Book Review: “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness” by Joshua Wolf Shenk

This book investigated into the Lincoln’s mental wellness or lack thereof from this early life (fears stage) to his determination to re-enter political life (struggle stage) after a brief pause and then his presidency (transcendence stage). A couple of times, Lincoln sought to end his life due to his deep depression; he was suspected to author a suicide poem. He struggled with failures in his early political life. When the Missouri Compromise was repealed. Lincoln’s belief in abolishing slavery rose to the occasion and awoke him from his constant deep depression to make it his mandate to bring an end to slavery because he loved this country so much to see it put in less than a moral high ground.

There are several tragedies in his life that may have sunk him into a deep blue – deaths of his two sons, a few defeats in his political life, his declining friendship with his best friend, Speed, due to different opinion about slavery, the general wear and tear of a 4-year civil war that resulted in more than 650,000 deaths.

The author emphasizes the “melancholy” undertone and the opposite persona – his sense of humor – from Lincoln’s early life to the end of his life. He was able to laugh at himself and not taking himself too seriously because he had stared death at a close range. It’s through the sense of purpose he brought himself out of his death spiral – a classical case of hero’s journey. Though he died of sudden death to assassination, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him not come out of the spiral once his life goal (freeing the slaves) has been achieved.

This book is a bit long (10 hours of audio). It went into a lot of the technical/clinical definition of depression, and others. I’m not sure I understand them all. Nowadays, depression is a widely known and accepted form of illness. But in those days, it could be a political suicide to admit to it. Lincoln had the courage and determination to overcome his handicap and rose from it, enabling the United States to become a powerful union/country without the dividing topic of slavery. This country owed a lot to Mr. Lincoln.