Home  »  The Oxford Book of American Essays  »  XXI I Talk of Dreams

Matthews, Brander, ed. (1852–1929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.

William Dean Howells (1837– )

XXI I Talk of Dreams

BUT it is mostly my own dreams I talk of, and that will somewhat excuse me for talking of dreams at all. Everyone knows how delightful the dreams are that one dreams one’s self, and how insipid the dreams of others are. I had an illustration of the fact, not many evenings ago, when a company of us got telling dreams. I had by far the best dreams of any; to be quite frank, mine were the only dreams worth listening to; they were richly imaginative, delicately fantastic, exquisitely whimsical, and humorous in the last degree; and I wondered that when the rest could have listened to them they were always eager to cut in with some silly, senseless, tasteless thing that made me sorry and ashamed for them. I shall not be going too far if I say that it was on their part the grossest betrayal of vanity that I ever witnessed.

But the egotism of some people concerning their dreams is almost incredible. They will come down to breakfast and bore everybody with a recital of the nonsense that has passed through their brains in sleep, as if they were not bad enough when they were awake; they will not spare the slightest detail; and if, by the mercy of Heaven, they have forgotten something, they will be sure to recollect it, and go back and give it all over again with added circumstance. Such people do not reflect that there is something so purely and intensely personal in dreams that they can rarely interest anyone but the dreamer, and that to the dearest friend, the closest relation or connection, they can seldom be otherwise than tedious and impertinent. The habit husbands and wives have of making each other listen to their dreams is especially cruel. They have each other quite helpless, and for this reason they should all the more carefully guard themselves from abusing their advantage. Parents should not afflict their offspring with the rehearsal of their mental maunderings in sleep, and children should learn that one of the first duties a child owes its parents is to spare them the anguish of hearing what it has dreamed about overnight. A like forbearance in regard to the community at large should be taught as the first trait of good manners in the public schools, if we ever come to teach good manners there.


Certain exceptional dreams, however, are so imperatively significant, so vitally important, that it would be wrong to withhold them from the knowledge of those who happened not to dream them, and I feel some such quality in my own dreams so strongly that I could scarcely forgive myself if I did not, however briefly, impart them. It was only the last week, for instance, that I found myself one night in the company of the Duke of Wellington, the great Duke, the Iron one, in fact; and after a few moments of agreeable conversation on topics of interest among gentlemen, his Grace said that now, if I pleased, he would like a couple of those towels. We had not been speaking of towels, that I remember, but it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should mention them in the connection, whatever it was, and I went at once to get them for him. At the place where they gave out towels, and where I found some very civil people, they told me that what I wanted was not towels, and they gave me instead two bath-gowns, of rather scanty measure, butternut in color and Turkish in texture. The garments made somehow a very strong impression upon me, so that I could draw them now, if I could draw anything, as they looked when they were held up to me. At the same moment, for no reason that I can allege, I passed from a social to a menial relation to the Duke, and foresaw that when I went back to him with those bath-gowns he would not thank me as one gentleman would another, but would offer me a tip as if I were a servant. This gave me no trouble, for I at once dramatized a little scene between myself and the Duke, in which I should bring him the bath-gowns, and he should offer me the tip, and I should refuse it with a low bow, and say that I was an American. What I did not dramatize, or what seemed to enter into the dialogue quite without my agency, was the Duke’s reply to my proud speech. It was foreshown me that he would say, He did not see why that should make any difference. I suppose it was in the hurt I felt at this wound to our national dignity that I now instantly invented the society of some ladies, whom I told of my business with those bath-gowns (I still had them in my hands), and urged them to go with me and call upon the Duke. They expressed, somehow, that they would rather not, and then I urged that the Duke was very handsome. This seemed to end the whole affair, and I passed on to other visions, which I cannot recall.

I have not often had a dream of such international import, in the offense offered through me to the American character and its well-known superiority to tips, but I have had others quite as humiliating to me personally. In fact, I am rather in the habit of having such dreams, and I think I may not unjustly attribute to them the disciplined modesty which the reader will hardly fail to detect in the present essay. It has more than once been my fate to find myself during sleep in battle, where I behave with so little courage as to bring discredit upon our flag and shame upon myself. In these circumstances I am not anxious to make even a showing of courage; my one thought is to get away as rapidly and safely as possible. It is said that this is really the wish of all novices under fire, and that the difference between a hero and a coward is that the hero hides it, with a duplicity which finally does him honor, and that the coward frankly runs away. I have never really been in battle, and if it is anything like a battle in dreams I would not willingly qualify myself to speak by the card on this point. Neither have I ever really been upon the stage, but in dreams I have often been there, and always in a great trouble of mind at not knowing my part. It seems a little odd that I should not sometimes be prepared, but I never am, and I feel that when the curtain rises I shall be disgraced beyond all reprieve. I dare say it is the suffering from this that awakens me in time, or changes the current of my dreams so that I have never yet been actually hooted from the stage.


But I do not so much object to these ordeals as to some social experiences which I have in dreams. I cannot understand why one should dream of being slighted or snubbed in society, but this is what I have done more than once, though never perhaps so signally as in the instance I am about to give. I found myself in a large room, where people were sitting at lunch or supper around small tables, as is the custom, I am told, at parties in the houses of our nobility and gentry. I was feeling very well; not too proud, I hope, but in harmony with the time and place. I was very well dressed, for me; and as I stood talking to some ladies at one of the tables I was saying some rather brilliant things, for me; I lounged easily on one foot, as I have observed men of fashion do, and as I talked, I flipped my gloves, which I held in one hand, across the other; I remember thinking that this was a peculiarly distinguished action. Upon the whole I comported myself like one in the habit of such affairs, and I turned to walk away to another table, very well satisfied with myself and with the effect of my splendor upon the ladies. But I had got only a few paces off when I perceived (I could not see with my back turned) one of the ladies lean forward, and heard her say to the rest in a tone of killing condescension and patronage: “I don’t see why that person isn’t as well as another.”

I say that I do not like this sort of dreams, and I never would have them if I could help. They make me ask myself if I am really such a snob when I am waking, and this in itself is very unpleasant. If I am, I cannot help hoping that it will not be found out; and in my dreams I am always less sorry for the misdeeds I commit than for their possible discovery. I have done some very bad things in dreams which I have no concern for whatever, except as they seem to threaten me with publicity or bring me within the penalty of the law; and I believe this is the attitude of most other criminals, remorse being a fiction of the poets, according to the students of the criminal class. It is not agreeable to bring this home to one’s self, but the fact is not without its significance in another direction. It implies that both in the case of the dream-criminal and the deed-criminal there is perhaps the same taint of insanity; only in the deed-criminal it is active, and in the dream-criminal it is passive. In both, the inhibitory clause that forbids evil is off, but the dreamer is not bidden to do evil as the maniac is, or as the malefactor often seems to be. The dreamer is purely unmoral; good and bad are the same to his conscience; he has no more to do with right and wrong than the animals; he is reduced to the state of the merely natural man; and perhaps the primitive men were really like what we all are now in our dreams. Perhaps all life to them was merely dreaming, and they never had anything like our waking consciousness, which seems to be the offspring of conscience, or else the parent of it. Until men passed the first stage of being, perhaps that which we call the soul, for want of a better name, or a worse, could hardly have existed, and perhaps in dreams the soul is mostly absent now. The soul, or the principle that we call the soul, is the supernal criticism of the deeds done in the body, which goes perpetually on in the waking mind. While this watches, and warns or commands, we go right; but when it is off duty we go neither right nor wrong, but are as the beasts that perish.

A common theory is that the dreams which we remember are those we have in the drowse which precedes sleeping and waking; but I do not altogether accept this theory. In fact, there is very little proof of it. We often wake from a dream, literally, but there is no proof that we did not dream in the middle of the night the dream which is quite as vividly with us in the morning as the one we wake from. I should think that the dream which has some color of conscience in it was the drowse-dream, and that the dream which has none is the sleep-dream; and I believe that the most of our dreams will be found by this test to be sleep-dreams. It is in these we may know what we would be without our souls, without their supernal criticism of the mind; for the mind keeps on working in them, with the lights of waking knowledge, both experience and observation, but ruthlessly, remorselessly. By them we may know what the state of the habitual criminal is, what the state of the lunatic, the animal, the devil is. In them the personal character ceases; the dreamer is remanded to his type.


It is very strange, in the matter of dreadful dreams, how the body of the terror is, in the course of often dreaming, reduced to a mere convention. For a long time I was tormented with a nightmare of burglars, and at first I used to dramatize the whole affair in detail, from the time the burglars approached the house till they mounted the stairs and the light of their dark-lanterns shone under the door into my room. Now I have blue-penciled all that introductory detail; I have a light shining in under my door at once; I know that it is my old burglars; and I have the effect of nightmare without further ceremony. There are other nightmares that still cost me a great deal of trouble in their construction, as, for instance, the nightmare of clinging to the face of a precipice or the eaves of a lofty building; I have to take as much pains with the arrangement of these as if I were now dreaming them for the first time and were hardly more than an apprentice in the business.

Perhaps the most universal dream of all is that disgraceful dream of appearing in public places and in society with very little or nothing on. This dream spares neither age nor sex, I believe, and I daresay the innocency of wordless infancy is abused by it and dotage pursued to the tomb. I have not the least doubt Adam and Eve had it in Eden; though, up to the moment the fig-leaf came in, it is difficult to imagine just what plight they found themselves in that seemed improper; probably there was some plight. The most amusing thing about this dream is the sort of defensive process that goes on in the mind in search of self-justification or explanation. Is there not some peculiar circumstance or special condition in whose virtue it is wholly right and proper for one to come to a fashionable assembly clad simply in a towel, or to go about the street in nothing but a pair of kid gloves, or of pajamas at the most? This, or something like it, the mind of the dreamer struggles to establish, with a good deal of anxious appeal to the by-standers and a final sense of the hopelessness of the cause.

One may easily laugh off this sort of dream in the morning, but there are other shameful dreams whose inculpation projects itself far into the day, and whose infamy often lingers about one till lunch-time. Everyone, nearly, has had them, but it is not the kind of dream that anyone is fond of telling: the gross vanity of the most besotted dreamteller keeps that sort back. During the forenoon, at least, the victim goes about with the dim question whether he is not really that kind of man harassing him, and a sort of remote fear that he may be. I fancy that as to his nature and as to his mind he is so, and that but for the supernal criticism, but for his soul, he might be that kind of man in very act and deed.

The dreams we sometimes have about other people are not without a curious suggestion; and the superstitious (of those superstitious who like to invent their own superstitions) might very well imagine that the persons dreamed of had a witting complicity in their facts, as well as the dreamer. This is a conjecture that must, of course, not be forced to any conclusion. One must not go to one of these persons and ask, however much one would like to ask: “Sir, have you no recollection of such and such a thing, at such and such a time and place, which happened to us in my dream?” Any such person would be fully justified in not answering the question. It would be, of all interviewing, the most intolerable species. Yet a singular interest, a curiosity not altogether indefensible, will attach to these persons in the dreamer’s mind, and he will not be without the sense, ever after, that he and they have a secret in common. This is dreadful, but the only thing that I can think to do about it is to urge people to keep out of other people’s dreams by every means in their power.


There are things in dreams very awful, which would not be at all so in waking—quite witless and aimless things, which at the time were of such baleful effect that it remains forever. I remember dreaming when I was quite a small boy, not more than ten years old, a dream which is vivider in my mind now than anything that happened at the time. I suppose it came remotely from my reading of certain “Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque,” which had just then fallen into my hands; and it involved simply an action of the fire-company in the little town where I lived. They were working the brakes of the old fire-engine, which would seldom respond to their efforts, and as their hands rose and fell they set up the heart-shaking and soul-desolating cry of “Arms Poe! arms Poe! arms Poe!” This and nothing more was the body of my horror; and if the reader is not moved by it the fault is his and not mine; for I can assure him that nothing in my experience had been more dreadful to me.

I can hardly except the dismaying apparition of a clown whom I once saw, somewhat later in life, rise through the air in a sitting posture and float lightly over the house-roof, snapping his fingers and vaguely smiling, while the antennæ on his forehead, which clowns have in common with some other insects, nodded elasticity. I do not know why this portent should have been so terrifying, or indeed that it was a portent at all, for nothing ever came of it; what I know is that it was to the last degree threatening and awful. I never got anything but joy out of the circuses where this dream must have originated, but the pantomime of “Don Giovanni,” which I saw at the theater, was as grewsome to me waking as it was to me dreaming. The statue of the Commendatore, in getting down from his horse to pursue the wicked hero (I think that is what he gets down for), set an example by which a long line of statues afterward profited in my dreams. For many years, and I do not know but quite up to the time when I adopted burglars as the theme of my nightmares, I was almost always chased by a marble statue with an uplifted arm, and almost always I ran along the verge of a pond to escape it. I believe that I got this pond out of my remote childhood, and that it may have been a fish-pond embowered by weeping-willows which I used to admire in the door-yard of a neighbor. I have somehow a greater respect for the material of this earlier nightmare than I have for that of the later ones, and no doubt the reader will agree with me that it is much more romantic to be pursued by a statue than to be threatened by burglars. It is but a few hours ago, however, that I saved myself from these inveterate enemies by waking up just in time for breakfast. They did not come with that light of the dark-lanterns shining under the door, or I should have known them at once, and not had so much bother; but they intimated their presence in the catch of the lock, which would not close securely, and there was some question at first whether they were not ghosts. I thought of tying the door-knob on the inside of my room to my bedpost (a bedpost that has not been in existence for fifty years), but after suffering awhile I decided to speak to them from an upper window. By this time they had turned into a trio of harmless, necessary tramps, and at my appeal to them, absolutely nonsensical as I now believe it to have been, to regard the peculiar circumstances, whatever they were or were not, they did really get up from the back porch where they were seated and go quietly away.

Burglars are not always so easily to be entreated. On one occasion, when I found a party of them digging at the corner of my house on Concord Avenue in Cambridge, and opened the window over them to expostulate, the leader looked up at me in well-affected surprise. He lifted his hand, with a twenty-dollar note in it, toward me, and said: “Oh! Can you change me a twenty-dollar bill?” I expressed a polite regret that I had not so much money about me, and then he said to the rest, “Go ahead, boys,” and they went on undermining my house. I do not know what came of it all.

Of ghosts I have seldom dreamed, so far as I can remember; in fact, I have never dreamed of the kind of ghosts that we are all more or less afraid of, though I have dreamed rather often of the spirits of departed friends. But I once dreamed of dying, and the reader, who has never died yet, may be interested to know what it is like. According to this experience of mine, which I do not claim is typical, it is like a fire kindling in an air-tight stove with paper and shavings; the gathering smoke and gases suddenly burst into flame and puff the door out, and all is over.

I have not yet been led to execution for the many crimes I have committed in my dreams, but I was once in the hands of a barber who added to the shaving and shampooing business the art of removing his customers’ heads in treatment for headache. As I took my seat in his chair I had some lingering doubts as to the effect of a treatment so drastic, and I ventured to mention the case of a friend of mine, a gentleman somewhat eminent in the law, who after several weeks was still going about without his head. The barber did not attempt to refute my position. He merely said: “Oh, well, he had such a very thick sort of a head, anyway.”

This was a sarcasm, but I think it was urged as a reason, though it may not have been. We rarely bring away from sleep the things that seem so brilliant to us in our dreams. Verse is especially apt to fade away, or turn into doggerel in the memory, and the witty sayings which we contrive to remember will hardly bear the test of daylight. The most perfect thing of the kind out of my own dreams was something that I seemed to wake with the very sound of in my ears. It was after a certain dinner, which had been rather uncommonly gay, with a good deal of very good talk, which seemed to go on all night, and when I woke in the morning someone was saying: “Oh, I shouldn’t at all mind his robbing Peter to pay Paul, if I felt sure that Paul would get the money.” This I think really humorous, and an extremely neat bit of characterization; I feel free to praise it, because it was not I who said it.


Apparently the greater part of dreams have no more mirth than sense in them. This is perhaps because the man is in dreams reduced to the brute condition, and is the lawless inferior of the waking man intellectually, as the lawless in waking are always the inferiors of the lawful. Some loose thinkers suppose that if we give the rein to imagination it will do great things, but it will really do little things, foolish and worthless things, as we witness in dreams, where it is quite unbridled. It must keep close to truth, and it must be under the law if it would work strongly and sanely. The man in his dreams is really lower than the lunatic in his deliriums. These have a logic of their own; but the dreamer has not even a crazy logic.
  • “Like a dog, he hunts in dreams,”
  • and probably his dreams and the dog’s are not only alike, but are of the same quality. In his wicked dreams the man is not only animal, he is devil, so wholly is he let into his evils, as the Swedenborgians say. The wrong is indifferent to him until the fear of detection and punishment steals in upon him. Even then he is not sorry for his misdeed, as I have said before; he is only anxious to escape its consequences.

    It seems probable that when this fear makes itself felt he is near to waking; and probably when we dream, as we often do, that the thing is only a dream, and hope for rescue from it by waking, we are always just about to wake. This double effect is very strange, but still more strange is the effect which we are privy to in the minds of others when they not merely say things to us which are wholly unexpected, but think things that we know they are thinking, and that they do not express in words. A great many years ago, when I was young, I dreamed that my father, who was in another town, came into the room where I was really lying asleep and stood by my bed. He wished to greet me, after our separation, but he reasoned that if he did so I should wake, and he turned and left the room without touching me. This process in his mind, which I knew as clearly and accurately as if it had apparently gone on in my own, was apparently confined to his mind as absolutely as anything could be that was not spoken or in any wise uttered.

    Of course, it was of my agency, like any other part of the dream, and it was something like the operation of the novelist’s intention through the mind of his characters. But in this there is the author’s consciousness that he is doing it all himself, while in my dream this reasoning in the mind of another was something that I felt myself mere witness of. In fact, there is no analogy, so far as I can make out, between the process of literary invention and the process of dreaming. In the invention, the critical faculty is vividly and constantly alert; in dreaming, it seems altogether absent. It seems absent, too, in what we call day-dreaming, or that sort of dramatizing action which perhaps goes on perpetually in the mind, or some minds. But this day-dreaming is not otherwise any more like night-dreaming than invention is; for the man is never more actively and consciously a man, and never has a greater will to be fine and high and grand than in his day-dreams, while in his night-dreams he is quite willing to be a miscreant of any worst sort.

    It is very remarkable, in view of this fact, that we have now and then, though ever so much more rarely, dreams that are as angelic as those others are demoniac. Is it possible that then the dreamer is let into his goods (the word is Swedenborg’s again) instead of his evils? It may be supposed that in sleep that dreamer lies passive, while his proper soul is away, and other spirits, celestial and infernal, have free access to his mind, and abuse it to their own ends in the one case, and use it in his behalf in the other.

    That would be an explanation, but nothing seems quite to hold in regard to dreams. If it is true, why should the dreamer’s state so much oftener be imbued with evil than with good? It might be answered that the evil forces are much more positive and aggressive than the good; or that the love of the dreamer, which is his life, being mainly evil, invites the wicked spirits oftener. But that is a point which I would rather leave each dreamer to settle for himself. The greater number of everyone’s dreams, like the romantic novel, I fancy, concern incident rather than character, and I am not sure, after all, that the dream which convicts the dreamer of an essential baseness is commoner than the dream that tells in his favor morally.

    I daresay every reader of this book has had dreams so amusing that he has wakened himself from them by laughing, and then not found them so very funny, or perhaps not been able to recall them at all. I have had at least one of this sort, remarkable for other reasons, which remains perfect in my mind, though it is now some ten years old. One of the children had been exposed to a very remote chance of scarlet-fever at the house of a friend, and had been duly scolded for the risk, which was then quite forgotten. I dreamed that this friend, however, was giving a ladies’ lunch, at which I was unaccountably and invisibly present, and the talk began to run upon the scarlet-fever cases in her family. She said that after the last she had fumigated the whole house for seventy-two hours (the period seemed very significant and important in my dream), and had burned everything she could lay her hands on.

    “And what did the nurse burn?” asked one of the other ladies.

    The hostess began to laugh. “The nurse didn’t burn a thing!”

    Then all the rest burst out laughing at the joke, and the laughter woke me, to see the boy sitting up in his bed and hear him saying: “Oh, I am so sick!”

    It was the nausea which announces scarlet-fever, and for six weeks after that we were in quarantine. Very likely the fear of the contagion had been in my nether mind all the time, but, so far as consciousness could testify of it, I had wholly forgotten it.


    One rarely loses one’s personality in dreams; it is rather intensified, with all the proper circumstances and relations of it, but I have had at least one dream in which I seemed to transcend my own circumstance and condition with remarkable completeness. Even my epoch, my precious present, I left behind (or ahead, rather), and in my unity with the persons of my dream I became strictly mediæval.

    In fact, I have always called it my mediæval dream, to such as I could get to listen to it; and it had for its scene a feudal tower in some waste place, a tower open at the top and with a deep, clear pool of water at the bottom, so that it instantly became known to me, as if I had always known it, for the Pool Tower. While I stood looking into it, in a mediæval dress and a mediæval mood, there came flying in at the open door of the ruin beside me the duke’s hunchback, and after him, furious and shrieking maledictions, the swarthy beauty whom I was aware the duke was tired of. The keeping was now not only ducal, but thoroughly Italian, and it was suggested somehow to my own subtle Italian perception that the hunchback had been set on to tease the girl and provoke her so that she would turn upon him and try to wreak her fury on him and chase him into the Pool Tower and up the stone stairs that wound round its hollow to the top, where the solemn sky showed. The fearful spire of the steps was unguarded, and when I had lost the pair from sight, with the dwarf’s mocking laughter and the girl’s angry cries in my ears, there came fluttering from the height, like a bird wounded and whirling from a lofty tree, the figure of the girl, while far aloof the hunchback peered over at her fall. Midway in her descent her head struck against the edge of the steps, with a kish, such as an egg-shell makes when broken against the edge of a platter, and then plunged into the dark pool at my feet, where I could presently see her lying in the clear depths and the blood curling upward from the wound in her skull like a dark smoke. I was not sensible of any great pity; I accepted the affair, quite mediævally, as something that might very well have happened, given the girl, the duke and the dwarf, and the time and place.

    I am rather fond of a mediæval setting for those

  • “Dreams that were before the half-shut eye,”
  • just closing for an afternoon nap. Then I invite to my vision a wide landscape, with a cold, wintry afternoon light upon it, and over this plain I have bands and groups of people scurrying, in mediæval hose of divers colors and mediæval leathern jerkins, hugging themselves against the frost, and very miserable. They affect me with a profound compassion; they represent to me, somehow, the vast mass of humanity, the mass that does the work, and earns the bread, and goes cold and hungry through all the ages. I should be at a loss to say why this was the effect, and I am utterly unable to say why these fore-dreams, which I partially solicit, should have such a tremendous significance as they seem to have. They are mostly of the most evanescent and intangible character, but they have one trait in common. They always involve the attribution of ethical motive and quality to material things, and in their passage through my brain they promise me a solution of the riddle of the painful earth in the very instant when they are gone forever. They are of innumerable multitude, chasing each other with the swiftness of light, and never staying to be seized by the memory, which seems already drugged with sleep before their course begins. One of these dreams, indeed, I did capture, and I found it to be the figure 8, but lying on its side, and in that posture involving the mystery and the revelation of the mystery of the universe. I leave the reader to imagine why.

    As we grow older, I think we are less and less able to remember our dreams. This is perhaps because the experience of youth is less dense, and the empty spaces of the young consciousness are more hospitable to these airy visitants. A few dreams of my later life stand out in strong relief, but for the most part they blend in an indistinguishable mass, and pass away with the actualities into a common oblivion. I should say that they were more frequent with me than they used to be; it seems to me that now I dream whole nights through, and much more about the business of my waking life than formerly. As I earn my living by weaving a certain sort of dreams into literary form, it might be supposed that I would some time dream of the personages in these dreams, but I cannot remember that I have ever done so. The two kinds of inventing, the voluntary and the involuntary, seem absolutely and finally distinct.

    Of the prophetic dreams which people sometimes have I have mentioned the only one of mine which had any dramatic interest, but I have verified in my own experience the theory of Ribot that approaching disease sometimes intimates itself in dreams of the disorder impending, before it is otherwise declared in the organism. In actual sickness I think that I dream rather less than in health. I had a malarial fever when I was a boy, and I had a sort of continuous dream in it that distressed me greatly. It was of gliding down the school-house stairs without touching my feet to the steps, and this was indescribably appalling.

    The anguish of mind that one suffers from the imaginary dangers of dreams is probably of the same quality as that inspired by real peril in waking. A curious proof of this happened within my knowledge not many years ago. One of the neighbor’s children was coasting down a long hill with a railroad at the foot of it, and as he neared the bottom an express-train rushed round the curve. The flagman ran forward and shouted to the boy to throw himself off his sled, but he kept on and ran into the locomotive, and was so hurt that he died. His injuries, however, were to the spine, and they were of a kind that rendered him insensible to pain while he lived. He talked very clearly and calmly of his accident, and when he was asked why he did not throw himself off his sled, as the flag-man bade him, he said: “I thought it was a dream.” The reality had, through the mental stress, no doubt transmuted itself to the very substance of dreams, and he had felt the same kind and quality of suffering as he would have done if he had been dreaming. The Norwegian poet and novelist Björnstjerne Björnson was at my house shortly after this happened, and he was greatly struck by the psychological implications of the incident; it seemed to mean for him all sorts of possibilities in the obscure realm where it cast a fitful light.

    But such a glimmer soon fades, and the darkness thickens round us again. It is not with the blindfold sense of sleep that we shall ever find out the secret of life, I fancy, either in the dreams which seem personal to us each one, or those universal dreams which we apparently share with the whole race. Of the race-dream, as I may call it, there is one hardly less common than that dream of going about insufficiently clad, which I have already mentioned, and that is the dream of suddenly falling from some height and waking with a start. The experience before the start is extremely dim, and latterly I have condensed this dread almost as much as the preliminary passages of my burglar-dream. I am aware of nothing but an instant of danger, and then comes the jar or jolt that wakens me. Upon the whole, I find this a great saving of emotion, and I do not know but there is a tendency, as I grow older, to shorten up the detail of what may be styled the conventional dream, the dream which we have so often that it is like a story read before. Indeed, the plots of dreams are not much more varied than the plots of romantic novels, which are notoriously stale and hackneyed. It would be interesting, and possibly important, if some observer would note the recurrence of this sort of dreams and classify their varieties. I think we should all be astonished to find how few and slight the variations were.


    If I come to speak of dreams concerning the dead, it must be with a tenderness and awe that all who have had them will share with me. Nothing is more remarkable in them than the fact that the dead, though they are dead, yet live, and are, to our commerce with them, quite like all other living persons. We may recognize, and they may recognize, that they are no longer in the body, but they are as verily living as we are. This may be merely an effect from the doctrine of immortality which we all hold or have held, and yet I would fain believe that it may be something like proof of it. No one really knows, or can know, but one may at least hope, without offending science, which indeed no longer frowns so darkly upon faith. This persistence of life in those whom we mourn as dead, may not it be a witness of the fact that the consciousness cannot accept the notion of death at all, and,
  • “Whatever crazy sorrow saith,”
  • that we have never truly felt them lost? Sometimes those who have died come back in dreams as parts of a common life which seems never to have been broken; the old circle is restored without a flaw; but whether they do this, or whether it is acknowledged between them and us that they have died, and are now disembodied spirits, the effect of life is the same. Perhaps in those dreams they and we are alike disembodied spirits, and the soul of the dreamer, which so often seems to abandon the body to the animal, is then the conscious entity, the thing which the dreamer feels to be himself, and is mingling with the souls of the departed on something like the terms which shall hereafter be constant.

    I think very few of those who have lost their beloved have failed to receive some sign or message from them in dreams, and often it is of deep and abiding consolation. It may be that this is our anguish compelling the echo of love out of the darkness where nothing is, but it may be that there is something there which answers to our throe with pity and with longing like our own. Again, no one knows, but in a matter impossible of definite solution I will not refuse the comfort which belief can give. Unbelief can be no gain, and belief no loss. But those dreams are so dear, so sacred, so interwoven with the finest and tenderest tissues of our being that one cannot speak of them freely, or indeed more than most vaguely. It is enough to say that one has had them, and to know that almost everyone else has had them, too. They seem to be among the universal dreams, and a strange quality of them is that, though they deal with a fact of universal doubt, they are, to my experience at least, not nearly so fantastic or capricious as the dreams that deal with the facts of every-day life and with the affairs of people still in this world.

    I do not know whether it is common to dream of faces or figures strange to our waking knowledge, but occasionally I have done this. I suppose it is much the same kind of invention that causes the person we dream of to say or do a thing unexpected to us. But this is rather common, and the creation of a novel aspect, the physiognomy of a stranger, in the person we dream of, is rather rare. In all my dreams I can recall but one presence of the kind. I have never dreamed of any sort of monster foreign to my knowledge, or even of any grotesque thing made up of elements familiar to it; the grotesqueness has always been in the motive or circumstance of the dream. I have very seldom dreamed of animals, though once, when I was a boy, for a time after I had passed a corn-field where there were some bundles of snakes, writhen and knotted together in the cold of an early spring day, I had dreams infested by like images of those loathsome reptiles. I suppose that everyone has had dreams of finding his way through unnamable filth and of feeding upon hideous carnage; these are clearly the punishment of gluttony, and are the fumes of a rebellious stomach.

    I have heard people say they have sometimes dreamed of a thing, and awakened from their dream and then fallen asleep and dreamed of the same thing; but I believe that this is all one continuous dream; that they did not really awaken, but only dreamed that they awakened. I have never had any such dream, but at one time I had a recurrent dream, which was so singular that I thought no one else had ever had a recurrent dream till I proved that it was rather common by starting the inquiry in the Contributors’ Club in the Atlantic Monthly, when I found that great numbers of people have recurrent dreams. My own recurrent dreams began to come during the first year of my consulate at Venice, where I had hoped to find the same kind of poetic dimness on the phases of American life, which I wished to treat in literature, as the distance in time would have given. I should not wish any such dimness now; but those were my romantic days, and I was sorely baffled by its absence. The disappointment began to haunt my nights as well as my days, and a dream repeated itself from week to week for a matter of eight or ten months to one effect. I dreamed that I had gone home to America, and that people met me and said, “Why, you have given up your place!” and I always answered: “Certainly not; I haven’t done at all what I mean to do there, yet. I am only here on my ten days’ leave.” I meant the ten days which a consul might take each quarter without applying to the Department of State; and then I would reflect how impossible it was that I should make the visit in that time. I saw that I should be found out and dismissed from my office and publicly disgraced. Then, suddenly, I was not consul at Venice, and had not been, but consul at Delhi, in India; and the distress I felt would all end in a splendid Oriental phantasmagory of elephants and native princes, with their retinues in procession, which I suppose was mostly out of my reading of De Quincey. This dream, with no variation that I can recall, persisted till I broke it up by saying, in the morning after it had recurred, that I had dreamed that dream again; and so it began to fade away, coming less and less frequently, and at last ceasing altogether.

    I am rather proud of that dream; it is really my battlehorse among dreams, and I think I will ride away on it.

    [From Impressions and Experiences, by W. D. Howells. Copyright, 1896, by W. D. Howells.]