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A history of American dreams

In 18th and 19th centuries, where did minds wander at night?

Mark Twain, recorded in his autobiography that he dreamed of his younger brother’s death in a riverboat explosion, not long before the event took place.

Globe staff photoillustration/Dan Zedek

Mark Twain, recorded in his autobiography that he dreamed of his younger brother’s death in a riverboat explosion, not long before the event took place.

In March 1841, Ichabod Cook of Mendon, Mass., a 62-year-old farmer and former member of the state Legislature, wrote down his housekeeper’s dream. He’d been collecting people’s dreams since the mid-1830s, and was convinced that he had a gift for translating them. When his neighbor Cushman told him he’d seen a deceased friend in a vision of the night, for example, and the ghost guaranteed that he would return in three months to “take him back,” Ichabod offered reassurance: “I told him in visions, a day, a week, or a month might mean a year.”

Ichabod’s housekeeper, Anne Maria, was a harder nut to crack. She had already been besieged several times that month. She’d seen a “tall spirit” one night, and was moved to hide “under the feet of an old ox”; she saw a horse grab hold of an innocent girl, then found herself screaming for help, to no avail. This time, “she dreamed somebody told her the world was coming to an end, and she walked out towards a river, and she saw a man coming in a carriage with two red horses, and when he got to the bridge he took the horses out and told them to drive off, and not to be afraid, and they dove down into the water, and brought up three of the beautifulest flowers that she ever saw.”

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Long before Sigmund Freud ushered in the age of psychoanalysis with “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1900, Americans were dream enthusiasts. Few dream collectors were as obsessive as Ichabod Cook, but the archives reveal countless examples in unpublished letters and diaries, often recorded by candlelight, before the images had time to dissipate. Several years ago, I began a project to track down these American dreams of the 18th and 19th centuries. My database would ultimately come to include more than 200 dreams from around the country, from equal numbers of men and women. Together, they help us glean just how studiously—and how anxiously—earlier generations approached the secrets that they believed lurked in their nightly visions. They paint a strangely immediate picture of a national dream life both like and unlike ours today.

In the early years of the Republic, a good night’s sleep was defined as dreamless sleep. Thomas Jefferson called dreams “our nightly incoherencies,” and regarded them as insignificant. The less dismissive John Adams found some dreams worth sharing. In one, Adams recorded, he thought he was in France, standing on a “lofty scaffold” near the royal palace of Versailles, giving a political address to an audience of wild animals. All of a sudden, the elephant “pouted his proboscis…in contempt,” and the lion roared. “Frightened out of my wits,” Adams wrote, “I leaped from the stage and made my escape.”

For the first century after American independence, the standard medical explanation for dreams was that they signaled physiological distress, usually indigestion. Persistent dreams constituted a potentially dangerous pathology—incipient madness, some said. But as the 19th century wore on, and readers were influenced by the opiated dreams of Romantic poets, more people shared their dreams with an open heart. They found amusement in the absurdity of images formed in the unconscious mind—that is, when they weren’t worrying that their dreams were a portent of things to come.

For the conventionally religious, angel sightings were common. A heavenly guide generally instructed them to look forward to a reunion with deceased loved ones. Many people dreamed of conflagrations and funeral processions, which prompted them to write nervously to family members, asking whether someone near and dear had died. As one might imagine, farm animals—like those red horses—took on greater significance for these folks. Animals either represented the loss of control (as in Adams’s dream), or they came to the dreamer’s aid.

To an extent that may surprise modern-day dreamers, these older dreams reveal men and women who possessed an intense knowledge of place. A large number of dreamers described the direction of the wind as a brush fire approached or indicated whether they were traveling a road to the east or west. To a remarkable degree, they noted the sounds they were hearing in dreams—especially the trumpets that were typically associated with heavenly music.

Other aspects of these old dreams—their mood and certain universal subject matter—would be more familiar to present-day dreamers. About three in four of the dreams I found are anxious or frightful, and only one in four pleasant or hopeful; according to modern dream researchers, this is the same ratio of anxious to pleasant dreams that people experience today. Men had a higher percentage of bad (compared to hopeful) dreams than women did. The young tended to record dreams about love—sometimes just an indistinct feeling, but just as often the classic abandonment dream of being spurned by a fiance, fiancee, husband, or wife.

Photoillustration based on John Adams' dreams

Globe staff photoillustration/Dan Zedek

In one dream, John Adams thought he was in France, standing on a “lofty scaffold” near the royal palace of versailles, giving a political address to an audience of wild animals. All of a sudden, the elephant “pouted his proboscis…in contempt,” and the lion roared.

In the years before the Civil War, a spike occurred in descriptions of the bizarre, the mysterious, the ideal—there were demonstrably more dreams of stupefaction or amazement. By this time, vivid dreamers were often perfectly willing to dismiss physicians’ warnings that dreams meant only disturbed sleep. As Henry David Thoreau noted around mid-century, dreams had the power to expose an individual’s deepest feelings: “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.” He meant that in the midst of dream-borne deceptions, we “awake” in moral terms—experiencing epiphanies that could positively inform our behavior in waking life.

The principal difference between yesterday’s dreamers and today’s is the sizable percentage who believed, as the ancients did, that dreams prophesied. Mark Twain, for instance, recorded in his autobiography that he dreamed of his younger brother’s death in a riverboat explosion, not long before the event took place. “He lay in a metallic burial case,” Twain recollected of the dream. “He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses.” The images he’d seen subconsciously were so true to life that when he eventually cast his eyes on his brother’s corpse, and saw the white roses an elderly woman had placed there, Twain’s attitude toward dreams was forever changed. He went on to join the Society for Psychical Research, wrote short stories centered on recurrent dreams, and, after one 1884 dream where he saw himself as “a knight errant in armor,” penned an entire novel about the dreamt experience: “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Perhaps there was something in the air in Hannibal, Mo., Twain’s hometown, because in 1894, an Iowa man visiting Hannibal dreamed that he was on a train, and a stranger asked him where he was going. “To the bedside of my dying boy,” he replied. The following day he received a telegram confirming the substance of his dream, and on the train home the dialogue from his dream played out. “I am not at all superstitious,” he wrote, “yet I could not shake it off.” Even more curious was a story in the St. Louis Republic in 1899. A young woman in the mining town of Prosperity, Mo., was accused in her husband’s murder. As she lay in her jail cell, she rose from a powerful dream in which her dead husband appeared before her and named his killer. “Whether what she had seen was a spirit, or only the dream of a disordered mind, she could not tell,” the reporter explained. The widow recounted the dream to her jailer. “Impressed by its vividness,” he asked the police to investigate. The suspect was located, and everything fell into place—the killer promptly confessed.

Even if it is no longer fashionable to say that dreams foretell the future, and though Freud’s primarily sexual reading of dream symbolism has now been largely dismissed as an overreach, we remain fascinated by dreams today. Popular dream guides still sell, therapists explore dream narratives with their patients, Internet sites on dream lore abound. We recognize dreams as a unique form of autobiographical evidence—we are convinced that they tell us something meaningful about our basic impulses.

To look beyond our own dreams into those of the past promises to spark new insights: It is a vision of American history from the inside out. How many people do you know who see red horses diving into a languid pool and rising from below with flowers? Dreams, after all, are images of emotional time; they conform to cultural expectations, and to look back at dreams is to see what those expectations were. By reading the dreams of earlier generations of Americans, we open a strangely intimate new window onto their lives. What we see there, in these autobiographical fragments, puts us on the road to unraveling the past’s mystery.

Andrew Burstein is the author of “Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of ­Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times
to Freud” (Palgrave, May 2013).
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