In the 18th century, many Americans were dubious of dreams, considering them to be products of bad indigestion or possible portents of mental illness, and were not likely to record or analyze them. This changed over the course of the 19th century, when people began to think of dreams as omens of things to come, or portals to an inner world.
In other words, it became cool to start telling people your dreams. Even if you were a President. Or Mark Twain.
In his book Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud, historian Andrew Burstein chronicles this transformation in attitudes. To help understand this transition, here are eight 19th-century dreams, drawn from journals, letters, and autobiographies and analyzed in Burstein’s book, that show how Americans learned to stop worrying and love their nighttime visions.
I seldom think twice of a Dream but last night I had one of so singular a nature that it has amused my mind today with various conjectures. I was riding in my Coach, where I know not, but at all once I perceived flying in the Air a number of large black [cannon] Balls of the size of a 24 pounder. They appeard to be all directed at me. All of them however burst and fell before they reach’d me, tho I continued going immediately toward them, I saw them crumble all to Attoms. But during this scene, two Guns were dischargd at my left Ear the flash of which I saw[,] and heard the report. I still remained unhurt, but proceeded undaunted upon my course. how would the soothsayers interpret this Dream?
Abigail Adams often dreamed of her husband during long separations. (In this, she was like more than one spouse whose dreams appear in Burstein’s book; the difficulty of travel in the 19th century made such periods of separation common.) But this dream was different. “Any soothsayer worth his sooth,” Burstein writes, “would tell her that the cannonballs were political attacks on her husband, the president, which she felt as keenly if not more than he.” The frame Adams puts around her dream (“I seldom think twice of a Dream…” and the light closing reference to “soothsayers”) is typical of the 18th-century educated person’s tendency to discount dream analysis as a foolish practice. “Dream interpreters in early America were as widespread as forgers, purveyors of instant cures, and other hucksters,” Burstein writes.
“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.
Looking to convince two estranged friends to reconcile, Benjamin Rush sent John Adams a long transcript of a history he supposedly read in a dream. Rush, unlike many of his contemporaries, was interested in his own dreams and recorded them often. “As we consider whether, unlike his other dreams, Rush had simply manufactured this one as a friendly conspiracy,” Burstein writes, “we should note that, by 1809, he was already much in the habit of telling Adams his dreams.” The dream letter is part of a longer correspondence in which the men exchanged nighttime visions as part of their friendly intimacy; often, these dreams centered on current political events. In this letter, Rush “foretold” Adams and Jefferson’s reconciliation, and added that it would be followed by the death of both men, “nearly at the same time.” Both of these events eventually came to pass.
Washington Irving to his diary, November 25, 1825
Last night dreamed of being in a large old house—found it giving way above—escaped and saw it falling to ruins—it took fire—thought all my property and especially my manuscripts were in it—rushed toward the house exclaiming, I am not now worth a sixpence—found one room of the house uninjured, and my brother, E.I., in it arranging papers, wiping books, etc.—told me that he had just managed to save everything that belonged to us by putting them into this one room that remained uninjured.
Washington Irving’s fame came from writing books in which characters often dreamed (perhaps most famous is his story of Rip Van Winkle). Yet Irving rarely recorded his own dreams; this one is an exception. “Fortunes came and went in the volatile decade of the 1820s,” Burstein writes. The writer invested poorly and his brothers (including “E.I,” Ebenezer Irving, who helped with his business affairs) were much more financially successful than he was. The anxiety dream has obvious connections to Irving’s own life.
Charles Ball, former slave, circa 1804, as recounted in his 1837 autobiography
I thought I had, by some means, escaped from my master, and through infinite and unparalleled dangers and sufferings, had made my way back to Maryland; and was again in the cabin of my wife, with two of my little children on my lap, whilst their mother was busy in preparing for me a supper of fried fish, such as she often dressed, when I was at home.
Here is the sad dream of an enslaved man who had been sold away from his family, included in a narrative meant to convince readers of the evils of slavery. The dream speaks to readers who might recognize and feel sympathy with the plight of a person whose mind refused to catch up with his present state of distress. Its inclusion shows how often the heightened feelings felt in dreams were deployed in 19th-century American literature in order to emphasize the emotional truth of a situation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal, December 20, 1840
A droll dream last night, whereat I ghastly laughed. A congregation assembled, like some of our late Conventions, to debate the Institution of Marriage; & grave & alarming objections stated on all hands to the usage; when one speaker at last rose & began to reply to the arguments, but suddenly extended his hand & turned on the audience the spout of an engine which was copiously supplied from within the wall with water & whisking it vigorously about, up, down, right, & left, he drove all the company in crowds hither & thither & out of the house. Whilst I stood watching astonished & amused at the malice & vigor of the orator, I saw the spout lengthened by a supply of hose behind, & the man suddenly brought it round a corner & drenched me as I gazed. I woke up relieved to find myself quite dry, and well convinced that the Institution of Marriage was safe for tonight.
Emerson wrote about dreams constantly, interested in their relationship with waking reality, and the way they did, or did not, free the mind to think outside of its accustomed tracks. The writer recorded the absurdity of his dreams with interest—an interest that, Burstein writes, paralleled antebellum American literature and art’s fascination with the realms of the sublime and transcendental. And “the sudden amplification of autobiographical fragments” in dream writing in the middle of the 19th century, Burstein writes, “says that people were striving to know themselves better and were less afraid that their dreams might reveal flaws in character.”
Henry David Thoreau in his journal, October 26, 1851
I awoke this morning to infinite regret. In my dream I had been riding, but the horses bit each other and occasioned endless trouble and anxiety, and it was my employment to hold their heads apart. Next I sailed over the sea in a small vessel such as the Northmen used, as it were to the Bay of Fundy, and thence overland I sailed, still over the shallows about the sources of rivers toward the deeper channel of a stream which emptied into the Gulf beyond,—the Miramichi, was it? Again I was in my own small pleasure-boat, learning to sail on the sea, and I raised my sail before my anchor, which I dragged far into the sea. I saw the buttons which had come off the coats of drowned men, and suddenly I saw my dog—when I knew not that I had one—standing in the sea up to his chin, to warm his legs, which had been wet, which the cool wind numbed…
“So many of their anxiety dreams were seafaring dreams,” Burstein said to me of 19th-century Americans. “They took place in the Age of Sail. So whereas somebody today might have an anxiety dream that involves some kind of modern conveyance—I know I have dreams where I’m in a car and I’m driving, I might be lost, or there’s a scary turn, that sort of thing—their anxiety dreams very often would take place on the water.”
Upon waking, Thoreau writes at the end of his description of this long dream: “Methought I was a musical instrument from which I heard a strain die out, a bugle, or a clarinet, or a flute. My body was the organ and channel of melody, as a flute is of the music that is breathed through it. My flesh sounded and vibrated still to the strain, and my nerves were the chords of the lyre.” Burstein told me that 19th-century thinkers like Thoreau were very interested in the impact of various activities on the nervous system: “Their world was one in which the nervous constitution of a human being was front and center.” And so the physical impact of dreams was of great import.
Dream of Abraham Lincoln, supposedly told to Ward Hill Lamon, 1865
About ten days ago I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream…Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping…I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along…Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments.
Ward Hill Lamon, a bodyguard and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, included a chapter in his memoirs of his time with the late President titled “Dreams and Presentiments.” Dreams, Lamon reported, “sometimes elated and sometimes disturbed [Lincoln] in a very astonishing degree.” This President was in “cordial sympathy” with “plain people” who “believed…in the marvelous as revealed in presentiments and dreams.” Lincoln’s interest in his own dreams was part and parcel with the 19th-century drift away from scorn of dreams and toward an avid interest in their meaning.
Lamon claimed to be describing this particular dream from notes “made immediately after its recital,” a few days before Lincoln’s assassination. The dream corpse in vestments was Lincoln himself.
Mark Twain to his journal, August 10, 1898
Last night dreamed of a whaling cruise in a drop of water. Not by microscope, but actually. This would mean a reduction of the participants to a minuteness which would make them nearly invisible to God and he wouldn’t be interested in them any longer. Lying thinking about this, concluded to write a dispute between a microscope and a telescope—one could pull a moral out of that.
“We begin to see in the postbellum years a more familiar (modern) expression of dream disorientation,” Burstein writes. “It does not require opium, or even poetic engagement, to sense the new uncanny.” Twain’s fascination with the upside-down world to be found in dreams fed into his work, and into his hobbyist’s interest in psychic phenomena.
By this time, American interest in dreams had laid the groundwork for this country’s interest in Freud. “Why was it that Freud was such a big hit in America?” Burstein asked me. “Why did it take longer for his teachings to catch on in his native Europe? It was because Americans had gone through this history…where they became more and more engaged with the dream state.”
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