Joshua Wolf Shenk says that Lincoln's
Melancholy is not a psychobiography because it lacks the hallmark of that
genre, viz., starting with a psychological theory and looking at a person's
life in detail to argue that it provides evidence for the theory. Shenk is primarily interested in Lincoln,
rather than in trying to prove any particular theory. However, he does argue that Lincoln suffered from both at least
two major depressive episodes and later in life from chronic depression. Furthermore, Shenk sets out the case for what
might be his most controversial claim, that Lincoln's melancholy not only
affected his behavior, but also did so in a positive way, molding his character
to make him the great President he became.
Shenk's book is scholarly, with 66 pages of notes and 23 of
bibliography, as well as an afterward on the history of Lincoln biographies
explaining how Lincoln's melancholy became such a neglected topic. Yet it is also extremely readable and even
gripping in places, and will appeal to those who normally have little interest
in Presidential biographies. The
unabridged audiobook powerfully read by Richard Davidson takes 9 CDs, and
includes an interview with Shenk that is also illuminating.
Since the book's initial
publication, some reviews have taken Shenk to task over his evidence for his
main claims about Lincoln's depression, and those disputes are matters for
Lincoln scholars. Shenk's case is certainly convincing on its face, setting out
how Lincoln often referred to his own emotional pain and unhappiness, and also
how those around him also observed him as an exceptionally subdued person on
many occasions. It is also very
plausible that Shenk's experience battling his low moods could have ultimately
given him strength to persevere in the face of trials, thus enabling him to go
on even though various political defeats and bleak times during the Civil
War. There's no doubt that Lincoln was
an ambitious man, but he ultimately stood on principle when it came to the
issue of slavery. There are even
grounds to speculate that his own experience with suffering made him more
sensitive to the suffering of slaves, although such a connection would be very
hard to prove.
One of the best features of Lincoln's
Melancholy is Shenk's ability not only to use the categories and ideas of
modern psychiatry, but also to use Lincoln's life to examine their limits. He cites the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual several times, but he also discusses a plethora of psychological
theorists and memoir writers in his examination of how chronic depression can
change the quality of a person's life and how it can be possible to keep on
being productive while at the same time struggling with despair. Shenk is at his best when he points out that
merely seeing depression as a disease or a chemical imbalance leads us to a
narrow understanding of emotions. He
also brings in questions of religious belief and philosophical outlook that are
normally ignored in modern psychiatric accounts of depression. This is an excellent biography that deserves
a wide readership.
© 2005 Christian Perring. All
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor
of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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