Author Q&A: Ann Marie Plane, Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England

15258Today we have Ann Marie Plane, author of Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England: Indians, Colonists, and the Seventeenth Century. From angels to demonic specters, astonishing visions to devilish terrors, dreams inspired, challenged, and soothed the men and women of seventeenth-century New England. English colonists considered dreams to be fraught messages sent by nature, God, or the Devil; Indians of the region often welcomed dreams as events of tremendous significance. Dreams offered entry to "invisible worlds" that contained vital knowledge not accessible by other means and were viewed as an important source of guidance in the face of war, displacement, shifts in religious thought, and intercultural conflict. Utilizing firsthand accounts of dreams as well as evolving social interpretations of them, Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England explores these little-known aspects of colonial life as a key part of intercultural contact.

(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico; William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience; Martin Jacobs, Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World; Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century)

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Penn Press: You quote Merle Curti as saying “the American interest in the nocturnal dream is for the most part an untold story.” What made you want to begin telling this “story,” and especially the story of those dreamers in the seventeenth century?

Ann Marie Plane: One of the hardest things in Colonial American history is finding new sources and fresh perspectives. This is perhaps especially true in colonial New England, one of the most intensively studied regions of early North America. When I began this project, I wanted to focus on something that would allow me to explore the interior experience and emotional texture of life in colonial societies—for both Native Americans and European colonists. I cannot remember now whether it was more of a bolt from the blue or a gradually sneaking realization that dream texts had largely been hiding in plain sight, located in well-known diaries and letters and religious tracts, but largely unexplored by previous generations of historians. So it was the reinterpretation of these sources that seemed most exciting to me at first.

Can you elaborate on the “Invisible Worlds” mentioned? Did Native Americans and colonists agree on the surrounding invisible worlds, or were these worlds hotly contested among them?

The Invisible World of the title is intentionally ambiguous on this point. The colonists certainly talked explicitly about the “Invisible World” as a far more important and potent site than the quotidian world of daily life—what was in plain sight everyday was often not the most important thing to see, from their perspective. Sometimes it was even a deception to be seen through. For them, the Invisible World was the site of conflicts between God and Satan; the center of the cosmic drama in which human beings were relatively insignificant actors. While missionaries like John Eliot tried to introduce Native Peoples to this great drama—and while colonists like Eliot believed that the New World was a very powerful new theater for this old contest—I can only imagine that Native American peoples interpreted the Invisible World of the Europeans from their own perspectives. For them, dreams could be a conduit between worlds, or between waking and sleeping awareness. I think there is a lot that we do not understand about the nuances of Native perspectives on these things, and hence the ambiguity of the word in the title.

Of course, there is a third way of looking at the Invisible World: I am also making a pun about what historians have been able to see (or not), about life in this society. Both the texts reporting dreams and the significance of dreams overall have been largely an “invisible world” to modern scholars.

What do you believe are some of the key similarities and differences between the dreams of the colonists and the Native Americans? How were these influenced by their interaction?

I’m not sure I can provide a good answer to this question, because again, there is so much that we do not know about dreaming in this period. I cannot assess similarity, for example, because we have nothing approaching a “complete” sample of dreams or reported dreams—everything is so fragmentary, and a lot of the book is about gathering these disparate types of sources together and reading them side by side for their greater meaning. We know a lot more about male colonists’ dreams than about the dreams of women or children, for example. What we can say for sure is that both colonists and Indians thought dreams and dreaming were significant and worthy of attention, and that at key junctures, particular dream events or experiences could motivate action, either by the individual, or by groups. Dreams, in this way, could become socially meaningful narratives that then, in turn, could have effects far beyond the individual life of the dreamer.

Why do you believe your study is enhanced by looking at the interaction between Native and English dreams and beliefs, rather than focusing on only those of the colonists, which would be an extensive study on its own?

I have spent most of my career trying to ensure that colonial historians never again miss the fact that early New England was a colonizing society. New England was “colonial” not in the older sense, that it was an offshoot or a distant version of early modern European societies; it was “colonial” in the sense that an existing indigenous people was being subjugated by Europeans, and that fact—that irreducibly violent and unequal encounter—must lie at the heart of all our investigations of New England. So while it was a tricky challenge sometimes to keep the Native Americans’ experience equally in view, I felt it was absolutely essential to telling a usable narrative. There are no colonists without Indians…

Were colonists heavily influenced by the Natives’ attentiveness to dreams, or were they already insistent upon looking to their dreams for guidance before coming into contact with Native people?

Like most things about colonial New England, English colonists were remarkably resistant to absorbing Native American perspectives about anything. The ethnocentrism and the hubris of the Europeans is one of the central features of the inequity lying at the heart of this colonial society. If anything, Europeans thought the Native peoples spent far too much energy listening to dreams, and a lively discussion grew up between Indian peoples and the missionaries about what to make of dreamt knowledge. Of course, one of the things my book reveals is that English colonists were a lot more interested in their own dream events (and saw them as more significant) than most were willing to let on.

How do you believe the interior world of the colonists and the Native peoples of the time differ from ours today?

This is a very interesting and important question, and one that is very hard to answer. I think one of the criticisms of the work may lie in my application of some basic ideas from contemporary Self Psychology to the emotional experiences of men like Samuel Sewall or Cotton Mather, and I tried to exercise great care in advancing those sorts of interpretations, always leavening them first with a careful analysis of how people of the time would have interpreted their own experience. However, although psychoanalysis was a mode of interpretation that emerged within the modernist moment and is thus inherently foreign to the early modern world, some of the mechanisms of dream cognition described by Freud (condensation, displacement, symbolization) are easily visible in the historical materials. But we ought not to simply rush in, do a Freudian reading, and think we’ve really understood these materials.

It is obvious that there were very different ideas about the self and selfhood prevalent in the English colonial world, and presumably the differences would have been even greater for Native Americans. For example, the entire spiritual practice and discourse of the colonists was designed to remind individuals of their essential powerlessness and the importance of total submission before God—a god that could be vengeful, wrathful, and inscrutable. What type of selfhood emerges in the wake of that sort of upbringing and those sorts of spiritual beliefs? This is something that bears careful thought, and it is something that in large measure I did not take up here, though I hope to explore it more fully in future works. My assumption throughout is that the capacity for variety and multiplicity of psychological response must be just as great in early modern societies as it is in our own. Otherwise, we are at risk of greatly oversimplifying—even robbing early moderns of their full humanity. I think that my reading of Sewall and others is true to a process of emotional self-regulation that may have been even more necessary in light of the approaches of early modern society to personhood and the self.

Why have dream reports previously received so little attention?

This is another good question. I think many dream reports are puzzling, hard to decipher, and, unless the diarist or recorder offers an explicit interpretation, they are just as puzzling to the historian as they may have been to the person recording them. They are easily overlooked and often don’t seem to speak to the concerns most important to historians.

You mention relying on secondhand accounts, such as colonial documents and anthropological studies, to recount the dreams of Native people. How, do you speculate, would the accounts of dreams of Native people differ if they were firsthand and in their native languages? Has any meaning been lost in translation?

I think a great deal of meaning has been lost in translation—maybe nearly all of it! Even anthropological interpretations run a great risk of distorting the true meanings of these dream texts. There are probably some ways that modern medicine men and women, who engage with the living spiritual traditions of the New England peoples, can shed further light on these materials. But sometimes we just have to recognize what we don’t know, or cannot know. That is part of the very painful legacy of colonization. Things were lost, suppressed, distorted, and may not be recoverable.

Do you believe that modern society could benefit from paying closer attention to dreams and taking them more seriously?

I believe that many people in our modern world already pay very close attention to their dreams and take them seriously. I’ve learned that from my students, mainly. We may still dismiss dreams as “weird” or “silly,” but whether through participation in various forms of psychotherapy or through the dream diaries that many people keep, a lot of modern people still act on the belief that dreams represent a different form of knowledge, something that can be “truer” or more real than our everyday understandings of ourselves. To some extent we participate in an official story still—that dreams are not important—and often we hide our interest in dreams. But dreams and dream interpretation never went out of fashion altogether. Many traditional cultures still value dreams, and many mainstream Americans can also be taken up by a particularly powerful dream image or experience. Here in California, where I teach, I have many students from Latin American or Asian American backgrounds who have told me about their dream experiences, and about how their relatives have interpreted these through traditional approaches. And almost all of the students in my Dreams in Cultural Context class tell me that they have had meaningful dream experiences before, during or after our class experience, even those who came into the class having never had a dream that they could recall.

Fun question: What has been your “weirdest” dream, and how have you interpreted it? How do you believe a Native person or colonialist would have interpreted it?

Gee…that is a fun question, but also a pretty personal one. I can say that I have had lots of dreams, and even those that seem the weirdest eventually make a lot of sense, though sometimes you only see that later. In the book, I talk about one pretty weird dream that I had during the writing process (see the acknowledgements section). But since the images of any dream are both deeply personal and thoroughly culturally embedded, I am not sure that it would make a lot of sense to someone from the seventeenth century, except, perhaps, to convince them that I was in need of some significant personal repentance or spiritual healing!

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Ann Marie Plane is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. She is coeditor of Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions: The Early Modern Atlantic World, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England: Indians, Colonists, and the Seventeenth Centuryis available now.

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