A group of students recently took the opportunity to speak with author and historian Joshua Wolf Shenk on his research into the mental state of President Abraham Lincoln.
The discussion occurred in “Lincoln and the Inner Life: Religion, Ethics and Psychology,” a first-year seminar taught by Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain.
After reading Shenk’s book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, the students discussed with Shenk the episodes of depression that Lincoln suffered and the role they played in the development of his character.
Shenk, who is also director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, answered a steady stream of questions from the students, often sprinkling in his own struggles with depression, and detailing how his interest in the topic fueled his research.
“There was certainly a personal aspect to my interest in Lincoln’s depression,” said Shenk. “It was a point of introduction to me, and it came at a time when I was looking for something to dig into. I encountered Lincoln’s story, and found an original story to tell.”
Shenk’s book has been heralded as an insightful, brilliantly crafted biography that “peels away the onion of myth and sentiment to reveal [Lincoln’s] compelling, tortured soul” while providing a fresh, original take on the inner life of the Civil War president.
“I was aware of Lincoln in a vague way,” says Shenk. “I’m a little bit of a history nut, and I was obsessed with JFK and the mythology surrounding Camelot. Then I encountered a reference to Lincoln being depressed, and it resonated. I’d been trained as a journalist, and so, you always ask the question: Is there a story here?”
The speck of a lifetime against the arc of history
In response to a question on possible parallels between Lincoln and President Barack Obama, an admirer of Lincoln, Shenk noted the superficial similarities—both rose to the presidency after serving as state senators in Illinois, both were outsiders born into humble circumstances—and the deeper resonances.
“Both share a really kind of profound, complicated blend of idealism and pragmatism,” Shenk said. “Lincoln viewed the world as a long arc. He saw his own lifetime as a speck, and viewed history over the course of thousands of years. For example, Lincoln did not expect slavery to be extinguished in his lifetime. He thought it was important to see steady movement in the right direction.”
Shenk also sees the unlikely combination of genuine humility and extreme arrogance that is tempered in both men by a sense of their own limitations.
The similar character traits will likely deepen, Shenk said, if Obama becomes more unpopular over the course of his presidency.
Shenk also examined Lincoln’s views on orthodox religion and discussed the 16th president’s spiritual life.
“Early in his life, Lincoln challenged common religious assumptions, such as the virgin birth, which defied logic and reason,” he said. “That was not a thing you questioned at that time, in that region of the country. But they say that the greatest doubters are always the greatest religious thinkers.”
Lincoln never joined a church, underscoring his reluctance to subscribe to orthodoxy. Instead, Shenk said, he formed his own brand of new, civic religiosity, which was threaded through his later speeches.
A radical interest in “lazy” pursuits
On a sense of his own destiny, Lincoln was remarkably prescient, Shenk said.
“He was a very ambitious kid who did believe he was destined for greatness,” he said. “When he was very small, he would memorize the sermons preachers gave, almost mimicking what he saw in church. You have to understand that to read books, to be interested in the newspaper, was a very radical thing during that era. The prevailing feeling was that you couldn’t earn a living through your intellect. You did it on your back, and to be interested in reading was seen as being very lazy; it wasn’t seen as valuable to Lincoln’s father, who chastised and chided him.”
As a young man, Lincoln moved to a small town, and surrounded himself with others with similar intellectual predilections.
“He encountered these people, and very quickly ran for political office – a very audacious move at that point,” Shenk said. “He did have great faith in his own power and his abilities. There was a driving ambition in him that could not be broken, despite his problems.”
Shenk also gave a public talk during his visit to Lehigh. It was one of two campus lectures that commemorated the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth by exploring his political and personal journeys. The first lecture, by Craig Symonds, professor emeritus of American history at the U.S. Naval Academy, was titled “Assessing Lincoln’s Political Genius.”