Could you (today) handle the truth of Abraham Lincoln?
At Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C., visitors encounter an overwhelming visual — a 34-foot tower of books written about Abraham Lincoln, 6,800 titles representing well under just half of the 15,000 volumes published on the Great Emancipator.
So it seems something of a fool’s errand to pluck just one of these books — as if in a game of Jenga.
But a book (among many) that stands out is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s 2005 “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.”
“Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy,” Shenk writes. “The problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for his great work.”
In reading Shenk’s book — and knowing the popular culture’s treatment of mental illness — it is hard to imagine one of our greatest presidents getting elected as a state legislator — much less ascending to the lead the nation. Pop culture, it’s sad to say, drum-majors the modern American parade.
Imagine a presidential candidate dealing with the unspooling of stories of suicidal thoughts, of retreat into gloom?
In 1835, Anna Mayes Rutledge, a young woman for whom Lincoln held affection died (probably from typhoid).
Lincoln’s friends were concerned he may commit suicide because of the anxiety and depression associated with the loss. They reportedly even locked him up to prevent suicide or “derangement,” Shenk writes.
Lincoln “told me that he felt like committing suicide often,” recalled Mentor Graham, according to the book.
Robert L. Wilson, who ran for the Illinois Legislature with Lincoln in 1836, made this observation: “He sought company, and indulged in fun and hilarity without restraint or stint as to time. Still, when by himself, he told me that he was so overcome with mental depression that he didn’t dare carry a knife in his pocket.”
But the depression served as what Byron described as a “fearful gift.” It was awful burden for Lincoln, but the gift element was a capacity for depth and even genius.
In many instances, Shenk notes, depressives may actually be taking a more accurate accounting of the world and their places in it. They don’t drink the Kool-Aid, either of their own making, or their image machines.
Lincoln told one of his closest friends, Joshua Speed, that he could kill himself, but wanted to “link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.” Shenk writes that the psychologist Hagop S. Akiskal takes the position that depressives “seem to derive personal gratification from over-dedication to professions that require greater service and suffering on behalf of other people.”
Bill Clinton was famous for “feeling your pain” as a political strategy, a marketing approach. Surely there is some substance with the style. But with Lincoln, it was there, etched on the iconic pained face.
Today, Lincoln would be dismissed, with barbed jokes from the left and righteousness from the right, as a candidate seeking to run for the presidency of Prozac Nation. But Shenk believes it assisted Lincoln in the 19th century.
“While many found his moods odd and curious, the most common reaction was positive interest,” Shenk observes.
And, of course, a great question rages: Had Lincoln been able to avail himself of modern management for depression, would we have had Lincoln?
He embraced the depression, owned it — and in the fight, saved the Union. His own survival, according to Shenk, depended on an obsessive commitment to a cause outside of himself, for living an inwardly directed life (the stuff of modern suburban consumptive isolation) would have been his ruin.
Americans now want the Happy Warrior. Obama is viewed as too detached, Newt Gingrich too mean.
With the release of the Netflix documentary “MITT,” there’s much hand-wringing about why GOP operatives didn’t allow the film to be released before the 2012 election, you know, to show a softer, more real, even jocular, side of Mitt Romney.