by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA

Dr. Meymandi is in private practice as a psychiatrist and neurologist and serves as an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a noted physician, editor, and philanthropist who frequently speaks and writes on diverse topics that relate to his interests in medicine, the arts, religion, and philanthropy. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Emily.

Innov Clin Neurosci. 2011;8(1):54–56

When a publisher sends a book to me for review, I routinely cast an editorial glance to separate substance from fluff by noting the book’s proportion of the text to notes, bibliography, and index. A scholarly and substantial book usually carries an extensive set of notes and references for documentation of almost every line of the book. A high volume of notes and bibliography assures the reader that the book is not fluff. Such is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s remarkable book on Lincoln.

The title, Lincoln’s Melancholy, is misleading. Although the book deals with Lincoln’s depression and melancholia, it is really a psychobiography of Lincoln a la Freud’s work on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky. Parts of the book read very much like Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart.

But there is something unique about this book. It is a book that seduces the reader. I fell in love with the book, not with the subject, not with the author’s erudition and intellectual prowess, not with the brilliant syntax and craftsmanship of the composition, but with the book itself. For me, an objective book reviewer engaged in this pursuit for more than 50 years, it is a rare phenomenon that the book itself becomes the object of my love.

Well, the book has a prelude, an introduction, and three parts with subsections dealing chronologically with Lincoln’s birth, growth, development, political maturation, education, religion, social interaction, and finally death. But first, a word about the author.

Schenk is neither an academic historian nor a Lincoln specialist. He is not of the stature of famed Douglas Wilson, author of Lincoln’s Sword or Allen Guelzo, the internationally renowned leading Lincoln scholar. Readers might recognize Shenk from the pages of The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. He is referred to as an “independent scholar.” In the course of his discourse, he shows command of psychopathology of depression, a good understanding of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, and a keen insight into human nature. He seems to understand the comprehensive model of biosociopsychodynamics in the genesis and evolution of mental illness. But none of these explains why the book had a mesmeric effect on me. I guess as a psychiatrist dealing with psychic trauma and life tragedies, it is comforting to see a man like Lincoln, with childhood depravity and an adverse upbringing, including a life of domestic slavery, constant beating, and emotional denigration and put down, pull himself out of the psychological sewer, literally clean himself up, educate himself, and ultimately become the 16th president of the United States. It is this subtle message of the theology of redemption, hope, and possibilities that generated the uncommon mesmeric effect on me.

The book starts with a startling chapter on Lincoln’s family history of mental illness. An uncle, Tom Lincoln, according to court records had a “deranged mind.” So did his parents. Lincoln’s parents were born in Virginia, crossed the Appalachian mountains, and came to Kentucky in the late 18th century. They married in 1806 and had three children, Sarah, born Feb 10, 1807; Abraham, born February 12, 1809, and Thomas, born in 1811. They were all prone to deep depression. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, died on October 5, 1818. She was about 35 years old. Lincoln was nine. Along the way, in addition to his mother, Lincoln lost his uncle and aunt. He was left in the care of his 28-old cousin during the long absences of Abe’s father who returned to Kentucky to court his second bride. Lincoln was beaten, mistreated, and abused during those years. There are many well-documented accounts that Lincoln was self taught. As a child, he read any and all books he could find. Tom Lincoln, Abe’s father, at some point started to oppose his son’s reading and education. The relationship between father and son was conflicted and abusive. Tom Lincoln would beat young Lincoln mercilessly. However, Lincoln continued to read and memorize and became very popular with his friends and fellow workers. It is recorded that he was not sad and depressed during his teen years because he had many friends. He did not attend a university to learn law. “I studied with nobody,” he said. A lawyer named Lynn McNulty Greene wrote that Abraham Lincoln was extremely ambitious. Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that all his folks seemed to have good sense but none of them had become distinguished, and Lincoln believed it was for him to become so.

Tracing the mental status of Mr. Lincoln, one discovers that he maintained suicidal thoughts. At one time a neighbor, Mentor Graham, related that “Lincoln told me that he felt like committing suicide often.” Neighbors and friends were compelled to keep watch and ward over him. This was even more pronounced when Lincoln’s first love, a bright, pretty young woman, Anna Mayes Rutledge, with flowing blond hair and large blue, eyes, became ill. She died in August 1835. Lincoln was desperately saddened and suffered his first bout of major depression. He had a second and more devastating bout of major depression in 1841. The repeat episode of major depression was precipitated by many causes, among them breaking his engagement to Mary Todd, possibly “because of his affection for another woman.” Again, his friends and relatives were fearful that Lincoln might commit suicide. They removed guns and knives from his environ.

There is another set of assumptions that relates Lincoln’s depression to Marfan syndrome. Marfan is an inherited genetic disorder that diminishes the strength of connective tissue from tendons to heart valves. Persons afflicted with Marfan are tall and gangly, with joint hyperflexion. Marfan, along with other forms of connective tissue disorders, such as Ehler-Danlos syndrome, are often associated with depression. I once reviewed a book on Robert Schumann (June 8,1810–July 29, 1856) who wished his fingers were more like Paginini’s, so he could stretch and reach a wider span on the piano’s keyboard. Paganini did have Ehler-Danlos, and with hyperflexibility of his finger joints, he could produce unusual and virtuosic notes on his violin. However, Lincoln’s Melancholy quotes Victor A. McKusick, a professor of medical genetics at Johns Hopkins, who stated that Lincoln did not have Marfan. Independently, I have researched the opinions of several Lincoln scholars, including Gabor Borritt, Adam Borritt, Douglas Wilson, and Allan Guelzo, all of whom are not impressed by the view that Lincoln may have had Marfan. In this search, I found that Dr. Edward Everette, President of Harvard University in 1841, was a strong critic of Lincoln, stating that he was ill prepared for the presidency of the United States.

The second part of the book deals with the dynamics of Lincoln as a self-made man. He won elections, made friends, and with his eloquence, mesmerized his audience. Lincoln continued to be ambitious, determined, and industrious. He was a devoted Christian with flavors of “Old School of Calvinism” and “Hard Shell Baptism” running through his speeches. However, Lincoln was a pragmatist and had a keen sense of reality. According to Allen Guelzo, the leading Lincoln scholar, Lincoln was a serious philosophical thinker who kept abreast of the leading ideas of his time. In 1846, as an indication of his pragmatism, he wrote “What I understand is called ‘the Doctrine of Necessity’—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” It was John Stuart Mill who first used the phrase “philosophical necessity.” Shenk quotes Herman Melville, Lincoln’s contemporary and fellow melancholic who often suffered deep depression himself, who wrote, “The intensest light of reason and revelation combined can not shed such blazing light upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is then his light, and cat-like he distinctly sees all objects through a medium, which is mere blindness to common vision.”

Part three of Shenk’s book has to do with Lincoln’s presidency and the fierce civil war that he fought with conviction and courage. He was absolutely against the notion of the United States splitting into two nations.

Lincoln eventually did marry Mary Todd, and together they had four boys, only one of whom lived to maturity. In 1858, Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for president in 1860. As president, he built the Republican party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union’s cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln’s death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.

In his epilogue, Shenk states that he went to spend a weekend with the Association of Lincoln Presenters at the annual convention in Beckley, West Virginia. Seeing all these men in black suits and stovepipe hats and beard shaved above the chin was an instructive experience. Shenk concludes, however, that “it is an inherent flaw of biography that, in order to wrestle a figure onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two.” However, I believe that the young scholar has done an excellent job of painting a three-dimensional picture of Lincoln. Bravo!

This book has one perhaps unintended but welcome social and political implication. Here was a politician, Lincoln, with depression genes atavistically skulking in his psychic space. He had two major depressive episodes (i.e., nervous breakdowns in mid-19th century parlance) that were well known to the public. Yet, he rose to become the president of his country. This reminds me of the late Thomas Eagleton, former United States senator from Missouri and George McGovern’s vice presidential nominee on the 1972 Democratic ticket. Eagleton had to withdraw his nomination because it was revealed that he had had treatment for depression. It clearly suggests that our society is going backward. It is losing ground in accepting mental illness and making allowance for persons afflicted with psychiatric disorder to hold down important political jobs. From 1841, Lincoln’s second breakdown, to 1972, the date of public disclosure of Eagleton’s past treatment for depression, the level of public tolerance of psychiatric illness has severely diminished. This is most regrettable.

A post script: As I was finishing this report, the media brought us news of the discovery of a letter written by President Lincoln dated July 7 1863, addressed to Major General Henry Halleck, which stated, “We have certain information that Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant on the 4th of July. Now if General Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” Unfortunately, it was not. The war went on for another two years.

Book details: Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston-New York 2005, 243 pages of text, 56 pages of notes, 23 pages of bibliography, 28 pages of acknowledgment and index, total 350 pages, $25.00.