- Night Journeys: The Power of Dreams in Transatlantic Quaker Culture
There is something deeply private about dreams, and while they have been used for years by psychologists, anthropologists, and literary scholars [End Page 677] to map the mystic terrains of mind and culture, dreams have remained peculiarly passive, elusive, and resistant to historical analysis. In a fascinating new book, Carla Gerona seeks to rectify this situation, inverting the usual approach to dream analysis by examining the social and political dimensions of early modern "night journeys" and their importance in actively shaping the culture of American Quakerism. Gerona's chief insight is this: dreams are not only models of culture, they are models for it. Rather than understanding dreams as simple (or complex) reflections of internal psychological states, she convincingly demonstrates that in Quakerism, as least, dreams were a "collective endeavor" (12).
Building upon the insights of Phyllis Mack, Mechal Sobel, and Susan Juster, Gerona offers a trenchant analysis of the evolution of Quaker "dreamwork" from revolutionary England to postrevolutionary America, illuminating the dynamic tension between the radical implications of direct revelation and the social demands of group membership—or less subtly, between individual agency and social control. The Society of Friends, she notes (in familiar fashion), emerged from a revolutionary milieu in which a belief in the prophetic potential of dreams was ubiquitous, and Friends exploited this potential to its fullest, leveling a radical critique against the state and established church. More than any of their sectarian peers, Quakers developed a uniquely intense practice of recording and circulating their prophetic dreams within their meetings and beyond, each minister sharing in the discussion and interpretation, each dreamer and each auditor imparting his or her own shades of meaning, dialectically, collectively shaping a common Quaker identity in the process.
Favoring the historical Weber over the ahistorical Freud, Gerona demonstrates that despite the egalitarian ethos of early Quakerism, not all interpreters were created equal. Following the Restoration, weighty Friends pioneered ways of doing dreamwork that controlled the sect's most "radical elements," shifting the interpretive focus of dreaming from church and state onto individuals and the Society (50). Particularly among women, dreams became "increasingly moralistic," increasingly concerned with the regulation of behavior and self (110). Particularly in America, ministers seized control of dreams, encouraging those dreams that instilled a sense of internal restraint and discipline in a widely scattered flock.
It is here, when examining the American experience, that Gerona's [End Page 678] book is simultaneously at its most provocative and most in need of greater nuance. Her otherwise persuasive narrative is at times held back by a suite of terms that defy easy characterization—empire, radicalism, and privacy among them. In America, she argues, dreams became maps for an imaginary (and sometimes tangible) New World, enabling Quakers "to structure experiences with diverse peoples, especially Native Americans and Africans" and to develop the cultural characteristics now regarded as peculiar to Friends. "In short," she argues, Quakers turned "dreams into mental maps that guided their expansionist movements," sometimes literally, enabling them to deal creatively with the new "multicultural" world into which they had entered, and to "put a unique stamp on British imperialism" (71–72, 129).
Yet the unique imperial role Gerona claims for Quakers requires additional attention. The assertion that Quakers were complicit in imperial expansion, pressing forward, as she writes, "with much blood and at the expense of indigenous peoples, Africans, and less fortunate Europeans," seems both too obvious and too simple, and Gerona never adequately plumbs what she admits is an "ambiguous" relationship between Quakers and the state (5, 82). Whether she intends the advance of "empire" to refer to the political entity or to a more diffuse "western" hegemony, the imperial dreams of Quakers were neither "normative" nor, in many cases, were they compatible with metropolitan desires. If John Woolman or Benjamin Lay, for example, had a dream of empire, it could hardly have been the same as the dream of a Thomas Penn, and even if one could...