Editor’s Page

By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez

Lincoln and Chronic Depression

lincoln2

Professor Michael Hogan’s excellent book Lincoln and Mexico has spurred my interest in both topics but for now I’ll stick with Lincoln, with just a brief word about his one-time counterpart in Mexico, Benito Juarez.

A most enjoyable way to learn much more about him (and here I show my film bias) is to see the movie Juarez.* In 1939, Warner Bros. Studio sent a troupe of almost 150 people to the Vera Cruz area of Mexico, where they labored for several months, the effort resulting in what is one of the finest biographical films of all time, as well as one of the most expensive; for several years,  Juarez remained one of the costliest films ever made, second only to Gone with the Wind.

For those who have seen the film, they might have noticed that you can count on half the fingers of one hand the times Paul Muni (the great actor who played the leading role and who had come from the Yiddish Theater) . . . smiled. Muni had done his homework, because Juarez, like Lincoln, was reputed to be perpetually engulfed by melancholia.               

Like Juarez, Lincoln was also known to rarely smile—and for good reason:  one of the finest presidents in all of American history was terminally depressed, and had often in his younger years thought of ending his life. Later, his law partner, William Herndon, would say, “Lincoln’s melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”  

Arm-chair psychiatrists have placed much of the cause for this on two factors: the commonly-held belief that Lincoln’s father was a cold and physically abusive parent, and that some years later, the one true love of his son’s life, Ann Rutledge, had died at a young age. Such speculation may have some basis in fact, but it is undeniable that from that time on Lincoln would often talk of suicide. In the immediate aftermath of Ann Rutledge’s death, he suffered what might today be called a “nervous breakdown.” After a second breakdown in 1838, Lincoln wrote a poem called The Suicide’s Soliloquy.

But as Lincoln began to establish himself as a shrewd, self-educated lawyer and start his scramble up the political ladder, (and few men have ever suffered more election defeats before ascending to the presidency!) his melancholia gave rise to an unexpected attribute: wisdom. Gloom and genius can be the flip sides of the same personality. Some decades earlier, Lord Byron, faced with a similar melancholy temperament, had called it a “fearful gift.” The “fearful” had to do with a condition that could eventually consign a person to a mental asylum, (or even cause to take his own life) but the “gift” could be a stunning emotional depth and an almost other-worldly wisdom. Still, Shakespeare’s immortal line “To be or not to be,” was much on Lincoln’s mind, as he grappled with what Albert Camus once said was the only serious question human beings ever have to consider.

But at this point the “wisdom” kicked in: Lincoln decided to live because he realized that he had an “irrepressible desire” to accomplish something while he lived, to become connected to the great events of the day, “to impress them so as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.”  (That he certainly did so could well be an understatement for the ages!)

In his mid-40’s, Lincoln joined the fight against slavery, and fought with   moderates in his own party that thought the curse would eventually disappear on its own. Instead, he believed that the issue could well destroy the country before such an optimistic notion became reality. William Herndon (who was perhaps closer to Lincoln than anyone else, excepting for his mother and Ann Rutledge) was to remark: “Lincoln crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow and the sham. Everything came to him in its precise shape and color.”

His melancholia did not allow him to wear rose-colored glasses. Life itself saw to that, and the personal blows he took were unremitting. In 1862, his eleven-year-old son, Willie, died. Moreover, Lincoln’s marriage brought him little if any joy. Mary Todd Lincoln was a chronic busy-body, a compulsive shopper and what today might be called an “airhead.” Why Lincoln married her is another riddle that has never been solved.

The final irony is this: Lincoln preserved the union of a country that from its  inception was noted for its enormous optimism, buoyant spirits and deep belief in its own great destiny—and he did it in the throes of a bottomless depression.

(Note: I am indebted to historian Joshua Wolf Shenk (among others) for the quotes cited in this article.)         

*Juarez is in the LCS Film Library.

 

alex grattan

 

ALEJANDRO GRATTAN-DOMINGUEZ

 

Column: Editor’s Page

 

Website:

 

Wrote/directed first movie about Mexican-Americans, Only Once in a Lifetime, recently purchased with another film of his, No Return Address, by Turner Classic Movies.  Lifetime premiered at the Kennedy Center in Wash., D.C. —1979.  Awarded  Governor’s (California) Special Commendation—1980.  SpecialAward of Appreciation from the National Association of Mexican-American Educators—1981. Wrote 23 film scripts, nine of which were either sold or optioned.

Established Ajijic Writers Group in 1988. Wrote seven novels, two of which were at one time in 1400 libraries in the U.S. and Canada.  Best Screenplay Award—Ajijic International Film Festival—1999.  Award ofAppreciation from Ninos Incapacitados—2007. Biography appeared in Who’sWhoinMexico—2007. Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 —Lakeside Community Awards Committee. Winner of Benjamin Franklin Digital Award in 2014 for historical novel The Dark Side of the Dream.Editor-in-Chief of Ojo for past 21 years.

 

Pin It

Comments   

#1 rico wallace 2017-11-09 15:00
Alex, I would like to points out that Lincoln was a comic storyteller. He would have a room full of people laughing for hours. When you mention Mary my heart ached. They had a loving relationship. Mary lost two children and suffered through the Civil war and her husband was assassinated. Have mercy on her. Do a little deeper dive on her other side of the coin you might see what Abe saw in her.

Add comment

Security code
Refresh

Editor’s Page By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez November 2017 Lincoln and Chronic Depression October 2017 The Greatest Novel Ever
Editor’s Page By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez A Life Well-Justified There is a line in the Bible (one of the very few that I can remember!) which
Editor’s Page Guest Editorial by Mark Sconce The Power of Poetry   Whilst knocking on doors for Barack a few years ago, I encountered a lady of
Editor’s Page Guest Editorial by Fred Mittag A Brief History of Work   For artisans, work was good during the Middle Ages. At 14, a boy might proudly
Editor’s Page By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez An Astounding Man in an Astounding Century   Most people know about T.E. Lawrence because of David
Wordwise With Pithy Wit By Tom Clarkson   This morning, my pal F.T. – who shared the Iraq experience with me during my third trek there – forwarded
LAKESIDE LIVING Kay Davis Phone: 376 – 108 – 0278 (or 765 – 3676 to leave messages) Email: kdavis987@gmail.com November
Front Row Center By Michael Warren    The Pajama Game By Richard Adler and Jerry Ross Directed by Peggy Lord Chilton Music directed
Every Word  Important By Herbert W. Piekow   Every word a writer writes has meaning yes, sometimes they never get published or the book
LEGERDEMAIN—Italian Style By Jim Rambologna   Enzio Grattani was the Editor-in-Chief of a local rivista (or magazine) in Ajiermo, Italy. Locals