Malini Gandhi. American Dreamers.

American Dreamers: The Role of Sleep and Dreams in Crafting Identity in Humboldt’s Gift, Call it Sleep, and Native Son


Dreams color and haunt our lives, mirror and distort them. For the characters of three urban American novels, dreams are vibrant, vital forces: the broken night voice of Demmie Vonghel in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, the yellow birds and running feet of David’s final dream in Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, and the gonging bell under a red moon permeating Bigger Thomas’ throbbing, fitful sleep in Richard Wright’s Native Son. Yet in these three strikingly distinct contexts, dreams serve different functions. In the world of Humboldt’s Gift, a glitzy world of sweat-stained golf-playing lawyers and a bug-eyed mafioso in a Thunderbird, the balding, troubled Charlie Citrine seeks dreams as a way to expose one’s true, naked self beneath the whirring surfaces. In Call it Sleep, as young David tries to make sense of an unknown city of cellar doors, street slang, and sour milk, dreams are often agitating as they mirror the clashing worlds David dangles between. And yet at the end of the novel, as David stops trying to separate light from darkness and learns to accept the full kaleidoscope of being, his final blissful sleep allows him to encompass all of the whirring aspects of his life, providing a striking contrast to Charlie’s use of dreams to strip away the chaos of the world. And, finally, in Native Son, Bigger is never able to find the fulfillment in sleep that Charlie and David experience because his dreams throb with the incessant intrusion of a clanging reality, and he is instead forced to turn to awake, lashing action. Ultimately, the realm of sleep and dreams is vividly tied to the three protagonists’ search for identity, and the diverging fulfillment or hollowness of dreams parallels the characters’ encounters with looming, very different worlds.

In the buzzing, swanky Chicago of Humboldt’s Gift, dreams are a way to strip away the plastered distractions of a hyperactive society and access one’s true, often terrifying self, a raw nighttime encounter that is embodied perhaps most graphically in the “night voice” of Charlie’s idiosyncratic lover Demmie Vonghel. By day, Demmie is a contradictory, colorful clutter of Demmie’s, a Latin teacher and paranoid pill-taker and vanilla-custard-lover who “takes up with thieves and desperadoes”, “knew the gospels by heart”, “stripped herself naked to wax the floors”, and “wrote charming bread-and-butter notes on Tiffany paper”, various selves for various social contexts that are all awake and restless (154-5). Yet by night, Charlie witnesses the disappearance of these frantic iterations of Demmie and the emergence of a deeper Demmie, beautifully and petrifyingly bare:

Her night voice was low hoarse and deep almost mannish. She moaned. She spoke broken words. She did this almost every night. The voice expressed her terror of this strange place, the earth, and of this strange state, being. Laboring and groaning she tried to get out of it. This was the primordial Demmie beneath the farmer’s daughter beneath the teacher beneath the elegant Main Line horsewoman, Latinist, accomplished cocktail-sipper in black chiffon, with the upturned nose, this fashionable conversationalist. Thoughtful, I listened to this. I let her go on awhile, trying to comprehend. I pitied her and loved her (148)


In her dreams, the high-pitch montage of social “types” that Demmie flicks between by day – the farmer’s daughter, the Latinist, the cocktail-sipper – are pared down to something raw and guttural, “low hoarse and deep”, the “primordial Demmie” (148) Moaning, Demmie grapples with her naked self that is normally drowned under daytime distractions but is electrifyingly exposed and unavoidable in the dream state, a face-to-face encounter with “this strange place, the earth, and this strange state, being” (148). And, interestingly, Demmie’s nighttime flailings are described as both painful and beautiful. Encountering one’s exposed self, far from being peaceful, is wrenching and terrifying, and Demmie “laboring and groaning, tried to get out of it” (148). Yet there is also a tender beauty in Charlie’s description of this exposed Demmie, this Demmie with her fluttering eyelids and broken night voice that is haunting and honest and human. This is the beauty that Charlie yearns for, and this is the truth that he believes has been lost beneath the whizzing surfaces and schmaltzy “Beautiful” of the “plastered idols of Appearances” (16).

Indeed, Charlie’s captivation with dreams and gravitation towards Steiner’s spiritual theories of sleep stems to a large extent from his disillusionment with the hyperactive razzle-dazzle of American society, which he sees as a frenzied, superficial whine that dulls our access to our true selves and submerges what is too raw, real, and uncomfortable under buzzing distractions, smothering our “night voices.” As Charlie declares, “Sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive…These slothful sinners are not able to acquiesce in their own being. They labor because the rest terrifies them…Society claims more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness. It trains you in distraction. The true poise, that of contemplation and imagination, sits right on the border of sleep and dreaming” (310). It is only in dreams, that “wonderful rest or balance without which there can be no poetry or art or thought,” can one “hear the essence of things” (310). Indeed, those men Charlie describes as plowing through life in “full wakefulness” (402), Ulick with his “big extruded eyes” (388) and Cantabile with his “eyes bigger than they ought to have been, artificially dilated perhaps”, are ultimately sourly unfulfilled. Without the startling self-awareness of dreams, these sleep-less men live in flashy appearances and constant, agitated car-trips or business transactions but are never able to find the night voices beneath these vrooming surfaces, and thus they are never in touch with their true selves and never able to understand what they truly want. The “exuberant, impulsive” Cantabile “aspires to some ideal” but it soon becomes clear that, despite his I-know-what-I-want “mink and mustache” demeanor (291), he is not clear what this ideal is, and he ends the novel throwing a hissy-fit in front of the movie directors for a few thousand dollars over what is surely not is intended purpose in life, ultimately shallow and confused. And Ulick with his  “enormous closets with dozens of pairs of shoes” has a literal hole in his heart and longs for an empty seascape untouched by the big-buck condominiums that define his life, yet does not seem to wholly recognize what he desires: he patches up his heart with high-tech surgery but never with love or memories for his brother, and he ironically frames his request for the seascape untouched by commodities in terms of a business transaction with Charlie, the very materialistic lingo that haunts him (388). Without dreams, Bellow implies that men live on churning, shallow surfaces, unable to access their true selves. And it seems that Humboldt, too, fell prey to this fate. Humboldt was an insomniac for the final downward-spiraling decades of his life, living without dreaming, stumbling with his greying pretzel in a whirring paranoia of lawyers and psychoanalysts and ultimately unable to see beneath this hyperventilation to access his inner self, unable to “struggle through into the higher wakefulness” of dreaming (402). Thus, Charlie gravitates towards dreams to counter Humboldt’s failures and to access the “spiritual clarity” that Humboldt never found (68).

Indeed, the idea of dreaming in Humboldt’s Gift is inseparable from the voices of the dead: the floating dream state beyond the babble, stock exchanges, and dead-is-dead of a suffocating society is a medium through which to access the voices of those gone and to keep their presences alive, ultimately allowing their spirits to become part of our inner selves, part of our night voices. To Charlie, our dreams and our dead live in the same realm: he explains that “the truth about sleep could only be seen from the perspective of an immortal spirit” (110), and that dreaming is an intimate encounter with the spirits of the dead, for “as we lie nightly in our hemispheres asleep by the billions, our dead approach us” (142). These ideas are heavily influenced by the anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner’s theories on sleep and the spirit world: Steiner believed that the “souls of the dead are about us” and that the semi-consciousness of sleep allows us to communicate with these hovering spirits, to “reach our dead” (447). Indeed, one of the only excerpts of Charlie’s dreams that we receive is of a grinning, boyish Humboldt barreling towards him “as in life, driving ninety miles an hour in his Buick four-holer. First I laughed. Then I shrieked. I was transfixed. He bore down on me. He struck me with blessings. Humboldt’s gift wiped out many immediate problems” (111); it seems that sleep is the medium through which to encounter the dead head-on. The simultaneous beauty and violence of “He struck me with blessings” is reminiscent of Demmie’s night flailings; just as Demmie’s encounter with herself is both terrifying and tenderly beautiful, Charlie’s encounter with his dead in his dreams is both jolting and joyous. And it is striking that, hundreds of pages before Humboldt’s literal gift arrives in a “heavy manila envelope” from under the bed of the goony Waldemar Wald (341), Charlie refers to “Humboldt’s gift” as the flamboyant, full-force way that Humboldt charges at him in his dreams. Perhaps Humboldt’s true gift is not the actual movie manuscripts, but rather the way in which his voice for poetry and change is still vivid and alive in Charlie after death, the way in which his spirit launches itself at Charlie at 90 miles-an-hour and becomes a part of him, adding a lifetime’s worth of hopes and struggles to Charlie’s soul. As Steiner writes, as the living and the dead encounter one another in sleep, their spirits mesh and they ultimately become indistinguishable from one another such that “the questions we asked originated not with us but with the dead to whom they were addressed, and when the dead answered it was really your own soul speaking” – a true, engulfing cannibalism (447). In this way, perhaps the two functions of dreams explored in Humboldt’s Gift – dreams allowing us to access a true, inner self and dreams allowing us to embrace the voices of the dead – ultimately go hand-in-hand. The dead spirits we commune with in sleep meld with us and give a deep, vivid meaning to our souls, enhancing our encounter with our inner selves and adding a powerful music to our night voices.

In Call it Sleep, dreams take on a different purpose: as young David struggles to find himself in a topsy-turvy city of souring milk, red balloons, and telephone wires slanting to lost places, dreams are often troubling as they embody the clashing, colorful worlds that David dangles between, yet ultimately provide a source of peace as he learns to accept all aspects of being. Throughout the novel, David is caught between multiple worlds – the rough street slang of the boys and their pell-mell pointer gambling, the warm softness of his mother and the yellow cornfields of a lost country, the bare walls, pimply rabbi, and ancient language of the cheder, the glinting telephone wires of an unknown city, the footsteps of his father in the night leaving for his milk route. David lives in all of these worlds and yet, interestingly, is not wholly a part of any of them, and he strains to see himself amidst the rush of different aspects of the city, just as he peers into the shop windows and loses his reflection as it jumps between storefronts: “his own face…mingled with the enemas, ointment-jars, green globes of the drug-store – snapped off – mingled with the baby clothes, button-heaps, underwear of the drygoods store – snapped off”, and he reflects, “On the windows how I go. Can see and ain’t. Can see an ain’t. An when I ain’t, where? Ain’t nobody. No place” (379). This idea of “Ain’t nobody”, of losing himself amidst the jumble of the city, of dangling between worlds he both does and does not belong to, is mirrored in David’s early dreams, which are often disturbing. In one dream, David fiddles with a yellow cog and watches young girls swinging slowly as they sing of “Waltuh Wiuhlflowuh”, a song David recognizes from his early days in Europe. He drifts into a shallow sleep filled with images of a far-off place: “Fragments of forgotten rivers floated under the lids, dusty roads, fathomless curve of trees, a branch in a window under flawless light” (23). Yet while the dream is soft and golden, there is something sore and sorrowful about it, a “nostalgic mournfulness” that “troubled David strangely” (23). The world of Walter Wildflower is a world he scarcely remembers and does not fully belong to, the world of his mother’s Polish and cornfields that he cannot comprehend, and he acknowledges this with the aching realization that this is “a world somewhere, somewhere else” (23), while the cogwheel in his hand spins him back to another world. David’s dreams thus often encompass the worlds that he is tugged between and reflect his idea of belonging, a concept that is further reflected in his nightmarish dream following his sexual encounter in the dark claustrophobia of Annie’s closet. David’s mother chuckles over his bizarre dream: “How did such a strange dream come to you? A woman with a child who turned loathsome, a crowd of people following a black-bird…my, how you screamed” (57). David fears that Annie’s touch has dirtied him, turned him into a loathsome child and a vile black-bird that is spurned by society, sagging in the sky while a crowd of blank-faced people follow it, excluding it and mocking it but also trapping it. This is in stark contrast to the golden bird that escapes from its cage later in the book, not trapped and ridiculed by the neighborhood but disappearing over the rooftops into a milk-white sky, becoming part of the skyline and belonging fully to the city (286). David’s nightmare about the blackbird and the mocking crowd magnify his tragic sexual awakening and his unmoored sense of identity and belonging. Like his reflection flicking between the store windows, like the yellow wheel in his early dream “whirring without motion”, David’s dreams fluctuate between the music of Europe and a New York neighborhood crowd, encompassing the worlds David is tugged between and which he cannot craft a clear identity from. In this way, David’s early dreams are often troubling because they capture this loss of self in a colorful clutter.

As David tries to find himself in the jumble of clashing worlds, he seeks light as a way to isolate what is beautiful and holy and to pinpoint a simple, pure identity, a yearning that surfaces in many of his dreams. Dazed and troubled by the muddle of beautiful and terrifying images that pool in his life, David tries to make sense of the world by drawing a stark line between light and dark. He confines all things shadowy and frightening to the depths of the cellar – the echo of his father’s hammer, Luter’s beady eyes, and Annie’s groping fingers, exclaiming “What’r real dark? Real dark! Gee! That time – Annie – closet. Cellar – Luter” (290) – while associating all things beautiful with the vast white sky of the rooftop, the “silent untenanted light” of this “haven…of durable purity” (295). David is disconcerted by the mingling of light and dark, shrinking from the back-to-back appearance of “confetti and coffins” (70) and bemoaning the blackening of the snowdrifts (59). Instead, he craves the electric flash of pure, untarnished light, his heart hammering at the spark of Isaiah and Jesus who is “all light inside” (322). While David cannot discern his reflection in his tangle of mismatched worlds, in a blaze of light he can find a pure, simple, understandable identity, can be the “one kid only one kid”. And many of David’s dreams reflect this desire. As he sprawls on the wharf, “his lids grew heavy” and he falls into a trance-like state that sears with light: “White. Brighter than day…The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away. His spirit yielded, melted into light…Sin melted into light” (347). And, later, as he gravitates towards the glow of Leo and the bright simplicity of Christianity, he dreams of swallowing the sun: “And that funny dream I had when he gave me it. How? Forgetting it already. Roof we were with a ladder. And he climbs up on the sun – zip one two three. Round ball. Round ball shining…And I ate it then. Better than sponge cake” (330). This image of ascending a ladder to reach the sun, round like a rosary bead, and literally consuming radiance, bringing to mind the picture of Jesus with his insides brimming with light and the Christianity-associated eating imagery of Leo stuffing his mouth with doughy white bread, perfectly embodies David’s desire to access something pure and holy. And yet just as dreams capture his yearning for pure, blissful light, so too do they rupture it. After witnessing Leo rape Esther, David wobbles through the streets, crushed and panicked, and watches in a dream-like “trance” as a smirking street boy gnaws at the “torn tissue of a burst red balloon”, sucking it “into tiny crimson bubbles”: “He nipped at a moist, new-made sphere. It popped. He grinned blithely. ‘Yuh see how I ead ‘em? One bite!’… ‘See dot! In one bite!’ Pop! Despair…” (379). This surreal image of the boy chomping at the red balloons perverts the idea of gobbling up globes of radiance: the balls are no longer golden suns but blood-red, and they can no longer be engulfed like soft sponge cake but pop tragically, mocking David’s belief that he could capture pure spheres of light and mirroring his rupturing disillusionment.

Thus, while for most of the book David fears the clashing worlds that are often magnified in his dreams and seeks identity in crisp, simple light, he ultimately finds fulfillment in enveloping himself in a sleep that encompasses all aspects of being, a sleep that mingles beauty and shadow and embraces the full cacophony of world. This rebirth begins with David’s semi-conscious railroad-track reveries. In these hallucinations, David’s mind inflates and engulfs every aspect of his being: his “brain swelled until it dwarfed galaxies” (419) and his pupils “spun like a pinwheel, expanding, expanding” (424). All of the jarring, scattered images of David’s life that surfaced in his earlier dreams, the mosaic of different worlds David dangles between, are encompassed in this delirium: the “taut, wintry wires”, “cheder walls”, “the shoebox full of calendar leaves,” “cobbles that stretched away” (427-8). The dream is crammed with his various identities, which line up in a gleaming corridor of “infinite mirrors”, yet “not himself was there, not in the last and least of them” (427). In this all-encompassing state, David’s stark divide between light and dark unravels as soft, beautiful images mingle with harsh, snarling ones and his hopes and fears become indistinguishable. While David pursued the pang of power on the railroad track to conjure a simple, blissful spark, the pulse instead brings a searing pain followed by a jangling mess of both beautiful and terrifying images: the “whirling hammer” and “golden cloud of birds”, the “white light” and the “coffin buoyed by dark” (426). And while the hallucinations end with David finding a radiant ember, “brighter than the pith of lightning and milder than pearl” (430), David uncovers it not by climbing a staircase to a bright rooftop, but rather by descending into the depths of the cellar, “Down! Down into darkness, darkness that tunneled into the heart of darkness” (429), and it is “out of this darkness” that the “ember flowered” (430). While David has spent his entire life trying to flee the cellar darkness and pursue the white rooftop light, it seems that to touch light one must first accept darkness, that peace is attained by embracing all aspects of life.

Ultimately, David finds affirmation of his identity not because he has blotted out darkness and ascended to light, but because he has learned to embrace the contradictory kaleidoscope of his surroundings, a kaleidoscope that he ultimately posits is most vividly and fully encompassed in the realm of sleep. This transformation is breathtakingly captured in the final paragraph of the book, where, after being rescued from his railroad track hallucinations, David returns home and sinks into a soothing sleep, which he welcomes with a soft satisfaction. This final sleep, like his railroad-track delirium, encompasses the full breadth of David’s life and reverberates with a discordant mosaic of both beautiful and shadowy imagery, a “myriad and vivid jets of images” that David “let run over him and through him”: “the shine on roller skates”, “a scream of fear”, “night-smooth rivers”, “the glow on thin blonde hair”, “legions upon legions of hands”, “broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, bunion, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers shoes” (441). While David once feared this mingling of beauty and harshness and the mismatch of worlds and colors that drowns a clear identity, in this final, momentous sleep he embraces it and crafts an identity out of this beautiful, contradictory jumble. “It was only towards sleep” that the patchwork of his life can be encompassed, and in this way, sleep has become fulfilling for the same reason it was once nightmarish. David can now hold all of these images in his palms and “feel them all” and “feel not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence” (441).

Thus, at the end of the novel the realm of sleep becomes the ultimate fulfillment for young, wide-eyed David just as it is for greying, disillusioned Charlie Citrine, and yet the source of fulfillment is remarkably different. While in Humboldt’s Gift, dreams are prized because they strip away the whir of the society and provide access to a deeper self, in Call it Sleep, ironically, David seeks sleep at the end because it is a way to fully encompass the enormity of the world. While in Humboldt’s Gift, dreams suck inwards and pare down the buzz and clutter to something vital and primordial, in Call it Sleep, dreams expand outwards and embrace this buzz and clutter in its entirety. Yet despite the striking differences, the two perhaps converge in the fact that for both characters, the fulfillment attained from dreams is at once painful and beautiful – Demmie’s encounter with herself in dreams is both wrenching and tender, and David’s sleep encompasses both harshness and hope.

Yet while dreams are ultimately a source of fulfillment for Charlie and David, in Native Son, a snow-piled world of black tenements and philanthropist’s ping-pong tables and hollow-faced newspaper boys, Bigger Thomas is unable to find peace in dreams, and every time he drifts into sleep his dreams thump with the pounding intrusion of reality. Indeed, the book begins fittingly with the jarring interruption of sleep by a grating, drawn-out “Brrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing” that “clanged in the dark and silent room” and awakened the family with the “tinny ring of metal” (1). And after Bigger murders Mary, his few fitful episodes of sleep clamor with the gonging presence of reality. In his dream that glows with “red moon and red stars” in which he discovers that he is carrying his own blood-plastered head wrapped in paper, he is deafened by the constant tolling of a bell that “clanged so loud that he could hear the iron tongue clapping against the metal sides” (165). This brutal, ever-present “dongdongdong” comes to dominate the dream, closing in on Bigger so that he “felt an urgent need to run and hide as though the bell were sounding a warning” but the bell grew louder and “there was no place to hide” from the “booming bell and the white people”, and ultimately the clobbering bell rips him from his dream and becomes the insistent clang of the servant’s bell summoning him (166). Later on, as Bigger is fleeing the police and lies sprawled on the arguing Jack and Jim’s  kitchen floor, he desperately and drowsily attempts to sink into the solace of sleep, and yet is prodded by a “disturbing, rhythmic throbbing which he tried to fight off to keep from waking up” (253). He tries to transform the pulsing into something soft and dream-like, to “weave the throb into patterns of innocent images” like “the automatic phonograph playing” or “his mother singing”, but these images “fail to quiet him” and he finally “springs to his feet” to the pounding rhythm of black church-goers next door “singing, clapping hands, and rolling their heads” (253). In the end, Bigger can never truly dream because the horrible hum of reality pursues him even into his sub-consciousness. While Charlie uses dreams to access his inner self and David uses his dreams to embrace the intricacies of the world, Bigger is ultimately unable to do either: he cannot strip away society and examine his naked self in dreams like Charlie because the pounding presence of society infiltrates even his innermost being, but neither can he encompass the vast mosaic of colorful intricacies of society in sleep like David because the overpowering, monotone clang of the bell reduces his dreams to the one-dimensional blare of the stark black-white divide, without the nuance and intricacies of humanity. And ultimately, even as Bigger approaches the moment of this execution, the “ring of steel against steel” clashes; even in the eternal sleep of death, the pounding accompanies him.

Thus, without the shelter of dreams, Bigger is truly trapped in this brutally awake black-white game of ever-nearing sirens, like the glassy-eyed rat with “the box in front of his hole so he can’t get out” (5), and this cornered state and unavailability of sleep drives his actions. Denied rest, introspection, escape, and everything that Charlie and David gleaned from sleep and used to make sense of their world, Bigger’s only option is blunt action and violence, like the rat cut off from his home who can only “bar his long yellow fangs”, and Bigger simply “hits what or whom he could, not looking or caring what or who hit back” (240). Unable to move inwards into dreams, he can only lash outwards. This brute destruction becomes the one thing Bigger can cling to: his murder of Mary is “something that was all his own” and he is “more alive than he could ever remember have been” (105). Alienated by the lack of peace in dreams, Bigger turns away from sleep: he shuns the drowsiness of Bessie’s alcohol and murders her while she is dozing, and, interestingly, sees sleep as a liability as his growing drowsiness, like the cold, cripples him in his flight from the police. Bigger’s propensity for brutally awake, lashing action is magnified in his dream of the severed, wrapped-up head, a dream that is draped in shades of violent blood red. Trapped by society’s bell with “no place to hide”, he “felt he did not give a damn what happened to him, and when the people closed in he hurled the bloody head squarely into their faces” (166). This idea of being cornered and flinging the blood-smeared head at the crowd foreshadows Bigger’s course throughout the book, mirroring his lashing violence and the concept of creating by destroying. And yet, ironically, he is essentially destroying himself, for the head he is thrusting at society is his own, one of the tragic ironies of this novel.

Ultimately, the realm of dreams and sleep plays a striking role for the protagonists of Humboldt’s Gift, Call it Sleep, and Native Son as they navigate their distinct urban settings and attempt to find their identities. The middle-aged, disenchanted poet Charlie Citrine turns to dreams to access his true, inner self beneath the buzzing surfaces of society; young David ultimately finds peace in a sleep that embraces all aspects of his world and allows him to craft a colorful, all-encompassing identity; and Bigger Thomas cannot find himself in dreams due to the clanging intrusion of society and is forced to turn to a lashing, self-destructive anti-dream state. This spectrum of dreams across the three novels provides striking insight on the power of the sub-conscious and the varying ways we craft identities as a response to the forces of our worlds.






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