BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Everybody's looking for something ...

Sometime I think my epitaph might end up being “they were all odd books”, as often as I start off noting that the title being reviewed “was an odd one”, but this is certainly well among the ranks of the odd books. I picked up Andrew Burstein's Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud at the dollar store, which could be considered the natural habitat of “odd” books, ones that didn't manage to get traction via the retail channels. Frankly, from the title, I'd expected this to be more woo-woo than it ended up being. I suppose that, had I checked out the author's bio before getting into it, I would have been less off-base, as he's a history professor with a dozen books out (primarily about Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionary-era figures), as well as presence in various media. Interestingly, this book had been offered in the “Early Reviewers” program back when it was coming out in May 2013, and for some reason I'd not requested it then.

In contrast to one of my on-going gripes, the subtitle here is closer to what the book is about than what the title might imply. This could be due to the author's son coming up with the title (and most of the chapter titles), as a more descriptive title would have been “Dreams In Early America”. Burstein does go into a bit of a defining in the Preface:
      Let me underscore that this book, while an emotional history, is not an “interpretation of dreams” sort of book. Dream-interpretation guides have been disseminated across centuries and across cultures. Their chief value is as cultural artifacts. Modern neuroscience has determined that the symbolic character of dreaming, so central to past analysis, has been overdrawn. This includes the work of Freud, whose sexualization of dream symbols is now widely discredited. Yet dream researchers around the world are asking more questions than ever before about the meaning of our dreams. Influenced by their writings, I engage repeatedly with imagery, labyrinthian stagecraft, and identifiable feelings exposed in dreams. We may not understand them fully, but to any historian, impulses matter.

      This book is about Americans who lived from the late colonial era to the opening of the twentieth century. Its cutoff date is the arrival of modern psychoanalysis with the publication of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. I say with confidence that you cannot understand the twentieth century's fascination with psychology unless you first understand prior generations and their fascination with dreams. We know how our American ancestors communicated across distance. We have a pretty good sense of how the modern world became modern. We tend to be less sensitive to the subtler changes taking place across time and space in the moral imagination and in face-to-face communication. As a product of culture, dreams offer new clues to the boundaries within which emotions were allowed to be revealed and recorded.
The book's eight chapters (plus Epilogue) are set out across three Parts, which are chronological divisions, “To 1800”, “1801 – 1860”, and “1861 – 1900”. The chapters themselves have titles like “From a Lofty Scaffold, John Adams Spies an Elephant”, which don't represent themes, but pull particular images from a random story in each chapter (they don't even seem to be targeting famous names, as three of the eight didn't ring a bell for me). The book pretty much starts out with Revolutionary figure Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, despite being a scientist, wrote down many of his dreams. Indeed, it appears that writing to one's friends and relatives notes that included the content of one's dreams seemed to be a fairly common thing at the time. Unfortunately, I only have a handful of my little bookmarks in here, which means that few among the multitude of stories particularly stood out. Certainly, it's interesting in the opening chapters to read about dreams (an personal situations they revealed) of notables such as John Adams, but few of these appeared essential towards understanding the book as a whole.

The subject of dreams appears to have been widely integrated across colonial society. Not only did Dr. Rush lecture on the subject, and dreams were topics of letters, but they also appeared in popular booklets and even newspapers, where readers would send in reports of their dreams (and get them published). Burstein further notes that the Philadelphia Magazine (edited in 1775-6 by the great Thomas Paine) included articles which “addressed the dream state”. There were additionally those who were attempting to create a national mythos via “epic poetry”, which often used dreams as set-ups for the “visionary strains” of “an empire of imagination”. A popular genre in the late 1700's was the “dream book”, in which angel dreams were a frequent theme.
Why did so many early Americans dream of guiding angels and dead relatives, receiving glimpses of heaven from their keen, all-knowing nocturnal visitors? Think of the regular church-bell ringing as funerals took place in every community. This was their world: burying children, burying neighbors.
Needless to say, the bloodshed of the Revolution didn't do anything to lessen the frequency of funerary activity. The author goes into the various permutations of these books, and has the following (where I did have a bookmark) which I thought was very interesting in terms of putting this all in classical context:
      Nary a one of the dream guides of this era failed to highlight Artemidorus, the Roman dream master from the second century A.D., who lived in what is today western Turkey. The greatest of ancient interpreters to have had his teachings preserved, Artemidorus saw nocturnal vision as lighting the way to the future. Greek temples as early as the seventh century B.C. show dream therapy being practiced, and Artemidorus famously placed all dreams into one of two categories, as either oneroi, the future-directed, or enhypnia, the mundane and meaningless. Consistent with the eighteenth-century medicalized association of anxiety dreams with obvious biological processes, he dismissed dreams that taught nothing or simply went over the day's events – dreams that did not predict – as deriving “from an irrational desire and extraordinary fear, or from a surfeit or lack of food.” And he added “People who live an upright, moral life do not have enhypnia or any other irrational fantasies …, for their minds are not muddled by fears or expectations.” Instead of wasting their time on bad dreams, they allow their souls to wander into the place of oracles.
As well as dipping back into the Greco-Roman world, there are some digressions here into Native American use of dreams, both as direct reports, and the records of missionaries. This then leads at a look at some Afro-Carribean dream work, which leads back to Dr. Rush, who was “an early and vehement opponent of slavery” and “used the dream formula in putting forward his view in opposition” to it.

Again, the bulk of the book is what Burstein dug up in his research, organized in a general chronological flow, yet grouped together to illustrate certain themes. Unfortunately, it's beyond what I'm able to bring to this page to create a sensible set of highlights (such as long-time president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, “kept a diary in which he occasionally noted the dreams others told to him that he found especially curious” – with numerous examples). He gets into some of the developing religious groups such as the Shakers and the Quakers, and how dreams manifested in those and numerous other organizations of enthusiasts of “the all-important subject of vital religion”. This then sort of morphs into a look at the Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, etc.), who were widely read in America (Byron appears to have been a favorite of Abraham Lincoln). Playing off of this, at one point the author notes:
Citizens in the early years of the republic, rather than stigmatize themselves, limited themselves to acceptable scenarios in dreams that they narrated. They wrote down dreams that they could nearly understand. As the nineteenth century proceeded, the necessity of doing that diminished. Workaday people marveled as the poets captured the wild beauty of dreams and artfully imagined the outer limits of what a dream can say.
The book moves on to some American authors, such as Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (oddly) tales of several mid-level political figures whose dreams managed to survive in a form that Burstein could discover a century or more later. There are a number of rambling looks at people who were “noted dreamers” (as I suppose one would put it), and how dreams wove through their experiences … some of which are presented as pages of excerpts from diary entries. The second part of the book ends with a brief name-check of Walt Whitman, who “assimilated the song of nation into the song of self”, standing in for the general “nostalgic or utopian visions” of the mid 1800s.

The last section deals with dreams of the latter half of the 1800s, which means, of course, the Civil War. The topic of dreams seems to have been all over the board, from dreams pressing the stances of both sides of the abolitionist cause, then the war, to dreams involving Lincoln, among many other political and military figures. Needless to say, a large percentage of these were “invented dreams” put out for their propaganda value. Still,
In their letters and diaries, enlisted men, wives and sweethearts, families caught between the warring sides, and hapless prisoners enduring miserable conditions all contributed errant dreams to the emotion-packed literature of the day.
This listing of voices pretty much defines what's in a good deal of the last Part of the book. In between narratives of forlorn dreamers, there's a couple of digressions into thing such as music in dreams. The Civil War material leads up, as one might expect, to the dreaming of the title character, with a good amount about what Lincoln thought about dreams, and a few of his own (including the prophetic one). The post-war period again returns to authors (who, I'd guess, make for good source material, being in the habit of writing things down), with Louisa May Alcott (and her hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was still keeping “a reliable journal in the postbellum years”), and Mark Twain – who is the subject of a chapter's title. Twain's well-documented career gets several pages, before serving as a pivot point to William James and the Society for Psychical Research, for which dreams were just one of a number of ways of reaching other realities. The author notes:
More or less from the day the Civil War ended, both published and unpublished dream reports took on an increasingly sensational character. It was not by chance: they were meant to be deliberately shocking.
Much of what follows this revelation sound quite like what one might find blaring from the covers of check-out line racks at the grocery store. Needless to say, the newspapers of the day used these sorts of dream reports as ways to build circulation, involving contests to find a “Champion Dreamer”, etc., … “Dreams made good copy.” However:
The final two decades of the nineteenth century have been dubbed the “golden age” of memory studies, when the fast-developing discipline of pschology turned to the nature of memory and related pathologies. … Thus, a movement was under way in the study of the human will and the nature of introspection, even before Freud and his younger associate Carl Jung burst onto the scene.
In the Epilogue (titled “Were They Like Us?”) Burstein attempts to pull together many of the threads and metadata run through the rest of the book. Frankly, I think I'd recommend folks to read this first, as it puts a context around everything else that goes before, and it would make quite an interesting free-standing essay. Although I have half of my little bookmarks in this section, none of them point to “pithy” quotes to drop in here, just places where the author's arguments appear to be particularly solid, given the preceding material.

Lincoln Dreamt He Died appears to be out of print in the hardcover edition that I have, but seems to be available as either a paperback or an e-book. The new/used guys have the hardcover for a few bucks (new), which, with shipping, is still less than what the paperback is going for. While I rather liked the over-all thrust of this book (and the Epilogue), I must admit that reading lots and lots and lots of ordinary people's dreams got to be a bit of a drag. However, I'm a cranky cynic, and if you're more open to that sort of thing, you probably would find this a perfectly engaging read.

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Tags: book review

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