Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review: A First Rate Madness

I was recently asked to review a new book which claims that mental illness helped some of the most powerful moral and political leaders in history to achieve greatness.

The book is titled "A First-Rate Madness" and it's author is an esteemed psychiatrist, Nassir Ghaemi. Dr. Ghaemi is professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, graduate of Harvard Medical School, and also holds an undergraduate degree in history.

"A First-Rate Madness" describes the mental afflictions which affected such important leaders as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln. Each leader is discussed in a chapter or two. Since the focus of this blog is Abraham Lincoln, this review will focus on the chapter about him.

Dr. Ghaemi discusses Lincoln's well-known bouts of depression in his chapter "Both Read The Same Bible", text taken from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. He writes about Lincoln's apparently serious despair in 1835 after the death of his supposed girlfriend Anne Rutledge. Lincoln was supposedly watched over by close friends at New Salem, who feared for his life. Another episode when Lincoln was struck by deep depression was in 1841 after his broken engagement to Mary Todd, when he wrote: "I am now the most miserable man living."

As I wrote, these episodes of Lincoln's depressive episodes are well-known to people who have read even casually about him. But Dr. Ghaemi takes these known episodes and stretches them to make what to me seems to be an unsubstantiated claim: that Lincoln "suffered from severe depression, probably a version of manic-depressive illness" and that "Most of the time, Lincoln was a highly depressed, even suicidal man." Well.

Dr. Ghaemi's chapter on Lincoln uses as its main source the 2005 book "Lincoln's Melancholy" by Joshua Wolf Shenk. That book caused somewhat of a controversy among Lincoln scholars and historians about its claim of Lincoln's "serious depression." Harold Holzer for one, doesn't accept the theory that Lincoln was nearly incapacitated by his "hypochondria" as Lincoln called it. Otherwise, how could Lincoln have pulled himself together over the course of four years in leading the country in the Civil War, especially after the death of his favorite child, Willie, in 1862? Personally, I agree with Mr. Holzer; Lincoln couldn't have been so depressed as to be suicidal "most of the time" or else he couldn't have led the country, let alone so brilliantly led it.

Dr. Ghaemi then goes on to try to show how Lincoln's depressive episodes made him more receptive to political realism. He gives more well-known examples: Lincoln's early opposition to abolition; his support for colonization of freed slaves; his eventual acceptance of ending slavery; and his magnificent Second Inaugural Address, where he refused to "gloat" over victory.

I would have believed more about Dr. Ghaemi's chapter about Abraham Lincoln had he used more than one significant source for it, especially a controversial book full of disputed historical facts and assumptions. He also doesn't make a very convincing connection (for me, at least) between Lincoln's "constant" depression and brilliant leadership.

I am neither psychiatrist nor medical doctor of any kind. But I do know a fair amount about Abraham Lincoln. And I know enough to understand that Dr. Ghaemi's thesis about Lincoln's "madness" turning him into a great leader seems to be weak, at best. It forces me to wonder about the other claims for other leaders in the rest of the book, which I have admittedly yet to read.

In summation, "A First Rate Madness" has an interesting premise, but ultimately, the premise cannot be proven, at least about our nation's greatest president. Spend your time and money on other (and better) books if you wish to read more about Lincoln's legacy and life.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: The Global Lincoln

The life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln have been written about in countless thousands of books beginning with the earliest campaign biographies in 1860. His impact on the United States of America was of course significant beginning with his election to the Presidency and continues to be felt today. Republicans and Democrats alike claim his ideals, the current President of The United States considers him a personal hero, and of course historians (professional and amateur both) continue to research and write about him. Many more millions of people are fascinated by this enigmatic leader.

But how did or does Lincoln affect the rest of the world, if at all? Does his story resonate with people in other countries? Do foreign political leaders use his ideals in governing their own nations?

These questions are considered in a newly published book from Oxford University Press. The book "The Global Lincoln" is a collection of essays written by scholars from around the world, including the countries of England, Wales, Spain, India and regions such as Latin America, the Far East, and the American South.

As one of the reviews on the back cover states, "The Global Lincoln is unique." In my own four decades of reading books about Lincoln, I have never before encountered one which attempts to investigate Lincoln's enduring legacy (if any) in other parts of the world. Therefore, I was eager to begin reading this book when it arrived from the publisher.

I admit that I have yet to complete my reading of this work. At some points, the book has held my interest, especially in the chapter discussing foreign prints featuring Lincoln. Written by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, this essay is well-written in clear language, and reflects his powerful knowledge of the image of Lincoln in prints. Holzer is perhaps the leading Lincoln scholar of our time, and deservedly so.

Other essays, though, are so densely written in a style which academics only use that the author's point will no doubt be lost on many, if not most, readers. I refer to the opening essay by the two principal editors of the book, Richard Carwardine (President of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, England and Jay Sexton, Lecturer In American History at Oxford). While the essay is informative and serves as a decent introduction to the rest of the book, it is at times so filled with dense information, ideas, and language that it will perhaps fail to entice the average reader into continuing reading.

An example of such writing is the authors' usage of words such as "dicta," "lacuna," and "vacuous" in their introductory essay. Most people probably will not know the definitions of these words (respectively: "statements about political principles", "a gap", and "mindless"), therefore missing the point of the essay itself. Ironically, the authors of this essay talk about how Lincoln understood the power of simplicity and accessibility in his words. Lincoln avoided the use of the flowery and rambling language of his day, choosing intead to use more concise language in order to make his own writings more powerful and memorable. It's a shame that these two brilliant authors of this particular essay ignored Lincoln's own example.

The rest of the essays are more clearly written, which lend themselves to be of more interest to the average reader. It's interesting to note that Lincoln had a decent amount of influence in England during his lifetime and during the term of Prime Minister David Lloyd George into the early decades of the 20th Century, but now has waned significantly. Apparently the Welsh strongly identified with Lincoln and his ideals. In India, Gandhi barely mentioned him in his writings and Lincoln has had slight to no impact on the people or politicians there. On the other hand, in Ghana Lincoln's principles were used by its prime minister during the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union to defend his nation's strict neutrality.

My feelings about this book are decidedly mixed. For me, it swings between interesting and sleep-inducing. It's difficult to know what readers the various authors had in mind as they were writing the various essays. My best guess is that they were aiming their efforts at fellow academics, and certainly not ordinary people who want to learn more about Abraham Lincoln and his continuing legacy. To me, that is a shame, because history should be made to come alive for people, not turn them off on the subject even further.

In the final analysis, I must judge this book as only barely recommendable. It will interest only the most serious of Lincoln students and even for them, that interest will be a struggle to maintain.

Book Review: The Civil War: An Illustrated History

I was contacted earlier this summer by a publicist for Time Home Entertainment, Inc. who asked me if I would care to review their special book issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. I agreed to do so, and my thoughts begin below.

The book is titled "The Civil War: An Illustrated History" and has been issued in hardcover with dust jacket for this first release. It contains more than 200 pages complete with text and lavish illustrations featuring rare photographs, including many I've never before seen even though I have read countless books about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.

All the major battles and other events of the war are covered in the book, including a brief lesson on how divided this nation was in the decades preceding the war itself. There is a fine introduction written by Jeff Shaara, author of "Gods and Generals" and many other Civil War novels.

"The Civil War: An Illustrated History" provides an excellent overview of the war and the writing is quite good. However, it is not meant to be a book which covers the war in depth or great detail, and the advanced Civil War buff might find it repetitive for him or her.

But it succeeds very well as a good basic repository of information, facts, and high level analysis of the Civil War. As I mentioned earlier, I was impressed with the rare photographs included in the book, and for me that is its strongest feature.

Time's "The Civil War: An Illustrated History" may be found at bookstores everywhere and online from several different sources. Publication price is $29.95, but you will easily be able to find it for less.

Of the many books coming out this year and over the next few years during the Civil War sesquicentennial, this volume stands out as an excellent beginning point for those readers who wish to learn more about the nation's bloodiest war. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lecturing On Mr. Lincoln

Greetings to the readers of The Abraham Lincoln Blog. It's been a while since I've updated this forum with a new post, thanks to a busy summer professionally and personally. In addition to writing this blog, I also edit the "Honest Abraham Lincoln" page on Facebook (http://facebook.com/honestabrahamlincoln) and write Lincoln-related "tweets" on Twitter (Mr_Lincoln). It's difficult to keep up with everything, but I do my best. The Facebook page has 615 fans at this writing, while the Twitter feed is followed by over 2,200 people.

In addition to using social media to help educate others about Lincoln's life and legacy, I have recently begun lecturing to public and private groups about different aspects of Lincoln. In recent months, I've spoken on his Inaugural Journey to Washington in 1861; his assassination and funeral train journey back to Springfield in 1865; and his struggles to find competent generals during the Civil War.

My next scheduled lecture will be about Lincoln's numerous ties to my home state of Ohio. While he of course never lived in the Buckeye State, he gave speeches in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. Ohioans Salmon B. Chase and Edwin M. Stanton served in his cabinet. Ohio generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan helped to win the Civil War. And Cleveland and Columbus hosted two of Lincoln's funerals. Lincoln antagonists Benjamin Wade and Clement Vallandigham also hailed from Ohio. Ohio was crucial in Lincoln's life and I look forward to lecturing on this topic.

The lecture is scheduled for November 5, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. at the Granville Public Library in Granville, OH, about 25 miles east of Columbus. All of you are invited to this free public lecture. Why not drop by and learn a little more about Mr. Lincoln? I would love to meet you.

 
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