A significant contribution to the study of Lincoln and his battle with depression that will resonate with contemporary Americans.
To some extent, Shenk (Unholy Ghost, not reviewed, etc.) exaggerates historians’ longtime discounting of Lincoln’s depression—after all, the President’s careworn face is iconic. To his credit, however, he never resorts to thinly-sourced speculations or clichés about Oedipal triangles that have made psychobiography a four-letter word among mainstream historians. This account illuminates a troubled soul who persevered in spite of depression. Two nervous breakdowns in Lincoln’s mid-20s and early 30s led him not only to fear for his sanity but even contemplate suicide. “Lincoln said that he could kill himself, that he was not afraid to die,” the author writes. “Yet, he said, he had an ‘irrepressible desire’ to accomplish something while he lived.” That “something” was helping end slavery in the United States. It was “a temperamental inclination to see and prepare for the worst,” according to Shenk, that allowed Lincoln to recognize slavery as the cancer devouring the Union. Perseverance and forbearance created a tough-minded yet compassionate leader who understood his and the nation’s imperfections without accepting their permanence. Offering a plausible explanation for the evolution of Lincoln’s depression from episodic to chronic, Shenk shows how personal conflicts (the death of Lincoln’s mother, for example) interacted with professional disappointments (failed bids to become a state legislator and congressman) to forge a politician who admitted to being “the most miserable man living” even as he reached for greatness.
An inspirational tale of how suffering bred a visionary of hard-won wisdom.