I was wedged tight, up to my neck, in a huge tub of lard

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As with everything, there are exceptions1, however, there is literally nothing less enthralling than someone retelling, even with the greatest of enthusiasm, the plot of a recent dream. We’ve all felt it, and we all recognise that the disconnect between dreamer and victim is vast. And yet, we persist.

All of which makes today’s newsletter very risky, because I’ve decided to pluck, from the postbag, letters in which people speak of dreams2.


I need a dog pretty badly. I dreamed of dogs last night. They sat in a circle and looked at me and I wanted all of them.

John Steinbeck | Letter to Robert Ballou, 11 Feb 1933 | A Life in Letters


Dream I: I identify Tolstoy as the driver of a beat-up white van on the expressway. I ask the old guy at the wheel of this crumbling van what he can do to keep his flapping door from banging against the finish of my car. When he leans over to the right I see that he is none other than Leo Tolstoy, beard and all. He invites me to follow him off the expressway to a tavern and he says, “I want you to have this jar of pickled herring.” He adds, “I knew your brother.” At the mention of my late brother I burst into tears.

Saul Bellow | Letter to Martin Amis, 30 Dec 1990 | Saul Bellow: Letters


Are you interested in dreams? Normally I am not so crazy about dreams myself but we have been having a lot of spirited dreams around this house, whose symbolical meaning is indeed dark and various. I had a very trying dream, from which I woke, twisting and straining and muttering with rage. I don’t know where it happened exactly and I was quite alone. But what had happened was that I was wedged tight, up to my neck, in a huge tub of lard, which was studded on the outside with precious jewels. Now, Teecher, what do you think?

Martha Gellhorn | Letter to Hortense Flexner, 25 Aug 1940 | Selected Letters


P.S. I had a very fine dream last night. A friend flew over in a small plane and seeing me on the lawn reached out and shook hands, the plane being still airborne. Then he said he guessed he’d hop out and stay awhile and that the plane would go home by itself and his wife would fly it back later. I took him in the house for drinks, but found General Eisenhower occupying an upstairs room, where he was having a prostate operation by a local physician. The General was not anesthetized and was directing every move himself. Can’t tell you whether that nifty little plane got back because I soon left the land of Nod. Hope your dreams are happy ones like mine.

E. B. White | Letter to Frank Sullivan, 28 Aug 1963 | Letters of E. B. White


Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Margaret Mead | Letter to Ruth Benedict, 14 Mar 1926 | To Cherish the Life of the World


[A monk, recently befriended] told me the dream he had last night: ‘I was in a stable somewhere, they were saddling up a horse for me. But the saddle hadn’t got any stirrups! And by God! I noticed the horse was getting smaller and smaller – shrinking and shrinking till it was the size of the dog that pulled the little milk-cart at the Trappe. I got on the thing, we set off at a gallop. No stirrups and the horse shrinking all the time. Hell of a job to stay on. Faster and faster! Then I noticed we were heading for a small hole, about the size of a mouse’s. I was still hanging on somehow, and we were going like the wind. The horse shoots through the hole and disappears, and BANG! I crash into the wall, knock myself silly, and wake up. What do you make of that?’ What do you? Has it got a psychiatrical or a mystical exegesis? Good old womb stuff, or heading for the mystic’s inner chamber of oneness with the Godhead, supported by a diminishing spark of faith?’

Patrick Leigh Fermor | Letter to Joan Rayner, Nov 1948 | Dashing for the Post


I dreamed that somebody was dead. I don’t know who, but it’s not to the purpose. It was a private gentleman, and a particular friend; and I was greatly overcome when the news was broken to me (very delicately) by a gentleman in a cocked hat, top boots, and a sheet. Nothing else.

“Good God!” I said, “is he dead?”

“He is dead, sir,” rejoined the gentleman, “as a door-nail. But we must all die, Mr. Dickens, sooner or later, my dear sir.”

“Ah!” I said, “Yes, to be sure. Very true. But what did he die of ?”

The gentleman burst into a flood of tears, and said, in a voice broken by emotion, “He christened his youngest child, sir, with a toasting-fork.”

I never in my life was so affected as at his having fallen a victim to this complaint. It carried a conviction to my mind that he never could have recovered. I knew that it was the most interesting and fatal malady in the world; and I wrung the gentleman's hand in a convulsion of respectful admiration, for I felt that this explanation did equal honour to his head and heart.

Charles Dickens | Letter to C. Felton, 1 Sep 1843 | The Letters of Charles Dickens


I can never decide whether my dreams are the result of my thoughts, or my thoughts are the result of my dreams. It is very queer, but my dreams make conclusions for me. They decide things finally. I dream a decision. Sleep seems to hammer out for me the logical conclusion of my vague days and offer me them as dreams.

D. H. Lawrence | Letter to Edward Garnett, 29 Jan 1912 | The Letters of D. H. Lawrence

1

e.g. Dreams retold by tiny kids. Dreams retold by infuriatingly charismatic people. Dreams retold by my wife who I love.

2

This is easily the least seductive introduction I have ever written.