An acclaimed historian dives headlong into the dreams of some iconic Americans.
Had Burstein (History/Louisiana State Univ.; Madison and Jefferson, 2010) written a book about a small selection of famous people and their documented dreams, it would have been much more interesting than this book. The author provides an occasionally intriguing but mostly tedious history of how dreams were interpreted throughout the 19th century in the United States and the changes in the importance they were afforded. Often, dreams were discounted as just superstition or a result of indigestion. They reconciled the past with the present and anticipated the future, usually reflecting the journey of life. Thomas Jefferson thought of dreams as fallacious, inconsequential thoughts. Still, there were those who studied and lectured on dreams—e.g., Jefferson’s friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, though he thought of them as a low grade of delirium. There were also those who collected dreams, notably Ichabod Cook, who interviewed countless people. Many of his acquaintances came to him often with their dreams. Does knowing someone will listen increase the animation in one’s dreams? The evolution of dream importance and interpretation may be an interesting topic for many readers, but the narrative here is too scattershot. Other significant figures profiled by Burstein include the titular Lincoln, John Adams, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas De Quincey and Louisa May Alcott.
Readers who believe dreams are predictive will likely enjoy this book, which is really only saved by the author’s talent as a writer. Burstein should drop the dream interpreting and stick to the history of our forefathers.