Monday, October 09, 2006

Lincoln's Melancholy

by Joshua Wolf Shenk
"I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."
- Abraham Lincoln, in an 1841 letter to a friend.
Through most of his life, Lincoln's friends and associates commented on his depressive nature. One of his law partners, William Herndon, wrote about Lincoln that "his melancholy dripped from him as he walked." Friends in New Salem, where Lincoln lived as a young man, put him on suicide watch during one of his darkest periods. Joshua Wolf Shenk's book asserts that Lincoln was a nearly perfect textbook example of a person suffering from depression. Yet, as many of us think of him, he seems to have had one of the healthiest minds in history. Shenk builds a sympathetic and very personal portrait of Lincoln as an extremely high-functioning depressive, a man whose darkness may have played a large part in his greatness. At the same time, he sheds light on the differences between Lincoln's time, when "Melancholics" were seen to have advantages along with their obvious disadvantages, and our own time, when Depression is seen as a disease to be cured.

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