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

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  3,003 Ratings  ·  335 Reviews

A thoughtful, nuanced portrait of Abraham Lincoln that finds his legendary political strengths rooted in his most personal struggles.


Giving shape to the deep depression that pervaded Lincoln's adult life, Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy reveals how this illness influenced both the president's character and his leadership. Lincoln forged a hard path toward m

Paperback, 368 pages
Published October 2nd 2006 by Mariner Books (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
Pouting Always
Feb 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book and getting to know more about Lincoln because I never knew how humorous and kind he was. It's hard when learning history in school to see people who lived before you as being human too and I really enjoy these biographies for humanizing people for me. I think the author did a good job in presenting the different opinions people had on events in Lincoln's life we aren't completely sure about. I really adore Lincoln now and I really enjoyed that anecdote about him being ...more
Jun 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Mar 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Sherri Person
Sep 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 16, 2007 rated it liked it
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.
Hope Baugh
Feb 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 22, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Public library copy. Written in 2005. I like the style of writing, somewhere between historical, psychological and personal opinion. Readable style.

About halfway through (not a long book). Not impressed with Mr. Lincoln, sadly. We would all do well to learn about the folks we think of as heroes. Basically, it's not because of the melancholy, but his godless world view, though he refers to God often. His view of God is not personal.

The author weaves faith and intellect and melancholy giving a ho
Marti Garlett
Apr 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Heather Crabill
May 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who wants to have a fresh perspective of Lincoln
Shelves: biography
"For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. 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." - Abe Lincoln, Jany. 23rd. 1841- Springfield, Ills.
Most of us, someday, have felt, feel
Feb 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
As a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, I leave each book I read about him thinking that surely this must be the limits of our knowledge about him. Yet I find myself always pleasantly disappointed to find that there is always someone willing to look at the great man from a different angle. Such is Joshua Shenk's book about Lincoln's battles with depression.
He documents two specific and major psychological breakdowns that while incapacitating for a short period of time (reading Lincoln's corresponden
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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
Literary Chic
Dec 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: civil-war
Fantastic book! It was very uplifting, especially for a book about depression. The author focused on how Lincoln dealt with his "melancholy" as he called it.

It was a great biography from a different perspective. Since it's premise was that Lincoln suffered from depression, it looked at his life through the scope of overcoming his illness. The author made his point very well in my opinion. I'd highly recommend reading it.
Tom Swift
Dec 24, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Jan 13, 2009 rated it liked it
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.
Nov 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
In the US, Abraham Lincoln is basically a saint. If he wasn't a political figure, I'm sure the he would have been officially made one. That isn't to say Lincoln was perfect. Oh, no. If you look into the lives of people declared saints, they go through a lot of suffering. And boy, did Lincoln suffer.

Now, I'd heard that when Lincoln was president, he suffered from depression. I always figured, no kidding, considering his son died and the country he was supposed to be president of was in the middle
Nov 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Riva Sciuto
Feb 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bios-memoirs
While Lincoln's melancholic disposition is widely known, this biography reveals a man for whom depression was a lifelong battle. From an adolescence marked by suicidal thoughts to a presidency tormented by loss, Lincoln never had a reprieve from his sorrow.

But what I love most about Wolf Shenk's biography is how beautifully he describes Lincoln's ability to surmount his suffering. To turn it into greatness. To feel more deeply and lead more empathetically. Wolf Shenk writes: "The burden was a s
Mar 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Richard Greene
Jul 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
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
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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...

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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.” 22 likes
“Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic,” 6 likes
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