The Bipolar Disorder That Made America the Most Successful Nation in the World
Email this review


Shhh. The fellow in the next cubicle, the one with all the big ideas who never sleeps, may be a loon.

Or, psychiatrist Gartner (Johns Hopkins Univ.) suggests, he may be a not-quite-manic visionary with the power—or at least the will—to change the world. Gartner works the edges of manic-depressive disorder to explore a lesser-known syndrome: hypomania, “a mild form of mania, often found in the relatives of manic depressives.” Hypomanics are full of ideas, energy, and sometimes insufferable self-confidence; they make decisions quickly, seldom look back, and generally view those who don’t get them as enemies or, at best, mere hindrances. They’re not mentally ill, but they’re close. So far, so good, but then Gartner wanders onto shaky historical ground. Christopher Columbus, he writes in a short chapter, “the archetype of the American entrepreneur,” may have been hypomanic. The evidence? Well, Columbus heard voices, and though he was a genius as a navigator and inspirer of action, he was a poor administrator and communicator who was eventually stripped of title and power—classic stuff. One need not be on the verge of mental illness to make grand claims, of course, and anyone who’s read Columbus’s memoirs knows that he knew how to work a crowd already inclined to be mystical. Neither does one need to be mad in order to make powerful enemies, as Alexander Hamilton, another of Gartner’s exemplars, did. And it may have been just plain old-fashioned monomania that made Andrew Carnegie incapable of understanding why workers were miffed that he was cutting their wages while building palatial libraries on their behalf. Gartner is on surer ground when he discusses more recent figures, such as Craig Venter, the pioneering geneticist who, by Gartner’s account, exhibits at least some traits that fit the hypomanic profile: a profile to which America, with its pioneer-spirit ideology, is well suited.

Speculative, to be sure, but also engaging, and a refreshingly novel twist on psychohistory.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-7432-4344-7
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2005