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Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

4.06  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,550 Ratings  ·  307 Reviews
Drawing on seven years of his own research and the work of other esteemed Lincoln scholars, Shenk reveals how the sixteenth president harnessed his depression to fuel his astonishing success.
Lincoln found the solace and tactics he needed to deal with the nation’s worst crisis in the “coping strategies” he had developed over a lifetime of persevering through depressive epis
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published September 27th 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (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
Jun 07, 2016 Darwin8u rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
"Don't you find", he said, "judging from his picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow?"
- A young Circassian rider to Leo Tolstoy, when presented with a photograph of Abraham Lincoln (originally told by Leo Tolstoy toe the New York World shortly before Tolstoy died


"Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!"
- Eugene O'Neill

Abraham Lincoln has reached one of those levels of recognition and reverence that is typically reserved f
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
Jul 19, 2012 Gloria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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
Dec 21, 2013 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 01, 2008 Carter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 16, 2007 Jen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 19, 2009 Sherri Person rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Hope Baugh
Feb 10, 2009 Hope Baugh rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 18, 2011 Nikki rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 02, 2008 Danya rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Marti Garlett
Apr 07, 2013 Marti Garlett rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 16, 2013 Corey Preston rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 26, 2016 Mitchell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a solid read. The book's premise is that Mr. Lincoln suffered from melancholy. Today, many would consider his suffering as clinical chronic depression. I think the book does speculate a lot, as it is impossible to really know how severe it was. However, based on writings of Lincoln himself and his contemporaries, it is highly likely he did suffer from depression at times. At one point early in his career, Lincoln does contemplate suicide, and he may have published a poem anonymously abou ...more
Heather Crabill
May 24, 2010 Heather Crabill rated it it was amazing  ·  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
Oct 25, 2011 Paul rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 11, 2007 Jason rated it really liked it  ·  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
Tom Swift
I have been reading a lot about Lincoln lately. "My Friend Mr. Lincoln" was a kind of historical novel about Abe, was very good. This is more of an historical read, a take on Lincoln's long history of depression and suicidal thoughts. Quite interesting how mental illness was diagnosed and treated during this time period. Good read for Lincoln readers.
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 did not know the depths of President Lincoln's depression. To have moved through life, living with bouts of melancholy that carried him to the edge of the abyss, only to face the directing and lifting a nation through one of it's worst periods in American history, shows the true strength and determination of this great leader. Never are the words of Friedrich Nietzche, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger", more true than when looking at Abraham Lincoln.

This is a very good book to r
Jan 22, 2015 Kent rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Highly recommended. The author writes "...Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted for as an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is not a story of transformation but one of integration..." (p156). Lincoln suffered lifelong depression, even contemplating suicide during two separate complete mental breakdowns; he also endured the death of his mother, sister, and two sons; complete estrange ...more
Jan 12, 2013 KC rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 15, 2009 Jennifer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 24, 2013 Shelley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
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
Jul 26, 2013 Richard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 09, 2012 Carin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Erik K
Mar 24, 2012 Erik K rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 18, 2012 Krista Ashe rated it really liked it
Shelves: my-112-of-2012
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
Jim Hale
Jan 16, 2014 Jim Hale rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography-memoir
My favorite Lincoln book. This is a carefully and excellently written book that offers a unique perspective of the real man, and accomplishes that feat better than most biographies. Lincoln's battle with depression was lifelong and he considered suicide long before he became a well known public figure. Wolf Shenk is a psychologist who knows how to write for a general audience, and much of what he shares could serve to help others who struggle with depression. It also worth noting that Wolf Shenk ...more
Feb 27, 2013 Marisa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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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
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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.” 20 likes
“Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic,” 3 likes
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