Monday, December 03, 2012

Book Review: Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Brothers and sisters: Peace be with you!

A revelation of Lincoln and the mood disorder that shaped him; that’s how I would describe Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk, in brief.

Mr. Shenk takes the reader in a tour of President Abraham Lincoln’s character and personality, focusing on his trials with what we might call today “clinical depression”. Along the way, Mr. Shenk regales the reader with fascinating insights into this mood disorder, as well as the manner 19th century Americans regarded anyone suffering from depression compared to those in the 20th century down to our own times. He also explains why the principal “scientific historians” gave short shrift to President Lincoln’s “melancholy” and the milestones that reopened this field of inquiry to scholars and the general public.

One thing I liked of Mr. Shenk’s technique is that he avoided banal psychoanalytic approaches in favor of what contemporary documents and oral histories told about Lincoln. Mr. Shenk studiously avoided putting Lincoln “on the couch”, as it were, which enabled Shenk to avoid the pitfall of projecting his own view of Lincoln on to the paper, clothed in psychological jargon of Shenk’s own making. The Lincoln that jumps out of the pages of this book is one that is alive, recognizable as a human being, neither a marble sculpture nor a mental wreck.

However, one thing I disliked of Mr. Shenk’s research is his equation of depression with acedia, the “noonday demon” often talked about by monastic contemplatives. I admit both acedia and depression are connected and their symptomatology is similar, but had he read Kathleen Norris’ Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, or at least this interview of Norris by the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Shenk would have seen that “…The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer."

In Shenk’s fascinating description of how Lincoln both integrated into his character and transcended his sufferings, I see this “blank” on how Lincoln’s spiritual practices and disciplined prayer may have assisted him throughout his life. Yes, Shenk tell us of Lincoln’s earlier dabbling with deism and then about his evolution toward a belief in a providential “God” or transcendent reality, but it lacks the “oomph”, the vital force thrusting this evolution forward beyond Lincoln’s sheer force of will. I think that if we were to distinguish correctly between depression and acedia, a new field of Lincoln research would open itself up. Though his book stands on its own, by equating depression with acedia, Mr. Shenk unnecessarily “flattened” a still-hidden facet of Lincoln’s inner life.

Nevertheless, despite this flaw, I learned a lot from Mr. Shenk’s presentation and as it is often the case in books I enjoy, I also learned a lot about my own self and inner life. That by itself makes Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk, worth reading.