Review: Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Occult. <Adj.> Not revealed; not easily apprehended or understood; hidden from view; not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone. (Definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster.)

The occult, in short, is that which is hidden from view. The term is used to refer to the belief that there are powers in the world unknown or undetectable by peoples’ earthly senses. Although unseen, the irony is that the occult is all around us. The pyramid and “all seeing eye” on the back of the dollar bill? You can thank Freemasons FDR and Henry Wallace for that; prior to their administration, paper money tended toward the more mundane eagle. Mitch Horowitz explores the vagaries of the American occult in Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Horowitz defines the occult as “a wide array of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an ‘unseen world’ whose forces act upon us and through us.” That’s an ambiguous statement, and, given one’s inclination, could be applied to mainstream religions, which Horowitz assumes exist in contradiction to the occult: “These religious radicals [i.e., practitioners of the occult], acting outside the folds of traditional churches…” The occult, then, may be said to exist in parallel, or in opposition to, mainstream religions, but even that is simplistic: The borders of both the occult and traditional religions are porous, and the two were often in dialogue with one another. Consider Christian Science, Christianity infused with “New Thought,” or the occult notion that, in order to be cured of an illness, a sufferer must change her belief about the illness. It’s easy for readers to see how “thinking makes it so” traversed from a marginal belief to one enshrined in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s “prosperity gospel.” It might be said that the occult is that which lacks legitimacy according to the majority of society.

Definition, or lack thereof, assigned, Horowitz sets himself the ambitious task of synthesizing several centuries of religious history in less than 300 pages. Horowitz gives short shrift to the eighteenth century and post-World War II era. In truth, his subject is the American occult in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Readers interested in the “New Age” movement, still developing today, will find a perfunctory chapter at the end of the book.

Horowitz treats his true scope, the nineteenth century American occult, extremely well. He devotes two early chapters, “The Psychic Highway” and “Mystic Americans” to the influential topics of the Burned-Over District (so-called) of upstate New York, and the founding of the Theosophical Society, both of which set the stage for the occult movements of the late 1800s. Some readers may be surprised to know that the Church of Latter Day Saints traces it origins to the Burned-Over District, of which Joseph Smith was a resident, and where he practiced “scrying” with a “peep stone” prior to his religious epiphany. Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, which primed America for an explosion of occult activity by insisting upon the equality of all religions and introducing Eastern beliefs to the West.

Subsequent chapters vary in quality. Topics range from the aforementioned New Thought, predecessor of The Secret and influence upon Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), to various mail order schemes, to the quasi-fascist occult ideologies of the 1920s and ’30s. Of these, the strongest is, perhaps, “Go Tell Pharaoh,” an exploration of African-American occult belief that touches upon hoodoo and the mysticism of Marcus Garvey.

Horowitz employs a certain formula that identifies the main movement of a particular period and sticking to that them, with some variation in terms of his discussion of historic personalities. Horowitz briefly sums up whatever occult system he’s discussing. Some readers may wish for more detail, but Horowitz’s brevity is probably a blessing, given the profound tendency toward minutiae of which all religions, occult or otherwise, are capable.

Horowitz is sympathetic toward his subject, perhaps too much so; he tells readers, halfway through the book, that he has arranged for the publication of various occult volumes long out of print. Still, it’s refreshing to have a perspective that isn’t snide or contemptuous of occult subject matter, and Horowitz seems to recognize that occult seekers are motivated by the quest for meaning and truth. The phonies and charlatans one finds in occult movements have their peers in other human enterprises, from religion, to business, to politics.

Some readers have criticized Occult America on the grounds they they expected more out of it, that its subject matter would point toward an enormous occult influence on American history. Horowitz takes pains to demonstrate the beliefs of Henry Wallace, one of FDR’s vice presidents, and their effects both on his support for particular policies and his career: He was turned out of office, in part, because colleagues perceived him as too credulous. Likewise, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at governor of California several minutes after midnight, a time chosen by his astrologer. And Horowitz cites on numerous occasions the circulations of various occult publications, which are doubtless low estimates, as the believers shared their books and pamphlets with friends and family. One is hard pressed to imagine how Horowitz might have better demonstrated the influence of his subject matter. Perhaps readers expect to learn that Kennedy’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was guided by the stars?

Occult America is a fine introduction to subject little explored (until recently) by scholars. Horowitz is a sympathetic chronicler who makes accessible to readers the major themes of American occult history. Although Horowitz gives some topics short shrift, readers will find in Occult America a useful primer and a starting point for further exploration. Recommended for readers of nonfiction with an interest in American religious history.

 

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2 thoughts on “Review: Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

  1. Amyclae

    I give him points for turning a sympathetic glance towards the ‘occult.’ I don’t know who coined the quip, but a cult is only a religion without political power. I can easily imagine, if our author had only been born a few decades before, giving more emphasis on Mormonism or Seventh-Day Adventism. But now they get a pass. It’s interesting how normative life works.

    Reply
    1. booksbrainsandbeer Post author

      Agreed. In fact, I believe scholars now eschew the term “cult” in favor of the more-neutral sounding “new religious movement.” Horowitz takes particular interest in “positive thinking” movements, aspects of which have definitely become mainstream; I believe his new book is on the subject.

      Reply

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