(This review is also posted at The Pagan Bookworm, which hosts many great reviews and booklists of interest to magical folk)
Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation by Mitch Horowitz
Bantam Books, 2009 (304 pages)
This popular history of metaphysical thought in the United States has brought mainstream attention to many of the esoteric underpinnings of American culture. Fueled by films such as National Treasure, the “secret history” trend seems to have greatly informed Horowitz’s Occult America. In this text, the author traces several key lines of occult thought through the pages of American history, starting primarily in New York and working his way south and west across the landscape. He spends a good deal of time examining the “Burned Over District” near the Erie Canal, which spawned a number of new religious and spiritual movements during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mormonism, the Shakers, and even Spiritualism all have roots in this particular region, according to Horowitz, who treats the area as an incubator for esoteric thought.
The author then follows these nascent movements and some of their most visible members as they impact and shape American culture during the formative years of the new republic. Joseph Smith, Henry Steel Olcott, Jemima Wilkinson (aka the “Publick Universal Friend”), Helena Blavatsky, Andrew Jackson Davis, and Edgar Cayce are just some of the myriad personalities Horowitz examines in his whirlwind tour of historic America’s spiritual scene. He devotes pages to hoodoo mail order merchants and Voodoo worshipers in New Orleans. He introduces the phenomenon of correspondence-course religions, such as Paul Foster Case’s Builders of the Adytum, which saw a flurry of popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Horowitz also does all of his examining with an infectious enthusiasm which keeps the reader turning pages to see the next dizzying connection between occult America’s disparate streams.
Occult America has its faults, too. Horowitz so enthusiastically pursues the movements eminating from the Burned Over District that he neglects other key influences on magical and spiritual thought. For instance, he spends little time looking into the Appalachian Mountains and the many religious and folk magical traditions which stemmed from the Pennsylvania-to-Georgia portion of that range (a subject wich is explored very well in Gerald C. Milne’s Signs, Cures, & Witchery). He also gives short shrift to the occult legacy of places like Chicago, and devotes a relatively small amont of text to New Orleans—though that may be because it could be a book unto itself. He focuses more keenly on new philosophical movements and areas which might be classified as “New Age” rather than looking at the on-the-ground practical elements of American occultism. Even with all of that being said, however, the areas in which his focus is sharpest are often quite marvelous. His chapter on Manly P. Hall, author of the profoundly world-shaking The Secret Teachings of All Ages, is worth reading and re-reading for any student of esoteric thought. His chapter on the Ouija board is a delight as well.
Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America makes a good starting point for understanding the wide-ranging influences which have fed American spirituality since before the Declaration of Independence existed. While its net is broad and therefore sometimes it only shallowly explores major topics, it can easily provide a reader with enough good questions and resources to explore those topics on his or her own. It is far from comprehensive, but it is accessible and energetic, and will likely whet the intellectual appetite of any curious occultist.
Thanks for reading!