It’s hard to know what to make of Lincoln Dreamt He Died. On reading the title, my first irreverent thought was: Hey, safe bet. My second: Contrary to popular myth-ology, many of us dream of our own deaths—and guess what? We’re prophetic! Then I studied the subtitle and worried some more. Was this going to be as bad as the publisher heralded? Was I not only going to have to read about other people’s dreams but also have them interpreted by the author, Andrew Burstein—in the kind of sexy, probing, embarrassing, and unlikely way that makes everyone cringe?
The answer to that last is: fortunately, no. Burstein is a historian, which is both good and bad news for the reader. It is good because, given his profession, Burstein is pretty standoffish about interpreting the dreams recounted; he’s a recorder, that’s all. The bad news is that, given his profession, he knows all too much about a lot of obscure figures in American history who have, frankly, some pretty tiresome dreams. (You and I could do much better, generally speaking.)
In 1790, for instance, Senator William Maclay of Penn-syl-van-ia dreamt of someone falling from “a place like a saw mill.” In 1825, someone named Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick had “a sweet vision” of her son—apparently he leaned his head on her shoulder—even though he was in South America at the time. I could go on. As they do. At times, it’s like being stuck on a plane next to a soliloquist.
Most of these dreamers, in other words, are definitely not Abraham Lincoln, whose dreams before battles were passionate and interesting, if always the same: “He seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity toward an indefinite shore,” according to Lincoln’s secretary of the Navy. But here’s the problem, and not simply with certain Lincoln dreams but with the whole book: At the rare dramatic intersections, almost every one of them, it is the author himself who undercuts the excitement. Okay, he’s a historian; he’s not supposed to embellish or exaggerate. But can’t he tell a story straight?
It is probably instructive that Lincoln, when asked by his wife whether or not he “believed in” dreams (whether he viewed them as prophecy, in other words), Lincoln supposedly replied, “I can’t say that I do.” But it’s probably also true that he said that to soothe a frantic Mary Todd Lincoln, especially since the dream in question—the dream of the book’s title, of course—was especially terrifying. According to an account revealed by yet another of his friends, Lincoln dreamt of wandering from room to room in a White House flooded with the sounds of “pitiful sobbing.” On reaching the East Room, he found a decorated coffin. His own, Lincoln quickly discovered. His death, he learned in the dream, was the work of “an assassin.”
It is at this juncture that the author feels compelled to tell the reader that he very much doubts that a wife of such long standing would ever have asked such a question of her husband. By then, he implies, Mary Todd Lincoln would surely have known whether her husband did or did not believe that dreams herald the future. And if that part is suspect, he suggests, maybe the whole damn story defies credulity. “The reader must decide whether the entire vignette should be dismissed on the basis of one tiny clue to its inauthenticity,” he writes.
What a drag. Who wants to be regaled with the precise layout of such an intriguing presidential dream—the sobbing, the East Room, the coffin, the grim realization—only to learn that the author will allow you, if you absolutely insist, to disbelieve it entirely because, in his opinion, Mrs. Lincoln’s improbable question to her husband just might have undercut the whole thing?
In fact, as someone who has just completed a book on what used to be called “near-death experiences” (I call them “death travels”), I can tell you that there are plenty of elements regarding death and its aftermath that spouses and lovers keep to themselves for a very long time—sometimes forever.
They may be anxious, as many have told me, that a recitation of such events or experiences will mark them as fruitcakes in the eyes of those they love; and those fears, given the divorce statistics among them, are not irrational. Or they may be nervous, as Lincoln clearly was, about frightening family members and friends with the vivid, inexplicable oddities of what they have seen.
And the shame of it is, that is what some dreams (the more interesting and lively ones anyway) really are: precursors of the future. Sawmills and sightings aside, Burstein’s is simply an account of hints and insinuations. He never quite makes the connection. And he should have. After all, he quotes Mark Twain (who indulged in a long and fervent fondness for the psychic) in his lovely description of dreams and what they project: “Everything in a dream is more deep and strong and sharp and real than is ever its pale imitation in the unreal life which is ours . . . in this vague and dull-tinted artificial world.” When we die, he added with considerable authority, we will “go abroad in Dreamland clothed in our real selves.”
Judy Bachrach, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is the author of Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death.