Wednesday, January 18, 2006


"I think I'll just go hang myself"

I watched the first 20 minutes of the 3-hour Lincoln biography Monday night on the History channel. According to B it had received some accolades by pre-screening TV critics. Though when I pressed her as we were turning off the show in bored distaste, she could only say, "It was reviewed in the Times!"

U.S. history is such a well-trodden path for academics and historical non-fiction writers, that the quest for something new to say tends to create fads in historical interpretation. For example, a current fad in "founding fathers" history-writing is to bash the revisionist historians who had made a fad of bashing earlier historians (and the founders themselves) for being insufficiently progressive on race and gender issues.

The Lincoln biography was basically a showcase for some current fad in Lincoln historiography, one emphasizing Lincoln's lifelong struggle with serious depression. One after another, talking-head history-writers -- many identified with lines like "author of Lincoln: the Melancholy President" -- got onscreen and talked about how miserable Lincoln was.

What lousy history! In its own way, this portrait of Lincoln was as one dimensional as the hagiographic ones that imply that Lincoln had no personality. Only it's far less interesting, because the historical context, the trajectory of Lincoln's life, the outline of his achievements in the face of this depression, were presented with maddening sketchiness. It might have been titled, "Lincoln: The Morbidly Depressed Man (Who, As It Happens, Led the Country Through It's Greatest Crisis)."

Even as a pyschological profile it sucked. The deepest insight was that "someone who's mother dies when he's a child is likely to suffer from depression unless his surviving parent is particularly loving. Lincoln's father wasn't." At times, some of the historians seemed almost stupid. Rather than listen to some droning congressional speech, Lincoln said "I'd rather go hang myself." This was presented as evidence of Lincoln's "frequent suicidal ideation."

If you want some insight into Abraham Lincoln the mortal human being, I strongly recommend Richard Slotkin's brilliant novel, Abe: a novel of the young Lincoln.

I bet if you polled people and gave them a choice:

(a) Watch the House of Representatives on CNN for 5 days straight


(b) Go hang myself

you would get a non-zero response to choice "b". Lincoln wasn't depressed, he was just being snarky. Poor Abe. Victim of "historians" that need a doctoral dissertation topic. Dragging psychology into other disciplines for the purposes of dissertations seems to be a popular thing these days (considering that I edited a dissertation whose premise was that the main character in "High Fidelity" was narcissistic).
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