Once, during my senior year of college, when I was immersed in the study of early American Puritanism, I came as close as one can to experiencing the inner lives of our ancestors, people who really believed not only that our lives had some higher meaning, but also that that meaning could be known, that it was made manifest in signs and omens. Stomping along, lost in thought, I wondered what it might have been like to hear in the crackling leaves behind you the creeping of Satan, or to expect the devil to leap out at you from behind the crook of a tree. And, for a brief moment, I experienced the world with horror, and with wonder.
And then I snapped out of it, because I am a modern, educated rationalist. (I may be revealing my prejudices here.) Christine Wicker is, too, but she’s made a career writing about people’s beliefs. Wicker wrote about the cradle of American spiritualism in Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to Its Dead. She turns her attention to Americans’ magical beliefs in Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America (HarperCollins, 2005). Wicker is writing about the magical because she’s “convinced that when a good number of people start to do something that makes no sense to the society at large, when they cling to it for a long time and increasing numbers of people take it up, they’re on to something.” She’s not altogether successful in her aims.
Wicker begins by dumping readers into a magical gathering held, aptly enough, in Salem, Massachusetts. (Never mind that the witch trials took place in what is, today, nearby Danvers.) Wicker introduces readers to vampires, witches, and werewolves. All manner of peculiar things happen, although, of course, none of it is obviously supernatural. Wicker is setting the stage for her exploration of what she claims is a surge in modern Americans’ belief in magic. Whether or not there is really a definitive change in the national attitude towards magic is less certain. Wicker notes, briefly, American religious history, including the fact that, for most of the past several centuries, the majority of Americans and their ancestors have been “unchurched.” In other words, contrary to the common wisdom, most Americans have never formally belonged to a particular religious tradition, in the sense that they attended church every Sunday, and so on. Likewise, America has a history of the occult dating to its earliest settlement that has also informed Americans’ supernatural beliefs. (See my review of Occult America.) The trend that Wicker notes, then, is perhaps less dramatic than she asserts.
Wicker’s survey of the breadth of American magical belief is necessarily impressionistic. Although she covers a wide swath of the magical “community” (I use quotes only because the term may imply a cohesion that is, in reality, absent), she cannot get to it all. Wicker remains at a “helicopter level” in the first section of the book, which is more general. Still, the reader is never certain just how many Americans might be involved. Magical belief is, by nature, informal, and data not readily available. (“Magic,” too, is a slippery term, bleeding, as it does, into “mainstream” religion.) Still, Wicker manages to touch on Wiccans, practitioners of hoodoo, and “Otherkin” (people who believe they are lycanthropes, elves, and so on). Extensive portraits of several individuals provide readers deeper insights into certain strains of magical belief.
To some degree, every book is about its author, and such is the case with Not in Kansas Anymore. Wicker is forthright about her Baptist upbringing, before the denomination gave itself over to the evangelicalism that peaked shortly after the millennium. She describes a poignant scene in which, as a teenager, she convinces her father to attend a Pentecostal service. The look of disapproval on his face, as he sits patiently observing the pastor’s histrionics, will be immediately recognizable to most readers, and sets the stage for Wicker’s transition to skepticism. She is avowedly atheist, but retains her interest in the supernatural, aptly, as a journalist. Still, to her credit, Wicker is sympathetic to her subjects; she does not put them down or demean them. It is clear, though, that Wicker retains at the core of her being her stubborn Baptist morality, which sometimes interferes with her explorations of the more libertine aspects of the magical community.
Ultimately, Wicker finds meaning in her study of magic. She participates in hoodoo, is blessed by a voodoo priest, and, near the close of the book, takes the Eucharist at Westminster Cathedral. Wicker, rationalist that she is, realizes that magic, or religion, or whatever one might call it, affords meaning to its adherents: “You can call it religion, you can call it spirituality, you can call it magic. Maybe what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t settle for being cut off, that you take the power, that you demand the completeness of human experience…What we must not do…is allow ourselves to be cut off from our own experience of life as it presents itself to us.” Amen to that. Not in Kansas Anymore is an intermittently successful look at Americans’ “fringe” magical beliefs and Wicker’s own relationship with them. General in scope, it’s accessible to the average reader, and serves as a primer for certain movements, for instance, hoodoo and Wicca. Recommended for readers interested, but who do not have a background in, American religious and occult belief.