In 1858, Mark Twain had a prophetic dream of the death of his brother. In 1958, or possibly a year or so earlier, I experienced a prophetic dream of my own, on a subject vastly more banal. Specifically, a full-page panel of a “Blackhawk” comic book.
Samuel Clemens–Twain’s original name–was a 22-year-old steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River at the time of his dream. I was 9 or 10, probably in fifth grade. Obviously, there are some pretty big differences between my experience and that of the iconic author. But also some resemblances, which may point the way to the solution of an otherwise baffling mystery.
I’ll tell about my precognitive “Blackhawk” dream in next week’s post. First let’s talk about Twain.
I hadn’t known about Twain’s dream until a little over a month ago, when I read about it in Jeffrey Kripal’s wonderful book Comparing Religions, to which I’ve devoted my last two blog posts. The story is taken from Twain’s autobiography. I’ll need to say a few things about the context of that story, and come to the dream in a roundabout way, if we’re to get a handle on what Twain’s experience was about.
It’s a curious document, that autobiography. It was never published during Twain’s lifetime; he himself didn’t want it to appear until 100 years after his death. (Hence, presumably, the timing of the first volume of the University of California edition: 2010. Twain died in 1910.) It wasn’t an easy book for him to write. After a few dozen false starts, he finally got launched on it at the beginning of 1906, when he engaged a first-rate stenographer and began dictating it to her in a series of rambling, almost free-associative sessions. He was 70 years old.
On January 12, 1906, Twain found himself reminiscing about something called “the Monday Evening Club.” This Club, in which he was active from 1873 to 1891, met bi-weekly in Hartford, Connecticut. Each meeting, attended by 12-15 men, involved the hearing of “an essay and a discussion. … The essayist could choose his own subject and talk twenty minutes on it, from manuscript or orally according to his preference. Then the discussion followed, and each member present was allowed ten minutes in which to express his views.”
On the evening of January 21, 1884, the topic for discussion was “Dreams.”
“The talk passed from mouth to mouth in the usual serene way.” Then someone named Charles Perkins, whom Twain despised, got up to express his views. “The substance of his wandering twaddle,” Twain remembered, “was that there is nothing in dreams. Dreams merely proceed from indigestion–there is no quality of intelligence in them. … Nobody, in our day, but the stupid or the ignorant attaches any significance to them.”
To which Twain retorted with his dream story:
“In 1858 I was a steersman on board the swift and popular New Orleans and St. Louis packet, Pennsylvania. … Then in the early days of May, 1858, came a tragic trip–the last trip of that fleet and famous steamboat. I have told all about it in one of my books called ‘Old Times on the Mississippi.’ [Published as Life on the Mississippi.] But it is not likely that I told the dream in that book. … It is impossible that I can ever have published it, I think, because I never wanted my mother to know about that dream, and she lived several years after I published that volume.”
(Why didn’t Twain want his mother to know about the dream? There’s a clue here, I think. Presently we’ll follow it up.)
Samuel Clemens–I’ll call him that for now–had found a clerk’s position on the boat for his 19-year-old brother Henry. One night while they were in port at St. Louis, lodging with a relative, he had his dream.
“In the morning when I awoke I had been dreaming, and the dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me, and I thought it was real. In the dream I had seen Henry a corpse. He lay in a metallic burial case. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the centre. The casket stood upon a couple of chairs.”
Clemens got up and dressed, and went to the sitting room in his relative’s house, in which (in the dream) the casket had lain. He was about to go into the room, but held back. He wasn’t, he says, yet ready to face his mother. Not until he’d gone outside, and walked a block and a half, did it come to him: this was only a dream.
He raced back to the house and bounded up the steps to the sitting room. To his relief–no casket.
The brothers traveled together to New Orleans on the Pennsylvania. Then they parted. Henry went back upriver with the Pennsylvania; Samuel followed the next day on another boat. Slowly he became aware of the terrible news: just below Memphis, the Pennsylvania‘s boilers had exploded. He reached Memphis to find his brother horribly, and he was told fatally, injured by scalding steam.
For a time it appeared that, contrary to the prognosis, Henry was recovering. But then he was accidentally given an overdose of morphine for his pain, and died of it.
“I think he died about dawn, I don’t remember as to that. He was carried to the dead-room and I went away for a while to a citizen’s house and slept off some of my accumulated fatigue–and meantime something was happening. The coffins provided for the dead were of unpainted white pine, but in this instance some of the ladies of Memphis had made up a fund of sixty dollars and bought a metallic case, and when I came back and entered the dead-room Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. He had borrowed it without my knowledge during our last sojourn in St. Louis; and I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went–and I think I missed one detail; but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the centre of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast.”
This was the story, Twain assured his stenographer (and future readers) in 1906, that he’d told at the “Monday Evening Club” in 1884–about an incident that took place in 1858.
He recalled, also, that some of his fellow Club members hadn’t been entirely persuaded. “It is a good many years ago,” someone called “Rev. Dr. Burton” remarked to Twain on that occasion. “Have you told it several times since?”
Yes, Twain had to admit: he’d told and retold it, possibly a total of 70 or 80 times.
An oft-told tale, Burton pointed out, is bound to accumulate some embellishment over the years. How much of Twain’s story was embroidery?
“I don’t think any of it is embroidery,” Twain replied. “I think it is all just as I have stated it, detail by detail.”
Yet Burton’s doubts shook Twain’s confidence. He didn’t tell the dream again until the 1906 session with his stenographer–at which time he was more convinced than ever that his memory was accurate.
“I don’t believe that I ever really had any doubts whatever concerning the salient points of the dream, for those points are of such a nature that they are pictures, and pictures can be remembered, when they are vivid, much better than one can remember remarks and unconcreted facts. Although it has been so many years since I have told that dream, I can see those pictures now just as clearly defined as if they were before me in this room.”
At no point does he ever seem to have written down the dream–certainly not in the crucial space of time between its occurrence and its fulfillment. In a person whose life was devoted to writing, this comes across as just a trifle odd.
So the authenticity of the dream is supported by the dreamer’s retrospective conviction, that he’d seen the events in the dream before experiencing them in reality. This is not a conviction to be easily dismissed.
As Sigmund Freud wrote about a parallel though less dramatic instance of prophetic dreaming: the dreamer’s “conviction must have been justified; its content may, however, require to be re-interpreted.”
Which is what I’ll try to do, in the next two segments of this post.
by David Halperin
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