Sleep’s Hidden Histories

By Benjamin ReissFebruary 15, 2014

Sleep’s Hidden Histories

The Slumbering Masses by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer
24/7 by Jonathan Crary
Dangerously Sleepy by Alan Derickson

EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT couldn’t have a history now has one. Foucault had something to do with this, with his histories of madness and sexuality; and de Certeau — the other Michel — gave verve to the historical activities of wandering around, cooking, and various other non-epic feats. Since the age of the Michels, we’ve had histories of conversation, boredom, shit, death, breasts, penises, tasting, happiness, smiling, laughing, celibacy, masturbation, taking out the trash, obsession, collective joy, and sadness. (The editor of this publication has offered his own entries on crying and slacking.) Things that we do or experience in private, things we might expect to read about in novels or talk about in therapy, have now generated a hidden-histories boomlet. The best of these works not only make the familiar strange, but they make us think differently about history and its intimate relation to our own lives.

Sleep has been a latecomer to this coming-out party, arriving just as the other guests are ready to slip into their pajamas. Why is this? Like sleep, all of the previously worked-over topics are hard to “see” as historical phenomena: boredom, for instance, is so crushingly isolating that it’s hard to view it as part of a “moment” or a cultural construct; lying on your sofa doing nothing is what you do when your dad wants you to read history — about someone or something productive. But in a way all of these were easier topics to narrate historically than sleep because at least you can identify them while they’re happening. There’s a “you” that is observing, or capable of observing. “Conversation isn’t satisfying any more,” you might say. “Didn’t it used to be better? And why?” And then you’re off to the hidden-history races.

Sleep, on the other hand, assassinates the person who might think about it. It’s not just that it’s a stretch to imagine how our sleep connects us to other times and places; it’s that we’re not even there when it happens. Dreaming is a possible exception, since it’s sometimes recoverable by our waking selves — which is part of why dreaming has a much longer historiography than the other 85 percent of the sleep cycle. But the other aspects of the sleeping self — characterized by non-productivity, maddening lumpishness, and obliviousness — are about as unavailable to us as is being born or dying.

That is the challenge that a new subfield of humanities and social science — work on the sociocultural meanings of sleep we might call critical sleep studies — has taken up. How to recover this nightly oblivion and bring it back into the course of human history? What’s mutable about sleep? How do societies organize themselves around the biological requirement that everyone shut down for at least a few hours a day? When do sleeping arrangements or patterns of sleep or inequities in the social distribution of sleep become notable and contested? When does sleep run afoul of social rules? Who gets to control sleep, and on what terms?


Critical sleep studies has its charismatic precursors. In The Civilizing Process (1939), sociologist Norbert Elias viewed the privatization of sleeping quarters as a key component of the process by which subjects of European nation-states came to regard themselves as more “civilized” than members of other societies. Just as spitting, blowing your nose, and performance of other “natural functions” in public were transformed from unremarkable features of medieval life into aspects of rudeness that would mark one as either a countryman in need of discipline or an outsider, so sleeping out of view of others became a hallmark of bourgeois life in the West. Whereas in the medieval period, sleeping naked or in public was nothing to worry about, over the past five centuries or so “to share a bed with people outside the family circle, with strangers, is made more and more embarrassing. Unless necessity dictates otherwise, it becomes usual even within the family for each person to have his own bed and finally — in the middle and upper classes — his own bedroom.” In short, “bed and body” have formed “psychological danger zones […] in the most recent phase of civilization.” To sleep right is a part of national and class-based belonging.

Closer to the concerns of the authors under review here, the Marxian tradition has made modern sleep a matter of alienation rather than belonging. In chapter 10 of Das Kapital (1867) — “The Working Day” — Marx himself described the process by which capital squeezed ever more labor out of the proletariat: “It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.” The English labor historian E. P. Thompson elaborated on this theme in his classic essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967), arguing that industrial labor relations were established on an entirely unnatural temporal system — clock time — divorced from the diurnal and seasonal rhythms that had guided preindustrial labor. Thompson had little to say about how circadian rhythms governing the biological sleep-wake cycle were affected by the wrenching of the laboring body into industrial time, but many of his sources — poems, sermons, moral reform tracts — warn of the perils of oversleeping, or improper sleeping, implicitly as a way of producing temporal compliance from workers: sleep, it seemed, needed to conform to the dictates of the new economic order. The French sociologist Henri Lefebvre took Marx in a different direction, offering in his posthumously published Rhythmanalysis (1992) a set of philosophical ruminations on what it feels like to have your body’s internal timekeeper ignored, harassed, or overruled by the forces of modern economic life. In slightly orphic prose (he was a French Theorist, after all), he wrote of the body — with each of its internal organs attempting to march to the beat of its own drummer — at war with an imposed set of “social rhythms”: “He who rises at six in the morning because he is rhythmed in this way by his work is perhaps still sleepy and in need of sleep. Doesn’t this interaction of the repetitive and the rhythmic sooner or later give rise to the dispossession of the body?”

In broad outline, then, two themes were established for the sociohistorical analysis of sleep: sleeping patterns and configurations vary from culture to culture and across time, and sleep is besieged by modernity in general and industrial and postindustrial capitalism in particular. Critical sleep studies has moved in both these directions, sometimes simultaneously.

One of the first works to put sleep squarely on the critical map was A. Roger Ekirch’s fascinating essay “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-Industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” originally published in The American Historical Review in 2001, and expanded and reprinted in his 2005 book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch’s research revealed that across a wide range of nationalities and social classes in early modern Europe and North America, the standard pattern for nighttime sleep was to do it in two shifts of “segmented sleep.” These two sleeps — sometimes called first and second sleeps, sometimes “dead sleep” and “morning sleep” — bridged an interval of “quiet wakefulness” that lasted an hour or more. During this period, different cultures elaborated rituals — of prayer, lovemaking, dream interpretation, or security checks — and while the rituals varied, the pattern itself was so pervasive as to suggest, according to Ekirch, an evolutionary basis that somehow became disrupted in the modern West. He offered a straightforward explanation for the sudden loss of segmented sleep, and thus the dramatic and unprecedented rise of the eight-hour, lie-down-and-die model that became an unquestioned norm by the late 19th century: the spread of powerful artificial light. He cited as evidence experiments conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health, in which depriving subjects of artificial lighting for several weeks led them to patterns of segmented sleep.

Ekirch’s findings have had a significant impact on popular understandings of sleep: he followed up with essays in The New York Times and Harper’s, he has been interviewed dozens of times, and the work has been cited (uncritically) by science writers and journalists by the score. “Sleep We Have Lost” is also one of the rare historical works to interest scientists: Ekirch has given keynote addresses at the National Sleep Foundation’s annual conference, as well as several other sleep science meetings, and he has conducted follow-up research with neuroscientist Daniel Buysse.

Ekirch’s claim that segmented nighttime sleep is something of an anthropological constant (he cites references to similar sleep patterns in African societies as well as in ancient Greece) has taken hold more firmly in popular media than in the humanities. This may be because, as Steven Pinker has noted, humanities disciplines’ central dogma is the “blank slate,” that is, the notion that there is no “human nature” until culture writes up the recipe. Easier for such blank-slaters to accept is the corollary of Ekirch’s argument: that what we have been led to believe is normal sleep is in fact a recent invention, practiced nowhere in the world before the 19th-century West. Ekirch’s mechanistic explanation of artificial light and its effects on the circadian rhythms of humans has been useful to scientific researchers who are trying to isolate the effects of different kinds of light exposure on sleeping patterns; but to many in the humanities such explanations are “reductive” — a dirty word for them, but usually a compliment in science. Nonetheless, Ekirch’s work made clear that a shift in dominant sleeping patterns took place; and if one were to add to the “light” thesis that 19th- and 20th-century sleep was also altered by the shift of labor outside of the home, the development of industrial time discipline, new patterns of travel, noise pollution from trains and factories, the spread of caffeine and opium, changes in diet, the rise of universal schooling, changing medical conceptions of sleep, and the entrance of electronic media into the home, then one has a research agenda rather than a uniform explanation.


Critical sleep studies emerges from other, humanities-based strands of sleep research. Scholar of Japanese folklore Brigitte Steger and ethnographer Lodewijk Brunt edited two volumes — Night-time and Sleep in Asia and the West (2003) and Worlds of Sleep (2008) — on comparative sleep practices across historical periods and geographical regions. Historians Peter Stearns, Perrin Rowland, and Lori Giarnella authored a compelling 1996 essay about the rise of childhood sleep as an area of medical concern in the early 20th century. The sociologist Simon Williams usefully laid out a broad array of issues related to sleep, social ordering, medicalization, and social conflict in two books, Sleep and Society (2005) and The Politics of Sleep (2011). Medical anthropologist Carol Worthman explored the reverse side of Elias’s observations about the rise of private sleeping in the West, comparing the prevalence of disordered sleep in traditional societies (such as rural Egypt and Vietnam) in which co-sleeping is the norm. Her work also considered how electrification, global commerce, and related shifts in labor, combined with modern forms of housing, bedding, and climate control, transformed traditional sleep practices. And medical historian Kenton Kroker published a commanding history of sleep research, The Sleep of Others and the Transformation of Sleep Research (2007) — which traces a long prehistory of sleep’s emergence as an object of specialized scientific investigation in the mid-20th century. The emphasis has been on sleep practices and ideas about sleep as social constructions, although the phenomenological aspects of sleep and related phenomena have recently been explored in the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s poetic The Fall of Sleep (2009) and literary scholar Peter Schwenger’s At the Borders of Sleep: On Liminal Literature (2012).

Which brings us to the works under review. In a broad sense, Wolf-Meyer, Derickson, and Crary are all members of the capitalism-ate-my-sleep school, although their evidentiary basis, modes of argumentation, and scope of analysis could hardly be more different from one another. Wolf-Meyer, a young cultural anthropologist/critical theorist, has written the most sweeping work of the three. The Slumbering Masses sandwiches ethnographic accounts of patients and staff in sleep clinics within a broad historical investigation of how human sleep came to be increasingly regimented and manipulated in American culture. “Broad historical investigation” actually undersells the scope: his chronology begins with Puritan writings about sleep’s relation to the virtuous life and ends with discussions of futuristic sci-fi scenarios in which humans can have total control over sleep or even eliminate the need for it — which are being played out not only in popular culture but also in the realms of military planning and pharmaceutical tinkering. In between, he covers the rise of sleep medicine, the spread of pharmaceutical sleep aids, changing social rules governing sleep and time management, the shifting labels used to identify sleep “disorders,” sleep’s role in the disciplining of the laboring body, the history of the “sleepwalking defense” in legal cases, the careers of famous sleep researchers, the testing of endurance in extreme sports, the rise of children’s bedtime literature, debates about screen use and sleep patterns, the synchronization of work schedules with the needs of global capital, and literary and popular representations of troubled sleep.

Wolf-Meyer’s overarching thesis is that sleep has become an important arena in which behavior is defined as “normal” or “disorderly” and policed. The idea of “normal” sleep emerged with the invention of statistics in the 19th century; but the need to control the sleep-wake cycle has been something of a constant in American culture, from Cotton Mather’s haranguing his congregants to avoid the “fatal snares” of the devil by keeping to the Lord’s established times for sleeping, up to contemporary military attempts to create sleepless human “fighting machines.” The urgency of policing normal sleep has only intensified over the past two centuries, however, with the spread of factory work and governmental concern about how a poorly rested workforce affects the economy. Medicine, Wolf-Meyer argues, has been one way of controlling individual bodies’ tendencies to fall outside of expected rhythms: hence the proliferation of sleep clinics, the ever-expanding armature of pharmaceutical wakefulness extenders and sleep aids, and public health warnings about the hazards of sleep deprivation. Interestingly, though, Wolf-Meyer does not succumb to the now-fashionable view that such medical intervention is simply a matter of enforcing norms and creating workers whose bodies are maximally useful to employers. One of the strongest aspects of the book is Wolf-Meyer’s surprise at what he finds in sleep clinics. Whatever their role in pathologizing and correcting variations in human biological function, they also promote a surprising degree of flexibility and creativity, he finds. They simultaneously intensify the standardization of sleep and promote what he calls “multibiologism, a politics that accepts the disorderly as human variation.”

Wolf-Meyer’s reach is impressive, but his grasp sometimes falters. Perhaps because he has an anthropologist’s desire to describe a cultural system in toto rather than a historian’s impulse to describe change over time, he overstresses continuity. For instance, the chapter on “The Protestant Origins of American Sleep” implausibly depicts Mather and Benjamin Franklin promoting normed sleep in the service of “efficiency.” But that word didn’t come into play until well into the 19th century, and it describes a value that neither figure would have endorsed. Mather viewed all pathological phenomena as a medical affliction attributable to God’s will; he also saw cure as a means to employ God-given rationality in His service. As his sermon “Vigilius, or, The awakener” (1719) indicates, sleeping at the wrong time or place was more an indication of sinful inattentiveness to God’s word than a crime against the economic order. And although Franklin’s worldview was more economistic than Mather’s, he did not want to create “efficient” human cogs in (not-yet-existent) industrial machines; instead, he promoted industriousness and thrift as a means toward self-making and social mobility. In arguing that these early thinkers “pre-figure” 20th-century industrial scientists, Wolf-Meyer both glosses over some essential differences and doesn’t provide enough connecting dots to show how the linkage might be made.

The through-thread is sometimes stretched, as well. Wolf-Meyer leans very heavily on the term “the masses” (it’s even in his title), but its meaning is smudgy: it stands alternately for statistical aggregates, “whole societies,” “populations to be regulated and managed,” dominant ideological formations, and what he loosely terms “the problems of society.” Almost every time the word came up, I scratched my head: for example, in discussing the responsibility of sleepwalkers and drowsy drivers for their actions, he writes that the legal jurisprudence of such parasomniac states “makes evident how the masses undergird conceptions of individuals and the limits of their humanity.” The inner editor in me wants to take this brilliant, hyperactive mind and tell it to slow down, find the center, and maybe take a nap — it’ll look clearer in the morning. Still, Wolf-Meyer has produced a striking and worthwhile book that — like Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” — puts sleep at the center of the American story.


Sometimes less is more. Where The Slumbering Masses is something of a baggy monster, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 is a polemic as finely concentrated as a line of pure cocaine. If you’re wondering what Crary’s position is on late-stage capitalism: he’s against it. How much? A lot. Marx allowed that capitalists needed to give sleep its due, since it was a “natural barrier” to labor; but Crary argues that our contemporary economic order sees no such limits to the cycle of production and consumption. The 24/7 economy is a global system in which “the planet becomes reimagined as a non-stop work site or an always open shopping mall of infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions.” Because sleep is such a terrible blank space in a world in which everything is monetized, global capitalism has even figured out ways to turn sleep into something one must buy. Just as drinking water has been despoiled by pollution and made scarce by privatization, and then purified, repackaged, and sold in bottles — so sleep has been “injured” by capitalist encroachments on time and consciousness, and then repackaged in pill form. The soaring use of hypnotics over the past few decades are for Crary a sign that global capital has conquered the final frontier.

Crary is an accomplished art historian, and he decries the ruination of sleep because it contributes to the contemporary diminishment of sensory — especially visual — experience. The in-between states induced by constant exposure to screens and their marketing come-ons create “an immense incapacitation of visual experience.” Television was the first culprit, inducing a state of “vacancy” that left viewers particularly susceptible to advertisers’ messages, but its work was incomplete: “[I]n retrospect, the after-midnight test-pattern seems like a placeholder for the inevitable 24/7 transmissions soon to come.” Subsequent digital apparatuses produce a delusive state in which one imagines that one can get anything, any time. Even the “self” that interacts with these machines is in some ways a function of them: one is required for professional and social success to create an “online presence” that is unsleeping, constantly updating itself, and interacting with other surrogate selves by “liking,” “disliking,” and commenting on their fabrications. This ceaseless revision of online identity is codependent with the constant need to buy new gadgetry; today’s self is software code incompatible with yesterday’s iPhone. And it’s a self that is trained to ignore the environmental havoc caused by its dependency on continuous consumption. The “virtual” world draws vital resources from the material world, but then offers us a wormhole into a fantasy space immune to environmental risk.

Crary’s is a powerfully dark vision, and an aspect of that darkness is that our constantly illuminated lives disallow dreaming — both the sleeping and the waking kind. Like Wolf-Meyer, Crary turns to science fiction to describe a present that can never keep up with itself; as in Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, dreams have become “a product that can be used and manipulated” like any kind of media content. There are many culprits in this hijacking. “Modernity” relentlessly debunks the spirit world, and Freud reduced spiritual messages to the repressed wishes of a vestigial infant. Dreams were behind the utopian urges of the 1960s, but a post-1960s counterrevolution has effectively banned dreaming as part of “an overarching prohibition on wishes other than those linked to individual acquisition, accumulation, and power.” Philip Larkin told us that sexual intercourse began in 1963; now Crary tells us that dreaming stopped five years later. Fair trade?

Crary defends sleep, and not simply for the utopian imagination set free in dreams. He sees even those lumpish, inert parts of sleep as exerting a counterforce to the new global order. Despite the best efforts of 24/7 society, sleep persists as an essential part of the “cyclical pattern essential to life and incompatible with capitalism.” His book is better read as a kind of revolutionary poetry than as a cultural analysis of sleep, and like many revolutionaries, Crary is at heart a romantic. Though his book only covers recent developments, it implies nostalgia not just for the ’60s but also for a preindustrial age, when sleep was more “natural,” running free like the now-despoiled waters that run through our valleys. Sleep, too, has absorbed toxic sludge from pharmaceutical contamination as well as from our ever-beckoning electronic sirens.

But do we really sleep worse than previous generations? And who is the “we” he’s addressing? Some of the claims rest on cherry-picked evidence; others are raw assertion. That the contemporary digital saturation of the visual field has led to an inability to make ethical discriminations is a speculation presented as fact. His highly controversial claim that screen exposure for very young children leads to autism has exactly one source. He offers scant evidence that average sleep times have diminished over the past century from eight to six and a half hours. He ignores the fact that bourgeois Westerners have numerous sleep-related advantages that previous generations — or most living in the developing world — could only envy: climate-controlled homes, improved bedding, fewer pests, advances in medicine and hygiene, reduced fear of fire, private bedrooms, labor laws. 24/7 is less a work of scholarship than a scholarly act of dystopian world-making, and a powerful one; like all effective dystopian writers, Crary imagines a world only slightly grimmer than the one we inhabit.


What labor historian Alan Derickson’s Dangerously Sleepy has that the other books lack is dialectic. Things get worse for sleep under industrial capitalism; but workers and their allies have tried to make them better. He avoids Wolf-Meyer’s overreach by carefully distinguishing between the sleeping experiences of different genders, races, and, above all, classes. (Yes, Virginia, there still is a holy trinity.) Wolf-Meyer’s statement that “Americans have not always slept the way they do” would be puzzling to Derickson, who shows us that for at least the last century, “Americans” have never slept in one way. And where Crary seems most alarmed by how we’re turning into a nation of nonstop insomniac consumers, Derickson reminds us of the cruelly enforced prolonged wakefulness that producers have long suffered: one man’s sleep loss is another man’s economic gain.

The emphasis here is “men.” He briefly touches on such professions as nursing and household service, which have manipulated women’s circadian rhythms, but at the core of the book are the punishing schedules of steelworkers, train porters, and long-haul truckers. In these almost exclusively male domains, workers were caught in something of a double bind. Capitalist bosses — from Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie to Donald Trump — promoted their own sleeplessness as a sign of self-mastery and as a model for those aspiring to economic success. Industry executives and managers followed suit, portraying their workers as tough guys who did not need to be coddled by unions or government regulators. Sometimes the workers acceded to this logic — most notably truckers, who themselves were usually mini-capitalists who owned their own rigs. But steelworkers and train porters ultimately resisted, and their unions mounted the first collective efforts to protect public welfare by giving their members a shot at a good night’s sleep.

The narrative occasionally gets bogged down in the minutiae of legislative battles and union politics, but overall it’s a good story and one worth thinking about in our era of “flexploitation,” in which more and more workers are subject to nonstandard and frequently shifting work schedules. Derickson points out that over 20 percent of the US workforce is subject to such anti-circadian work rhythms; presumably nations like India with large numbers of call center workers who are effectively observing the hours of American time zones fare even worse. Not to mention countries with labor laws far more lax than American ones.

The heart of the book for me is the chapter on Pullman porters, who, beyond their proud place in labor history, accumulated valuable knowledge about the public health risks of systemic sleep loss. Founded in 1867, the Pullman Company employed only African-American porters in its sleeping cars because the founder, George Pullman, thought they were particularly suited to making beds, shining shoes, emptying spittoons, and other demeaning tasks the passengers demanded. And like steelworkers who worked the dreaded “long shift,” they were also subjected to temporal and spatial arrangements that made restful sleep impossible. While passengers slept in comfortably appointed compartments with soft bedding and padding protecting them against injury in the case of derailments or collisions, the porters had only couches in the washroom or smoking room. A porter in 1903 estimated that the average employee got less than four hours of sleep a night; making matters worse, the company disciplined those who fell asleep at the wrong time or the wrong place with up to 30 days’ suspension. Beginning in 1925, porters began to fight back, creating the first major national union for workers of color: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Led by future civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood highlighted connections between sleep loss and respiratory, cardiac, and mental health risks — issues that have been of interest to sleep researchers ever since. More successful than these appeals to health and safety were Randolph’s appeals to common interests of employers and employees. “It is a well-recognized principle in psychological physiology,” the socialist Randolph argued, “that fatigue destroys efficiency and lessens productivity.” Despite sporadic successes in limiting work hours, the Brotherhood didn’t secure a 40-hour workweek until 1940.

Truckers, despite being represented by powerful unions such as the Teamsters, never embraced the struggle against exhausting work schedules that the porters and steelworkers did. Being both owners and operators of their rigs, they had an incentive to cultivate an ideal of rugged masculinity and turn long overnight hauls into tests of endurance. Derickson cites the 1940 Humphrey Bogart film They Drive by Night as one of the many pop-cultural reinforcements of this ideal; he might also have mentioned lyrics from the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’”: “Livin’ on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine.” Indeed stimulants licit, illicit (including amphetamines or “road aspirin”), predictable, and weird (drinking urine to stay awake) became staples of the truckers’ epic battles against sleep. Journalist Harry Henderson documented his time among truckers in “Hell on Wheels” (1951) — declaring them “the strangest, most nomadic and independent workers America has.” He described one owner-operator who drove 23 hours straight, napped for an hour, and then hit the road again. What a long strange trip it was. Despite sporadic attempts to regulate their work schedules and improve their safety — including the Obama administration’s proposal to monitor their alertness with onboard electronic devices — truckers stand a stronger chance than just about any other kind of worker of dying as the immediate result of falling asleep on the job.

The limited focus of Derickson’s book keeps him on steadier ground than the other two, but Dangerously Sleepy also produced fewer synaptic crackles than I experienced while imbibing Wolf-Meyer’s interdisciplinary razzmatazz or Crary’s visionary jeremiad. Sleep may have a hidden history, but reading these three books shows that it can worm its way into traditional disciplinary investigations as well as emerging interdisciplinary conversations. To understand sleep’s histories, as well as the history of the things that happen while we’re awake, we need the macro and the micro, the empirical and the speculative, the brash and the subtle. We’re off to a good start, but it will take a lot more digging to bring this neglected part of human history — one-third of it — fully into the light.


Benjamin Reiss is at work on a cultural and literary history of sleep.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Reiss is Samuel Candler Dobbs professor and chair of the English department at Emory University. His most recent book is Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World (Basic Books, 2017). He is also the author of Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2008) and The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America (Harvard University Press, 2001). His website is


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