Great humor often sparkles on the surface of a dark tide of challenge or tragedy. Mark Twain, still America’s most beloved humorist, was stricken by many terrible events in his life and that of his family – the loss of a beloved brother and later his favorite daughter, the loss of all his money late in life, forcing him to start over – yet generally managed to come back laughing, and making the rest of us laugh.
    His ability to laugh his way through did not mean numbing himself to tragedy. Sam Clemens (who adopted the pen name Mark Twain) dreamed the death of his younger brother Henry before it took place, in exact detail, and this haunted him for the rest of his life..
     Sam and Henry were set to embark together on the riverboat Pennsylvania, Sam as apprentice pilot, Henry as a  lowly “mud clerk”, given food and sleeping space in return for helping out at places on the river where there were no proper landing sites. The night before they sailed, Sam dreamed  he saw Henry as a corpse, laid out in a metal casket, dressed in one of his older brother’s suits, with a huge bouquet of white roses on his chest and a single red rose at the center.
     Sam woke grief-stricken, convinced this had actually happened and that Henry was laid out in the next room. He could not collect himself, or convince himself that the dream was not “real” until he had walked around outside. He had walked a whole block, he recalled, “before it suddenly flashed on me that there was nothing real about this – it was only a dream.”
     Family members urged him to dismiss his terrible dream; after all, it was “only a dream”. Though the force of his feelings told him something else, Sam agreed to try to put the dream out of his mind.
     The tragedy began to unfold soon after the two young men boarded the Pennsylvania. The pilot of the Pennsylvania, William Brown, was an autocrat with a violent temper with whom Sam was soon scrapping. During the voyage downriver, Sam got into a full-blown fight with him. The captain sided with Sam, and said they would find a new pilot when they got to New Orleans. But a new pilot could not be found and since Sam and Brown could not coexist on the same boat, Sam was transferred to another vessel, leaving Henry on the Pennsylvania, which started the upriver journey fist. Just before they parted company, Sam and Henry discussed how they would act in the event of a riverboat disaster such as a boiler explosion, which was a common occurrence.
      The Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded in a hell of steam and fire, in the way they had discussed.  Badly burned, Henry survived for a few days, to die in Memphis, where the injured were carried. His handsome face was untouched, and the kindly lady volunteers were so moved by his beauty and innocence that they gave him the best casket, a metal box.
     When Sam entered the “dead-room” of the Memphis Exchange on June 21, 1858, he was horrified to see the enactment of his dream: his dead brother laid out in a metal casket in a borrowed suit. Only one element was missing: the floral bouquet. As Sam watched and mourned, a lady came in with a bouquet of white roses with a single red one at the center and laid it on Henry’s chest.
    Mark Twain kept telling and retelling the circumstances of Henry’s death, in his mind and in his writing, for the rest of his life. He was one of the first to join the Society for Psychical Research after it was founded in London in 1882 in the hope that its investigators could help him understand the workings of dream precognition. He could never escape the thought that – had he only known how to use the information from his dream – he might have been able to prevent Henry’s death.

When I described this episode in a lecture, someone asked, “What’s the use of dreaming the future if you can’t do anything about it?”       
    My response: any future we can foresee, whether in dreams or though intuition or careful analysis, is a possible future. We may be able to change the odds on the manifestation of a future event, reducing the likelihood that something unwanted will happen, or improving our chances of securing a happy outcome.

     Our ability to dream the future is part of our basic survival kit, part of what kept us alive when we were little more than naked apes without good weapons, trying to fend off leathery raptors or saber-toothed tigers. In our Active Dreaming approach, we use these key methods to work with dreams of the future in order to make better choices and shape the future for the better:


1. Run a reality check on all dream material
Ask, of any and all dream material: Is it remotely possible that something going on in this dream could manifest in the future, literally or symbolically (or both)?

2. Practice dream reentry to clarify and expand the available information
If you can get your head back inside the dream, you may be able to get clarity on the when, where, how and who of a possible future event. If you think of a dream as a place you have been, it’s not too hard to understand that because you have been to that place, you might be able to go there again. When you succeed in reentering a dream space, you are not confined to your first memories of the dream on waking, which may have been muddled and fragmentary. You can enter other, related scenes and bring back much more data.

3. Make a practical action plan to use your dream guidance
If you now feel sure that your dream revealed a possible future, you want to  to take definite and appropriate action to head off an undesirable future event, or to bring through possible good fortune. The action plan may range from getting a health checkup to being extra cautious at a certain road intersection, to checking up on your financial planner, to sharing dream information with another person to whom it may relate.
    Some cultures teach rituals for containing or taming an unwanted future. I am intrigued by an apotropaic ritual in traditional Iroquoian society, which consisted of play-acting parts of an evil future, foreseen in a dream, in the hope that the partial fulfillment of the dream in the performance would satisfy whatever was at work in the secret order of events, so that the full evil portended by the dream would no longer have to be play out. I have written about this in Dreamways of the Iroquois. Bizarre though it may sound, I have seen this method work.

Back to Mark Twain, and his terrible dream of Henry laid out in a casket, with the bouquet of roses on his chest. Could the methods described above have enabled Sam Clemens to help his brother to escape the “dead room” in Memphis? Of course, we cannot know. But I feel quite certain that Mark Twain would have been willing to give the Active Dreaming methods summarized above a better-than-college try, had he known about them. 
    Had he not allowed his family to talk him into dismissing his dream as “only a dream”, careful analysis might have drawn him to think about possible scenarios for death along the river, of which the most likely for someone working on a riverboat, in those days, was a boiler explosion of the kind that caused Henry’s death.
    Through dream reentry, Mark Twain might have been able to establish how the death scene came about, and might then have been able to take action by counseling his brother not to travel, separated from him, on the return voyage upriver with the rage-filled pilot.
     Mark Twain paid close attention to dreams and coincidence throughout his life and was keenly interested in improving his practice. In my Secret History of Dreaming, I describe how he returned, in his later fiction, to his regrets that he had not gone ahead and staged a kind of dream theater at home to help his beloved daughter Suzy lift the oppression of dreams in which she was being pursued and eaten by bears, dreams that may have portended her tragic death from illness but could also have been the key to healing had they been fully heard and acted upon.


For more on Mark Twain’s dreams and his study of coincidence and what he called “mental telegraphy,” please read the chapter titled “Mark Twain’s Rhyming Life” in my Secret History of Dreaming, published by New World Library.

Image: Steamboat explosion (in this case the SS Sultana) on the Mississippi River, from Harper’s Weekly (1865)



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