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  • Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era
  • Nicole Eustace
Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. By Mechal Sobel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xv plus 368 pp. $35.00).

Mechal Sobel’s Teach Me Dreams will grip readers from the first page to the last, sweeping them up in her vision of the process of self-formation in the revolutionary era. The book’s multifaceted approach to issues of self and identity brings new insight and rigor to the field. Some scholars, of course, have already noted a shift from early-modern conceptions of the self as communal to modern conceptions of the self as individual, what Sobel refers to as a transition from “a sense of a ‘we-self’ to a far more individuated ‘I.’” Meanwhile, others have approached the study of identity with a view towards understanding patterns and possibilities of racial, ethnic and/or religious association. Yet, too often, studies of the self and studies of identity have been treated as separate subjects. Sobel’s signal contribution is to combine the study of individuation with the study of identification in early America in such a way as to make clear that the two processes were inextricably linked for all historical actors. Always provocative, often persuasive, and never less than fascinating, Sobel’s work mixes the interpretation of dreams with the analysis of narrative to explore the ways in which men and women, blacks and whites, sought to find themselves even as they defined the “other.”

As her title suggests, Sobel has taken a complicated approach to a difficult subject. Take first the question of theory. Eschewing Freudian perspectives as ahistorical, Sobel instead prefers a Foucaultian view of dreams as “technologies of the self.” She relies particularly on the theories of psychologist Ernst Rossi to explain the role of dreams in the process of self-formation, outlining progressive stages of individuation accomplished through the work of dreams. Yet, though interesting, Sobel’s discussion of Rossi’s work still does not really broach the problem of historical specificity. Sobel does not directly consider the question of whether or not people have always dreamed throughout time, but she does pay careful attention to the discussion of dreams across cultures. Given the seeming universality of dreams, the question becomes how and if they functioned in new ways to aid the process of self-formation in the revolutionary era.

Indeed, though the bulk of her theoretical apparatus comes from the study of dreams, many crucial elements of her evidence come from narratives (a number of which report dreams, but many of which do not). Thus, a possible solution to the above conundrum would have been to focus less on the implications of dreams than on the work of written first-person narratives. If dreams are universal, the vogue for writing and publishing personal narratives certainly was not. Yet, curiously, Sobel makes little of this fact. She does not engage directly [End Page 240] with literary scholarship or studies of the emergence of print culture and the public sphere in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an omission made more significant by the fact that she confined her source-base to published works. Perhaps because of the remarkable complexity of the task she set herself, Sobel does not always succeed in making all the elements of her study line up.

Still, the effort is well worth making. Sobel is especially adept at elucidating the ways in which narratives and dreams reflected individuals’ attempts to assimilate and integrate the results of social and political changes occurring rapidly in the revolutionary era. In four central chapters devoted to whites’ views of blacks, blacks’ views of whites, men’s views of women, and women’s views of men, Sobel does a marvelous job of exploring the related processes of projection and introjection, through which people appropriated, misappropriated, embraced, or tried to deny aspects of themselves in relation to those they sought to define as other. Some may question Sobel’s decision to emphasize black/white and male/female relations to the exclusion of detailed consideration of Native Americans or of class conflicts. Still, few can...

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pp. 240-242
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