Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Reviewed May 2008)

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk (2005)[***1/2] Last month I accompanied my daughter's fifth grade class on an over-night to Washington D.C., and Trixie and I both felt especially moved by the Lincoln Memorial. I resisted the temptation to buy a bunch of books in the little bookshop there, but promised myself I would read a Lincoln biography, realizing that I know very little about the man or his presidency. I remembered hearing Shenk interviewed on Fresh Air when this book first came out, and the topic was calling me, but as it turns out, it was probably not the best place to start in studying Lincoln (in fairness to Shenk, I should probably have just read a straightforward biography first -- and if anyone has suggestions, I'd be grateful). Shenk persuasively details the evidence of Lincoln's life-long depression, including two significant nervous breakdowns as a young man during which he became suicidal. Shenk argues (also fairly persuasively, but somehow not as thoroughly or as elegantly as I had hoped), that Lincoln's greatness did not stem from a "triumph over personal suffering," but rather that it was "an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is not a story of transformation but one of integration. Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy. The problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his greatness." This thesis is developed in the first 200 pages of the book. Next follows a very short epilogue in which Shenk notes (explicitly, for the first time) that his book is structured according to the three "stages" he has identified in Lincoln's life, which he now names as "fear, engagement, and transcendence." In the epilogue, Shenk also shares some of his personal experiences writing the book, and alludes to, but never makes explicit, his own history of depression and his personal identification with Lincoln's suffering. Finally a 20-page afterward provides "A Historiography of Lincoln's Depression," looking at Lincoln scholarship over the years and the ways both popular and academic historians have and haven't dealt with the topic of Lincoln's melancholy. The book's structure felt disjointed. I wish all three sections had been integrated and the personal stuff in the epilogue had been significantly more developed -- or left out altogether. I think the historiography would have illuminated the main thesis and would not have been difficult to weave in (as it is, it feels weirdly tacked on). Perhaps the personal story is not appropriate in such a work, but I always like to hear the voice and story of an author. What I hate is to be teased by allusions that are not fleshed out. I have no qualifications whatsoever to critique this as history, and it may well be worthy of more stars, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped. Still, at the very least, it has whet my appetite to learn more about Lincoln.

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