Quick bit of due diligence to get out of the way first: this is not the first book I’ve read about the melancholy of Abraham Lincoln (that honour goes to this one). But Noah Van Sciver’s graphic take on the subject, whilst overlapping a fair bit with Joshua Wolf Shenk’s study, is fresh, charming and probably a much better introduction. In case the mental state of the 16th president is something you’re interested in. Which you definitely should be.
The Hypo opens in 1837, with Lincoln travelling to Springfield, Illinois, to set up a law practice and escape his an engagement to a woman he doesn’t love. Whilst finding his way around town, he meets a storekeeper called Joshua Speed and the two share a room above Speed’s shop. Eager to help his new friend forget his fiancée, Speed recommends the services of some local prostitutes to Lincoln, thus setting up one of the best few panels of character exposition of anything I’ve read recently.
He can’t go through with the act, of course, but he’s very nice about it, and this encounter sets the scene for the rest of the book. From his political aspirations to his fraught courtship of Mary Todd (who was a total badass, knew her own mind and was into politics even though this was not a seemly interest for ladies in the mid-19th Century), Lincoln is the underdog in his own life, and Van Sciver’s depiction is sufficiently sympathetic as to make the reader really root for him as he struggles against rival suitors, Mary’s family and his own anxious temperament. That’s not to say he’s presented as infallible – at times, in fact, he’s a bit of a dick. But at the end of the book, with Abe and Mary safely wed, I found that I couldn’t help but wish them a brighter future than the one they actually got (biographical spoiler alert: it isn’t all up from then on for the Lincolns).
What with the whole course of love not running smooth thing, Lincoln and Mary Todd get engaged after courting for a while, but Lincoln breaks the engagement off some time later. Mary tells him not to bother coming around any more, Joshua Speed goes home to Kentucky after his father dies and Lincoln is left alone. A nervous breakdown ensues – or, in the parlance of the time, an attack of hypochondriasis (the “hypo” of the book’s title) – and Lincoln is treated with hot baths, cold baths, mercury and bloodletting in an attempt to save his sanity. Which makes these bad boys look like something of a walk in the park. Van Sciver’s depiction of this episode, in particular, is very moving and involving – at times almost claustrophobically so – and the ten or so pages detailing Lincoln’s treatment are built upon visually and thematically in the epilogue: an illustration of the anonymous poem ‘The Suicide’s Soliloquy‘ which is thought to have been written by Lincoln.
The good news is that they manage to sort themselves out and get married, the book ending with a wedding (I’ve read enough Austen that this is a pretty damn good ending for any book). There’s also a duel along the way, which is fantastic. Because duels.
Even if The Hypo doesn’t promise you the same weird intersection of your interests as it does me, it’s definitely worth a read. It was my kind of thing because I like Lincoln, his melancholy, the excellent depiction of his firecracker of a fiancée and anything to do with historical & graphical depictions of mental illness – but the fact that it’s endearing, engaging and an all-round good read should make it your kind of thing as well.