- Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England: Indians, Colonists, and the Seventeenth Century by Ann Marie Plane
What kind of work do dreams do? And what can they tell historians? These freighted questions are at the heart of Ann Marie Plane's fascinating Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England, which examines the place of dreams in the encounter between English and Algonquian worlds in seventeenth-century New England. Reframing key figures and events within an analysis of their significant nonwaking experiences, Plane makes a powerful case for taking such visions seriously for what they tell us not only about the cultural milieu in question but also about real events in the waking world. She notes that while dreams gave dreamers access to an invisible world that intensified their own experiences, those same dreams have been virtually invisible to historians.
Plane's account begins with an overview of dreaming in Tudor-Stuart English and colonial society. She convincingly argues that dreams were "a very serious business" (21), elaborating the kinds of dreams experienced by figures such as John Winthrop. She also reveals the frequency of public debates concerning how to characterize dreams and what to do about them, which drew on both Christian doctrine and folk beliefs. This discussion is followed by a parallel analysis of dreams and dreaming practice among the various Algonquian nations of what colonial settlers called New England. Drawing on challenging, highly biased sources inflected by Christian ideologies and settlers' incomplete understandings of Indigenous lifeways and intellectual traditions, Plane finds evidence both of Algonquians' accommodation to English presence—in the form of Christian conversion, for example—and of their outright resistance. English and Algonquian dream worlds and practices converged in important ways; as Plane notes, "Precisely because the English never completely dismissed dreams or the knowledge derived from them, they were unable to ignore Native powwowing and divination" (68). What she shows here is that dreams were sites of parallel and simultaneous practices of worldmaking.
Plane then examines the dreams of English colonists, who adapted their oneiric lives to the radically new conditions they faced in North America. For dreamers such as Samuel Sewall, Cotton Mather, and others, it was important to discipline dreams in a world where both the Christian God and the Christian devil could offer nighttime visions. This channeling can be seen in the dreams the English chose to record, which emphasized [End Page 795] "control, mastery, and hierarchy" (75). As Philip Goodwin wrote in 1658, "Our duty is, To find the true sence of them, & To make the right use of them" (75). The colonial pressure cooker, Plane shows, only heightened the stakes of properly interpreting dreams in colonists' minds as they negotiated good and evil in the territories they settled and in their relations with Indigenous people.
Plane's fourth chapter serves as the heart of the book, in the form of a recounting and reframing of the war named for Wampanoag leader Metacom ("King Philip"). This conflagration, which killed thousands across New England in the mid-1670s, had important effects on the dream worlds of both Algonquian and English people. Both groups simultaneously used visions to draw attention to the larger meaning of the conflict, whether dreams led them to interpret it as an opportunity for cultural and political revitalization or as a warning to wayward Christians. In both cases, dreams were a way for colonists and Indigenous people alike to reaffirm central cultural mores and practices during a time of profound trauma. But Plane also warns against using dreams to introduce a facile Manichaeanism or cultural essentialism here, describing, for example, the Indigenous man "Major Symon" (105), who was an ally to the English and had his own dreams about conflicts with other Indigenous people.
In the later seventeenth century, dreams maintained their hold on English colonists' lives and minds. Even as more modern medical discourses about dreams started to influence at least elite thinkers among the settlers, older...