Hambrick-Stowe on Sobel, 'Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era'

Author: 
Mechal Sobel
Reviewer: 
Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe

Mechal Sobel. Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000. 368 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-04949-6.

Reviewed by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary )
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 2001)

Mechal Sobel, who teaches history and directs the Graduate Program in American Studies at the University of Haifa, Israel, has written a remarkable and highly original book. Through close study of more than two hundred autobiographical narratives by ordinary men and women, both black and white, she uncovers the struggle to achieve and define selfhood in what she calls America's "greater Revolutionary period." Thirty-two illustrations interspersed through the text put faces on some of the book's subjects and enable us to visualize more clearly some of their dreams. This book links the psychological and spiritual work of individual self-fashioning with the emergence of the Republic in strikingly fresh ways, including detailed analysis of recorded dreams and how those dreams changed social behavior and sometimes influenced political action. Astonishingly, more than half the autobiographies report such dreams and visions; it was a culture that reverenced dreams and sought their meanings.

Focusing on the century from 1740 to 1840, from the Great Awakening through the Revolutionary War itself to the rise of sectionalism at the beginning of the antebellum period, enables Sobel to show how the Revolution was both the result of already-achieved shifts in American self-understanding and the seed-bed of previously unimagined changes. "The Revolution, in part the work of people who had a new self-view, hurried changes already begun and was in turn a catalyst for new change in self." It was a century during which "attitudes toward many core values changed significantly" in regard to such key factors as gender and race, divine and human causality, and freedom and authority (p. 220).

Teach Me Dreams may profitably be read alongside another recent book that explores the inner lives and complex inter-racial experience of Americans during Sobel's period (and into the twentieth century), Ann Taves's Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999). Taves's study of extraordinary spiritual experiences, and how they were understood between the polarities of "enthusiasm" and "formalism," has to do with overt religious practices, however, while the dreams which are of interest to Sobel were experienced by her subjects while sleeping. These remembered dreams were often filled with religious imagery and were interpreted as having life-changing spiritual importance. They were understood, therefore, as pivotal breakthroughs rather than as part of a person's ongoing practice. The two books complement one another in many ways, perhaps most notably in their treatment of African American influences on white experience (and vice versa) in Methodist and Baptist religious circles. Both effectively tie the colonial period with the nineteenth century in a coherent interpretive narrative.

Sobel's thesis that the possibility of self-fashioning only emerged in the greater Revolutionary period is based on the notion that previously "most people seemed to regard themselves as having porous boundaries and as part of a wider or 'we-self'" similar to traditional societies like Japan or India (p. 3, p. 243 n. 2). While historians have long pointed to the Great Awakening as a causal phenomenon in the rise of American individualism, it seems to me that the roots of this sense of an "inner self" which might be altered, redirected, or refashioned should still be traced to the Puritan movement out of which the revivals of the mid-eighteenth century emerged. A closer comparison of Puritan diaries and spiritual autobiographies with the published narratives studied in this book would clarify the extent to which the Revolutionary generations were indebted to their grandparents and great-grandparents in such matters as dream interpretation, individual regeneration, self-definition over against an "alien other" through membership in a community of shared belief, and vocation.

For example, Sobel refers to the "new church authority" which enabled Susanna Anthony, Sarah Osborn, and Samuel Hopkins to define themselves as a "sect," as if it were an upstart religious movement, while it was the traditionally evangelical and long-established Congregational Church to which they belonged (pp. 29-30). Similarly, she mistakenly identifies Samuel Davies as a "Baptist preacher" (p. 108), which would more naturally explain his special concern for African Americans. Davies, of course, was a Presbyterian missionary pastor who eventually became president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). An unfortunate omission in the book is the important black Congregational pastor Lemuel Haynes, a New Divinity Hopkinsian who served white churches in northern New England. As the first African American ordained in a white church, and one who wrote against slavery and embodied the inner and outer conflicts dealt with here, his case study would have deepened Sobel's exploration of those who belonged to the older colonial churches. The evangelicalism exemplified by the Baptists and Methodists was shared widely during this period and exhibited more continuity with the older Puritanism than is recognized here. Nevertheless, as Sobel demonstrates, by the 1740s a new world was in process of being born. In the life narratives of the period "individuals began to see themselves as dramatic actors, and some went further and came to see themselves as self-creators" (p. 4).

The process by which many ordinary Americans shifted from "a permeable or collective sense of self to a far more individual and interior one" (p. 18) involved two key elements: creation of alien or enemy others (the "not-me" against which individuals defined themselves) and commitment to an external authority which validated the new self (often one of the new religious groups that flourished during this period). Relationships with the enemy other were complex, involving both hatred and love, a process of attack and borrowing ("extractive introjection"). Those who just possessed an alien other, without membership in a group that served as an external authority, were usually frustrated in their quest for selfhood. But, ironically, while commitment to an authority validated the new sense of self, it also over time solidified the more negative relationship to the other and ended up shutting down the borrowing process. By the end of the period, therefore, a reaction set in against the more fluid possibilities opened up by the Revolution for blacks and women. Sects that had encouraged female leadership became more churchly with male hierarchies. Racially integrated religious groups divided along lines of color, with whites distancing themselves from "primitive" behaviors they had once enthusiastically embraced and African Americans separating to form their own churches.

It was often the images imprinted in dreams that empowered individuals to actualize these new possibilities and identifications. Building on scholarship on the significance of dreams in the fields of psychology and anthropology, Sobel has "taken the narrators at their word" (p. 12) and accepted the autobiographies (though not uncritically) as reliable reports of authentic human experience and self-understanding. The picture that takes shape, of American selves formed in the context of binary systems of race and gender (and not class, as in Europe), is one that has endured long after the close of the period of this study. Indeed, we are still haunted by the images that filled the dreams of these men and women.

The book consists of five chapters and a concluding "coda." The first chapter, "'Teach Me Dreams': Learning to Use Dreams to Refashion the Self," traces the shift from porous/collective self to individuated self with particular attention to the way African and European dream traditions influenced both black and white Americans. The title of the book and chapter is from an Osage prayer and Sobel shows how "the signifying universe of early European settlers was enriched by the dream interpretations of Africans and Native Americans" (p. 41). But the black-white relationship was the formative context for the creation of both white and African American identity. Inter-racial Baptist and Methodist revival meetings provided the setting for figures such as Freeborn Garrettson to create his new self, a Methodist opposed to the war and to slavery, in opposition to "the very self that was being appropriated by other southern white males" (p. 31). African dream imagery was Christianized and white converts to the new Christian sects found their experience transformed by the presence of African Americans. Subsequent chapters, two on race and two on gender, explore "Whites' Black Alien Other," "Blacks' White Enemy Other," "Making Men What They Should Be," and "Women Seeking What They Would Be."

Sobel portrays Revolutionary-era America as a culture created by constant black-white interaction. She traces the variety of responses among whites to this social reality where "almost all had intimate long-term experiences with African Americans" (p. 56). The autobiographical narratives make it clear that "many whites both desired to emulate and at the same time were terrified of African Americans," leading Southern men in particular to use "black women to establish their power over black men as well as over white women" (pp. 60-61). Some whites like John Woolman and Sarah Hamilton responded to dreams that pointed toward fashioning new selves with blacks as "an (almost) equal other." Others appropriated black culture but felt compelled to "restrengthen hierarchies and 'keep blacks in their place.'" Still others created an identity by "actively demeaning blacks to achieve a sense of unity and superiority" while unconscious of their utter dependence on them (pp. 61-62).

African Americans, for their part, "used their white alien other to renew a quasi-African communal self," most often in "African Christian institutions of their own" (pp. 108-109). The black experience in America was largely expressed in Sojourner Truth's assertion, "When I was a slave I hated the white people." The most significant "method used by enslaved Africans to develop and protect themselves was to consolidate an image of the white enemy other." This image of "the white as a liar and a cheat" became for blacks "that which they would not be, a fierce white enemy that was hated and was to be attacked whenever possible and whose characteristics, if found in the black self, were to be destroyed" (p. 110).

Establishing their African American selves through the means of becoming Christian, blacks experienced conflict between this inner rage and the virtues of forgiveness and love, having to "absorb an inner contradiction of enormous proportions" (p. 114). When the Revolutionary ideal that "all men are created equal" embedded itself in black consciousness, the marriage of evangelical zeal and the promise of liberty unleashed the series of slave revolts that struck terror throughout the white South. While most blacks left Judgment Day to God, they widely believed that few if any whites would be found in heaven. Narratives such as that of William J. Anderson, Moses Grandy, Harriet Tubman, and Rebecca Cox Jackson reveal the varied, complex, creative ways blacks fashioned new theological- and self-understanding in the 1820s and 1830s.

During the greater Revolutionary period gender roles were also in flux, with women asserting themselves in the religious realm and in "choosing their own husbands and evaluating them, often publicly" (p. 143). "White and black male insecurity and desire for strength" was given an outlet during the war through the ideal of the male as soldier and by actual military experience. Sexual behavior changed radically during the war, with brothels proliferating, and male "sexual aggressiveness increased in the two decades after the Revolution, especially toward women in public" (p. 139). Behaviors that had been not only acceptable but exemplary among men before, such as crying and showing sympathy, were now seen as feminine. Evangelical groups that began by "radically increasing the status and power of women" now "shifted direction and reconstructed patriarchal power" (p. 144). Still, the Methodist itineracy provided a setting for preachers like Asbury and Garretson to "embrace the 'womanish part'" of devotion to Christ (p. 147) and feminine aspects of Masonic ritual suggest "men's hidden desire to be more like women, to reaffirm aspects of themselves they had denied" (p. 163). As white men increasingly saw sexuality as dangerous and "feared the sexuality of white women, and all blacks" (p. 155), and "black men often regarded white women as their central enemies" (p. 158) it became harder to "be a man."

In the Revolutionary era, while "more women openly came to recognize their rage at the other sex as the enemy" and others reacted against "the traditional woman," it was "only those who accepted an authority that directed their anger and approved and assisted their own development in opposition to their alien other" who were able to move toward "creating a more individuated self" (p. 166). Sobel portrays several options that emerge from women's narratives. Some Quaker women "eliminated their womanish parts" (p. 167) by adopting male biblical role models and spoke with authority to men. Some like Congregationalist Sarah Osborn, Methodist Fanny Newell, Baptist Salome Lincoln, and African Methodist Episcopal preacher Jarena Lee "took on the mantle of Christ" (p. 176) in response to God's call despite their male dominated churches. Some, "attacking men and damaging themselves," failed to establish secure identities for lack of "communal or institutional support" (pp. 185-186). And a remarkable few who explored new identities by transvesting, passing for men in the army or at sea, demonstrated by their cross-dressing the extent to which in the Revolutionary period "all these categories were being shaken up" (p. 191).

The concluding "Coda: 'In Dreams Begins Responsibility'" points to a great irony of the Revolutionary period: While dreams "had played a crucial although largely hidden role in bringing men and women into the modern world," the "modern" rational understanding exemplified by Franklin, Jefferson, and the cultural leaders of the next generation viewed reliance on dreams and visions as the relics of an "old-fashioned and irrational as well as feminine and lower-class worldview" (p. 240-241). As the dreams of Benjamin Banneker, the African American farmer, mathematician, clock-maker, astronomer and almanac writer, and surveyor of the District of Columbia, reveal, however, the insights and directions gained from such "irrational" experiences involved highly complex race and gender "boundary renegotiations" and "a spiritual journey" of "self-development" (p. 209) beyond anything envisioned by white male elites. "Both the dream reports and the life narratives provide very strong evidence that the significant relationships that a great many white people had with African Americans led to a change in themselves; nevertheless, this was most often an 'unthought known'--a change in thinking and in ways of behaving that whites were not conscious of."

The greatest example of such an "unthought known" was Jefferson's "All men are created equal," which "slipped past his conscious censorship" and "that of many others in power and has served as a catalyst for change in the world from that time on" (p. 226). Dreams of flying birds and Jacob's ladders, rooted in Africa and the Bible, enabled the likes of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth 'Maumbet' Freeman, Catherine Livingston [Garrettson], John Woolman, and many others to redirect their lives according to a new sense of self. "Dreams...helped many to further reframe reality, to reclaim parts of their rejected selves, and thus to behave as fuller selves, whites taking from blacks, and men from women, as well as the reverse" (p. 241). Sobel ends with the provocative thought that since "binary systems of white/black and male/female" marked by inferiority and alienation continue to characterize our lives, then "perhaps the way lies through a new appreciation of individual dreams and collective myths" (p. 242). This book so persuasively opens up fresh understandings of American selfhood and society--of realities that are persistent and deeply-rooted--that this challenge should not go unheeded.

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Citation: Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe. Review of Sobel, Mechal, Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. September, 2001.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5479

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