Erik K's Reviews > Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk
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Mar 24, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: american-history

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.

It has been a common reaction to this book to wonder if Lincoln would have found success as a politician today. Some believe the importance of mass communication in our culture may place an unwarranted premium on gregarious, cheerful personality types while discounting the more introspective Lincolns of the world. It's also possible that the traits we as a culture value in leaders have changed (what was "stoic" in the 19th century is "reserved" today).

But the fact is, Abraham Lincoln was a brilliant politician and lawyer, with renowned public speaking skills, depressed or not. Could he be president today? Who cares? If I were in trouble, and I had to choose whether to have the facts on my side, the law on my side, or to have Abraham Lincoln as my lawyer, I would choose the last.

In any case, this is a fascinating comparison of how our views of mental health issues have changed over time, and not always for the better. Lincoln would be seen as sick today, and maybe he could have been saved from some level of suffering if he had had access to modern medicine. But the fact he embraced his condition, even if it was because he had no other choice, and that he was not stigmatized for it: that is the story here.
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