Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Mark Twain's Dream Life

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

Mark Twain's Dream Life

Article excerpt

Toward the end of his life Twain became obsessed with the difference between waking life and dream life; the notion of multiple selves and personalities; solipsism, the view that only he and his ideas exist; and the notion that his dreams were caused by a mysterious evil demon, variously called by him The Superintendent of Dreams, Satan, Philip Traum ("träum" being the German word for "dream"), and Conscience, conceived as an inner demon embodying and expressing intense anger and frustration (see, even earlier, "The Carnival of Crime in Connecticut").

Which Was the Dream?

Many of his manuscripts in which he pursued these disparate but intellectually and psychologically interrelated topics were published posthumously. Several of the writings were mentioned to W. D. Howells by the title "Which was the Dream?" although Bernard De Voto reported that no single manuscript bore that title. John S. Tuckey claims that "apparently Bernard De Voto was not aware of the existence of this manuscript [ Which Was the Dream?] at the time he composed his 'Editor's Notes for LE [Letters from the Earth], but later catalogued it as DV 301 in the MTP [Mark Twain Papers] ".1 Another manuscript was called "The Great Dark," a title given to it by De Voto himself since Twain left the manuscript unfinished and unnamed. Twain's first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine had labeled it "Statement of the Edwardses," which De Voto regarded as "inept and misrepresentative." In all of these writings, including especially "The Mysterious Stranger," Twain explores the dream phenomenon and many of the other related topics.a

Also in many of his published works, especially from 1882 to 1910, a dream motif appears. In "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," first presented as a talk to his Hartford Monday Evening Club in 1876, he mentions "dream" only once, but the whole account he gives is, as it were, a description of a dream he supposedly had in which he destroys a particularly nagging and personified conscience. The story in The Prince and the Pauper ( 1881 ) is similarly portrayed as a dream of the prince who is described at the end as "The Lord of the Kingdom of Dreams." And in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court ( 1889) Hank Morgan, the main character, makes a journey from the nineteenth century to the sixth century as a result of a blow on the head and returns as a result of recovering from a coma, during which he dreams of life in medieval England.

Twain's use of dream life as a motif and his apparently deliberate confusion of fantasy with reality are not unusual or unique for the time in which he was writing. Justin Kaplan lists half a dozen other contemporary authors, including W.D. Howells and Rudyard Kipling, who adopted roughly the same literary technique.2 But what distinguishes Twain's interest in the subject is his taking the underlying philosophical issue seriously. For others the dream theme is merely another kind of format or plot for their fiction. Twain genuinely wondered whether what he took to be his waking life was truly real. In a letter to Susan Crane in 1893 Twain expressed his deeply felt anxiety about the question. As quoted by Tuckey in abbreviated form it goes as follows: "I dreamed I was born, grew up, and was a pilot on the Mississippi, and a miner and journalist . . . and had a wife and children . . . and this dream goes on and on and on, and sometimes seems so real that I almost believe it is real. I wonder if it is?"3 For a somewhat fuller paraphrase of Twain's question, see Justin Kaplan's account ending with "I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real."4

Neither, however, is Twain's serious entertainment of this problem philosophically unique. Many philosophers, one could even say all philosophers, have thought about this issue at one time or another. The extent of philosophical interest can perhaps be brought out by quoting from Thomas Hobbes' Objections to Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. …

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