Night visions of Americans, and what to make of themJul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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.
The literary (?) career of Jules VerneJul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
Certain amusements appropriate to childhood or adolescence have established a beachhead in adulthood, or its 21st-century American simulacrum. Grown men and women indulge, with or without shame, in video games, fantasy football leagues, sitcoms, online porn, comic books, and movies based on comic books—or that involve Las Vegas, 33 shots of tequila, and waking up athwart two female Sumo wrestlers and a chimpanzee.
Will you, won’t you, benefit from graduate education?Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
When I sat for my SAT exams as a high school senior, I thought to myself, “This is the last standardized test you will ever have to take!” I had never considered myself an intellectual and was vaguely distrustful of anyone who chose the cocoon of the academy over the rough-and-tumble of the “real world.” Ten years later, I was sitting in a café in downtown Shanghai, gritting my teeth over the Princeton Review’s GRE prep manual.
The Great War, of modern memory, at 100Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By J. HARVIE WILKINSON III
Back then, it was not known as World War I, for the obvious reason that the Second World War still lay in the future. It was simply the Great War, for the world had never seen anything like it.
The changing instinct for self-depictionJun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By HENRIK BERING
In the history of art, self-portraiture constitutes a world of its own, presenting us with moods ranging from the lighthearted to the sordid. There is sheer delight in Rubens’s painting of himself and his first wife Isabella Brant in a bower of honeysuckle bliss; acute menace when Caravaggio decks himself out as Bacchus, looking like some exceedingly poisonous rent boy, and veering into grisliness when he lets the severed head of Goliath carry his own likeness.
The stalemate was ended, but the debate goes onJun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
In the long, tortured history of race in America, there are few bright spots shinier than the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Democratic and Republican reformers from across the country overcame the resistance, mainly of Southern segregationists, to pass legislation that broke the back of Jim Crow.
The science and philosophy of putting on/taking off weightJun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
Reports have surfaced of a professor with a mania for self-examination. His line of inquiry, however, is not of the Socratic philosophical sort. An expert in computer science, he is collecting data on his bodily functions. To improve his diet (and reduce his weight) he tracks what he eats down to the calorie. He straps sensors to his body to measure his caloric burn while exercising. Unsettlingly, it has been reported, the professor “is deep into the biochemistry of his feces . . .
Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook keeps an eye on the British press—largely because it’s interesting, and sometimes fun, to read; but also because, now and then, a little nugget emerges which tells a larger story.
Jill Biden made between $15,001-50,000 for hers.3:59 PM, May 15, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Vice President Joe Biden is not making too much money off his book Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. Last year, in fact, he made less than $201 in royalties from his book publisher, according to just-released disclosure forms.
Here's the disclosure form, which has been "reviewed and certified by ethics officials," according to the White House:
Biden's book was published in 2007 by Random House.
Joseph Epstein, bibliomaniacMay 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I'm pleased to report that I’ve just returned from the Evanston Public Library saleroom empty-handed. The saleroom is off the main lobby and contains used books, donated to the library, which sell for a mere 50 cents. Not all the books in the saleroom are serious—junky novels predominate—but a fair number of superior books show up. The library is less than a block from my apartment. When passing it, I find it difficult not to step inside to check the saleroom for a book I don’t need but nevertheless buy.
2:52 PM, Mar 12, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
White House spokesman Jay Carney plugged his wife's book today at the White House press briefing:
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
9:02 AM, Jul 1, 2013 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Kenneth Minogue, longtime professor of politics at the London School of Economics, died Friday, age 83. He was a leading conservative political thinker of our time—no, he was a leading political thinker, period, of our time, whose classic, The Liberal Mind, written a half century ago, remains must reading. Here's a taste of Minogue, courtesy of Steven Hayward at Powerline:
7:23 AM, Jun 28, 2013 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
As a “millennial” (i.e. one born between 1980 and 2000), I’ve grown used to reading descriptions of myself – written, always, by those much older than I – that I don’t recognize. It’s a bit like hearing my voice on tape – can that really be me?