What did dreams mean for Americans before Sigmund Freud? Andrew Burstein has tackled this subject in his forthcoming book, Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud. Here is a taste of a recent Burstein essay on the subject at Salon:
I have found in my research that while Americans claimed, even then, to be a practical-minded people, they were actually mired in superstition, haunted by their dreams, and no less delighted by the invention of the Ouija board than by the cotton gin. It is their unsupported claims to wisdom that adheres most to our ancestors, and renders them intensely interesting as historical subjects. After the American Revolution, dreamers did not immediately regard dream life as a form of autobiography. It took decades before they knew their dreams as we know our dreams – as a facet of longing for which the imagination serves as a delivery vehicle.
Today’s dream scientists speculate that the function of dreams may be to restore body and mind, helping the brain to manage threats and disturbances. They say that our remembering dreams may in fact be nothing more than an evolutionary fluke. For the cultural historian, however, studying the extant dreams of past societies holds out the promise of unearthing new clues to the collective identity of entire generations.
I feel comfortable in concluding that you cannot fully appreciate the 20th century’s fascination with psychoanalysis until you first appreciate the 19th century’s fascination with dreams. The road that brought them to Freud is paved with colorful imagery and soundscapes, hauntings, illusions and echoes of love. Their footprints may be gone from our world, but in these most personal of texts they still speak to us.