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Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Alicia Puglionesi explores a curious case of supposed dream telepathy at the end of the US Civil War, in which old ideas about the prophetic nature of dreaming collided with loss, longing, and new possibilities of communication at a distance.

In the predawn of July 21, 1865, a young man in Cambridge, Massachusetts, woke from a deep sleep with a strange phrase on his lips. “What they dare to dream of dare to die for”, he recalled saying to himself, before slipping back into unconsciousness, wondering dimly “whether [the words] really expressed a lofty thought, or were lofty only in sound.” Later that day, the man, who gave his name as Mr. W., was surprised to hear the line delivered from a podium by the famous poet James Russell Lowell, at a Harvard commemoration ceremony for students killed in the Civil War.
Lowell’s version replaced “die for” with “do” in order to fit the rhyme scheme, a discrepancy which left Mr. W. pondering “whether I liked his sentiment or mine the most”.1 Decades later Mr. W. still recalled the coincidence vividly enough to submit his account to Harvard psychologist William James, “hoping that these reminisces may be amusing to your society” – that is, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), a group devoted to collecting and studying supernormal mental phenomena. 
Self-deprecation aside, Mr. W. clearly saw more than mere amusement in this incident that he continued to ponder for so many years. Had a force more powerful than random chance actually transmitted Lowell’s as-of-yet unknown verse to Mr. W. while he slept?

Dreams so often feel trivial and momentous at the same time. They hold the promise of revelation if only one could pin down a face, a location – like the common dream of words on a page that dissolve just before their meaning registers. The history of dream interpretation is almost as slippery as dreams themselves; the practice spans cultures, but manifests in highly-specific forms, shaped by particular ways of understanding the relationship between mind and world. 
In religious texts, dreams usually predict the future, like Jacob’s ladder or Pharaoh’s dream of famine in the book of Genesis. In their revelatory capacity, they can unite believers with the divine and connect members of faith communities. In other settings dreams can shed light upon past events,
and even have legal standing, as in the famous “Greenbrier ghost” case of 1897, where a murdered woman appeared in her mother’s dreams to out her former husband as the killer.

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