interesting discussion of depression in general, using Lincoln's life as an example. Raises interesting questions about religion, personality, and finding meaning in life. Shenk is generally very careful not to make unqualified statements and admits openly that there is much about Lincoln that we cannot ever be certa...more
The only time I ever saw both of my parents cry at the same time was when we visited the Petersen House where Lincoln died. I was about eleven. It was unnerving, but even growing up steeped in Civil War history, it was the first time I realized how much Lincoln meant, on a personal level, to people.

I was drawn to this book because I come from a family of depressives. Those who aren't on medication are self-medicating drunks. (A couple of them are both.) Somehow, some of us have managed to pull...more
Great book. I think it's changed my life. To see that someone as great as Abraham Lincoln suffered through depression is encouraging. I also wonder what hope there is for the rest of us. Does greatness always entail this kind of pain? I think Shenk does a good job of presenting letters from Lincoln and friends to support his claims: that Lincoln was a depressive and that his depression helped to make him the great President that he became. Shenk's book is not a biography however. If you are look...more
My wonderful boyfriend got this book for me for Christmas, after hearing about it on NPR. I was worried it would be terribly dry, but it was a pretty interesting, fast read.

Today, people who are depressed are told to "snap out of it!" or go to a doctor and get on drugs. In Lincoln's day, melancholy was looked at romantically, as a sign of deep thinking and deeper feeling. Many great poets came out of his era, frequently lauded for their melancholy, and Lincoln himself loved poetry and occasional...more
One of the most insightful books I have ever read, combining two of my favorite subjects: Abraham Lincoln and psychology. The book explores how Lincoln suffered his whole life from major depression, even coming to the point of suicide many times. Yet he worked through one bout after another, each time emerging with greater insight as to what his greater calling in life should be. He also learned to call upon a higher power to support him in his time of need. At times the book is almost despairin...more
Erik K
Joshua Wolf Shenk presents a side of Lincoln that is not often examined, investigating his long history of depression and exposing the differing attitudes towards depression held in our era and his. Shenk presents Lincoln's depression as an unexpected strength. I think the subtitle overstates the case a bit. It may be better to say just that it was not a weakness. It's hard to imagine a politician with Lincoln's personality becoming successful today, which is the most interesting aspect of the b...more
Krista Ashe
Really enjoyed this book. Not only did it detail the life of one my most admired Presidents, but it also highlighted how people with clinical depression can actually do wonderous things. Many people think clinical depressed people are lying around medicated when in truth, it is often the oppostite. They are pushed, or push themselves, to go above and beyond what "normal" people do.

I felt for Lincoln on how his earl melancoly could be traced to the passing of his mother. He was a sensitive sort...more
This book show us how depression or "melancholy" as it was known then, challenged a President and fueled is greatness. This is one of the few books I have ever read that shows that there is a positive side to depression and that it is possible to live with it and still be a productive human being. Most biographies take the point of view that an individual "was ill" and somehow overcame it to become an emotionally healthy person. Unfortunately mental illness is not like cancer. It can be treated...more
I really enjoyed this book and was surprised at how much I could identify with how Lincoln felt about life. I also learned a few tidbits on the psychology of depression, and it helped me to validate my own recent experiences and feelings. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to see Lincoln brought to life as a real person and not just some superhuman historical figure or to those who have similar mental issues and want to see an account of someone who went through something similar a...more
1837: America was a country with a depression of spirit and economy - too much land speculation.
2008: 100 million people suffer from depression, economy is in the dumps.
Eccl. 3:15 Whatever is has already been
What will be has been before.

Lincoln, a depressive genius. A man who faced his nightmare (depression) and used it as a source of strength for extraordinary accomplishments.
This book blew me away. It's a historically contextual view of Lincoln's documented life-long struggle with depression. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know one of my childhood heroes in a layered and realistic view. I related to the stark contrasts within his being and was able to find value in a mental "illness" for the first time. His strength will take your breath away.
This book is about exactly what its title would suggest, which is sort of the problem. After the first 100 pages you think to yourself, "Okay already, I get it. Lincoln was a sad guy. Check. Can we move on?" When he starts writing about Lincoln's election and the history of the country at that time, it gets heaps better. By the end it's a pretty decent read.
Honestly, I didn't finish this book. I thought I'd like reading about psychology. I've never seen the word "melancholy" used that frequently - and I don't think I ever want to again. I just wanted to learn about Lincoln's life, less about proving he was depressed. Bah.

Summary: totally not my fault that I gave up on this book.
Insightful read into Lincoln's life and how depression affected him. I found really interesting how the melancholic temperament was so widely accepted. Plus, there just aren't enough accounts of this style type of chronic depression (dysthymia) out there. Would recommend to anyone interested in mental health and/or politics.
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Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist and the director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times, among others, and in the national bestseller Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, edited by Nell Casey. He is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President...more
More about Joshua Wolf Shenk...
In Lincoln's Hand: His Original Manuscripts with Commentary by Distinguished Americans Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative Dating - Philosophy for Everyone: Flirting with Big Ideas

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“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 potential catalyst of emotional growth. "What man actually needs," the psychiatrist Victor Frankl argued,"is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling of 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. This doesn't mean his suffering went away. In fact, as his life became richer and more satisfying, his melancholy exerted a stronger pull. He now responded to that pull by tying it to his newly defined sense of purpose. From a place of trouble, he looked for meaning. He looked at imperfection and sought redemption.” 16 likes
“Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic,” 2 likes
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