Comparative Book Review: Abraham Lincoln, Man of Mystery

April 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

From the time he lived to the present day, Abraham Lincoln’s apparent depression has provided a rich field of speculation for friends, political rivals, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and scholars. Contemporaries note at least two depressive episodes in Lincoln’s early life – one after the death of Ann Rutledge and the other after the broken engagement with Mary Todd – and there is a plethora of evidence that he was depressed throughout his presidency as well. Were Lincoln’s moods due to his naturally melancholic nature? Were they due to his problems with sexual intimacy? To genetics? To his rocky relationship with his father? To Mary Todd Lincoln’s depression?  It seems likely that it is some combination of the above and more. Unfortunately there are more questions surrounding Lincoln’s mental state than there are concrete answers. And it seems that every Lincoln scholar and many psychologists have a theory to explain Lincoln’s behavior.

Two books in particular paint an encompassing psychological portrait of the president. Both have valid points to make that are not incompatible, although the authors’ theses and methods are vastly different, as can be seen by looking at their approaches to the same anecdotes. The first, written by psychoanalyst and historian Charles B. Strozier, is entitled Lincoln‘s Quest for Union and explores various episodes throughout Lincoln’s life for an explanation of his melancholy. After offering several reasons for Lincoln’s depression, centering for the most part on guilt arising from childhood experiences, Strozier admits that a Freudian “classical psychoanalytic model falls short of providing clues to [Lincoln’s] transcendence” and suggests that psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s four criteria to evaluating healthy psychological growth – humor, empathy, creativity, and wisdom – may provide the key to understanding how Lincoln rose to greatness despite his depression.[1] But Strozier’s use of Kohut’s criteria to evaluate Lincoln is somewhat scanty and almost qualifies as a sidenote alongside the lengthy Freudian psychoanalysis of the president. It is here that author and Lincoln scholar Joshua Wolf Shenk perhaps unconsciously picks up the thread left by Strozier. In Shenk’s book Lincoln’s Melancholy, aptly subtitled How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, the author spends some time investigating possible reasons for Lincoln’s early mental breakdowns, but focuses on – as the subtitle suggests – the methods that Lincoln appears to have employed to continue living and become the monumental historical figure he did. These methods included engendering a sense of purpose or goal in life, the use of poetry and humor as an outlet, and a self-reflective, mature understanding of his own malady.

One of the most interesting parts of Shenk’s book comes in afterword, where Shenk gives a brief account of the history of Lincoln biography, especially psychobiography. He describes Strozier’s earlier work as “the best regarded of the literary psychobiographies” that “distinguished itself by finding evidence of the Oedipus complex in Lincoln, hidden in plain sight.”[2] Shenk continues to pooh-pooh Strozier’s explanation of Lincoln’s mental state and asserts that Strozier effectively allowed “the liberal use of Freudian jargon, the casual assignment of formal diagnoses, and the imputation of specific meanings to ambiguous episodes” to become “widespread in history and journalism.”[3] For example, Strozier describes one scene in Lincoln’s life as particularly telling of how he struggled with guilt over his biological mother’s death. As a young boy after his mother’s death, Lincoln takes his father’s gun, points it out the window, and kills a turkey. Strozier describes this as an attempt to “beat out his father in competition for his mother” and in the process Lincoln kills the turkey/his mother[4]. Oddly, Lincoln never shoots a gun again in his life. Perhaps this was due to a connection in Lincoln’s mind between his loving someone and their death as Strozier suggests, but perhaps it was only due to a simple distaste for killing animals.

It seems that Shenk’s criticism of Strozier, while not unfounded, is not entirely fair. Admittedly, Strozier does offer a mainly Freudian analysis of Lincoln’s life, and oftentimes it could be argued that he prematurely jumps to “impute specific meanings to ambiguous episodes”. One example would be that of episode involving the turkey, and another Strozier’s assertion that Lincoln’s penchant for extensively quoting Macbeth points to apparent tension the president felt between his desire for political power and his guilt over quashing his political enemies.[5] However, as aforementioned, Strozier admits that the Freudian analysis falls short of a full explanation, because it does not address how Lincoln transcended his depression. The proportion of pages devoted to musings on how Lincoln transcended depression – roughly twenty pages – to those devoted to Freudian analysis – two-hundred thirty-five pages – is huge, yes. But, instead of belittling Strozier and criticizing his methods of psychoanalysis, perhaps Shenk should praise Strozier for attempting an explanation of Lincoln’s transcendence through humor, empathy, creativity, and wisdom.

One point of comparison between the books that is particularly telling of the difference of the two authors’ methods and theses is Lincoln’s written correspondence with his intimate friend Joshua Speed in the years surrounding the time when both Lincoln had apparently broken off his engagement with Mary Todd and Speed was courting a young woman named Fanny Henning. In these letters, Lincoln comes across as distressed over his friend’s anxieties about marriage and about his domestic happiness soon afterward. Before the wedding, Lincoln reassures Speed that Speed does love Fanny, and after the wedding Lincoln waited with “intense anxiety and trepidation” to hear news of Speed and his new wife’s domestic tranquility. Lincoln, Strozier explains, “projected his own attitudes and conflicted feelings [about sexual intimacy] onto Speed…Lincoln related to Speed’s difficulties in courtship with an intensity and involvement that suggests he saw Speed as a mirror of his own inner experience.”[6] Thus Strozier, in accord with his classical method of psychoanalysis, sees in this incident evidence of sexual tension. This tension, Strozier believes, arises from Lincoln’s feelings that somehow his love as a child for his mother killed her. From this loss he has never been able to fully recover. Shenk, in contrast, sees the Lincoln-Speed correspondence as evidence of Lincoln’s ever-maturing understanding of his own malady. Seeing Speed in a similar funk, Lincoln empathetically reaches out to his friend and encourages him in his love for Fanny before the wedding, and is eager to know how his friend’s mood is improving after the wedding. It becomes apparent in this example how Strozier’s thesis that Lincoln is an essentially a wounded man from childhood and Shenk’s understanding of Lincoln as a mature individual who overcame his depression play out in their analyses of the same situation.

In the end, several things become evident from the two accounts: that Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression of some kind, that he struggled throughout his life to overcome this malady and do the great work he felt he was supposed to do, that this depression affected his relationships with others such as his wife and friends, and that he dealt with his depression by indulging in some combination of humor, creativity in writing, and self-reflection amongst other things. Whether the source of Lincoln’s mental state is to be traced to genetics or natural melancholy or to childhood experiences of suffering and their resulting guilt is unknown and can only remain a mystery. Even as a very public figure during a war that necessarily turned all scrutiny on the President of the Union, Abraham Lincoln was a private man and remains a private man.

[1] Strozier, Charles B. Lincoln’s Quest for Union: A Psychological Portrait. 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: First Paul Dry Books, 2001. p. 235.

[2] Shenk, Joshua Wolf. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. New York: First Mariner Books, 2006. p. 238.

[3] Shenk, p. 239.

[4] Shenk, p. 239.

[5] Strozier, p. 254.

[6] Strozier, p. 61.


About Heinz Kohut

Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

Lincoln’s Quest for Union: A Psychological Portrait

An excerpt from Shenk’s excellent book and Shenk’s book site

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