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Book and Media Reviews
May 9, 2007

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

Author Affiliations

Book and Media Reviews Section Editor: John L. Zeller, MD, PhD, Fishbein Fellow.

JAMA. 2007;297(18):2031-2035. doi:10.1001/jama.297.18.2033

Lincoln's Melancholy, a recently published book by Joshua Wolf Shenk, has received widespread acclaim as a scholarly and exhaustively documented work. Although the emotional aspects of Lincoln's life have been minimized by prominent Lincoln historians of the 20th century, contemporary reviews of primary source materials now provide ample evidence that Lincoln experienced an enduring and at times near-fatal depression.

Lincoln experienced at least 2 major depressive episodes, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition).1 The first occurred in 1835, a time of intense preoccupation with his law studies and with the illness and subsequent death of Ann Rutledge, a woman for whom he had developed a strong affection. In the weeks following her death, Lincoln spoke openly of suicide and confided to a friend that he was so overcome with depression that he did not dare carry a knife. Clearly unable to care for himself, neighbors took Lincoln in until he was able to live safely on his own.

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