Occult America: The Secret History of how Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

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Bantam Books, 2009 - History - 290 pages
2 Reviews
It touched lives as disparate as those of Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mary Todd Lincoln—who once convinced her husband, Abe, to host a séance in the White House. Americans all, they were among the famous figures whose paths intertwined with the mystical and esoteric movement broadly known as the occult. Brought over from the Old World and spread throughout the New by some of the most obscure but gifted men and women of early U.S. history, this “hidden wisdom” transformed the spiritual life of the still-young nation and, through it, much of the Western world.

Yet the story of the American occult has remained largely untold. Now a leading writer on the subject of alternative spirituality brings it out of the shadows. Here is a rich, fascinating, and colorful history of a religious revolution and an epic of offbeat history.

From the meaning of the symbols on the one-dollar bill to the origins of the Ouija board,Occult Americabriskly sweeps from the nation’s earliest days to the birth of the New Age era and traces many people and episodes, including:

•The spirit medium who became America’s first female religious leader in 1776
•The supernatural passions that marked the career of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
•The rural Sunday-school teacher whose clairvoyant visions instigated the dawn of the New Age
•The prominence of mind-power mysticism in the black-nationalist politics of Marcus Garvey
•The Idaho druggist whose mail-order mystical religion ranked as the eighth-largest faith in the world during the Great Depression

Here, too, are America’s homegrown religious movements, from transcendentalism to spiritualism to Christian Science to the positive-thinking philosophy that continues to exert such a powerful pull on the public today. A feast for believers in alternative spirituality, an eye-opener for anyone curious about the unknown byroads of American history,Occult Americais an engaging, long-overdue portrait of one nation, under many gods, whose revolutionary influence is still being felt in every corner of the globe.

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Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

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How have mysticism and occultism affected the shape of American history? In his first book, Horowitz (editor in chief, Tarcher/Penguin), who has published many articles on themes related to ... Read full review

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Mitch Horowitz: Occult America --
The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam, 2009)
A Review
Raj Ayyar
Mitch Horowitz leads us on a fascinating journey through an alternative U.S. history – a landscape peopled with colorful eccentrics, inspired visionaries and self-help savants. Contrary to a certain stereotype about the hardboiled pragmatism and muscular materialism of the American, Horowitzian America offers us a peek into a radically different, occult America, whose thumbprint was felt as far as Asia, through movements like the Theosophical Society.
However, throughout the book, Horowitz emphasizes the uniquely American quality of occult experimentation in the US. American occultism is rooted in do-it-yourself American individualism and equal access. Apparently, in the house of the American occult there are many mansions, ranging from hand-holding séances to good, old-fashioned self-help and positive thinking approaches, from Joseph Smith to Edgar Cayce.
Among other uniquely American features of the different occult movements is the belief “that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality,” (Occult America, p. 257). The New Age slogan ‘you create your own reality’ has deep roots in the history of the American Occult. New Agers may be surprised to learn that the Law of Attraction, popularized by Esther and Jerry Hicks and by the best selling book and DVD ‘The Secret’, has a long history in American Occultism. Horowitz traces LOA back to Andrew Jackson Davis, the Seer of Poughkeepsie in 1855. “The Law of Attraction meant that whatever a person dwelled upon in their thoughts would manifest in events good or bad, joyous or catastrophic in their earthly lives.” (Occult America, p.96).
Horowitz points out that in the context of slavery in the American South, such thinking could seem a ‘naively cruel calculus’. (ibid. p.96.) It is hard to disagree with Horowitz when he argues that the Law of Attraction presupposes an American middle class level of comfort and stability. In fact, one could go further and argue that the Law of Attraction can be easily linked to a do-it-yourself, ‘get rich quick’ capitalist ethic.
On the other hand, Horowitz does not pause to consider how this business of reality creation with thoughts and feelings, can be a profoundly self-empowering calculus, as studies of the placebo effect have shown. Within certain limits, the Law of Attraction can infuse one with the energy, trust and confidence to change one’s circumstances from illness to good health, from poverty to a state of material comfort, from struggling to a life of relative ease.
There are some astonishing counter examples to the bourgeois halo surrounding the Law of Attraction and this business of creating reality with one’s thoughts, feeling and beliefs. Horowitz points out that Wallace Wattles (author of ‘The Science of Getting Rich’), one of the 19th century self-help gurus featured in ‘The Secret’, had a Utopian socialist vision married to the gospel of wealth. Wattles had a great admiration for American socialist Eugene Debs and hoped that the use of mind power to generate wealth would go hand in hand with fighting for the oppressed, and the creation of an equitable social order.
There is another interesting section of Horowitz’s book, dealing with how iconic leaders of 19th Century African – American movements such as Marcus Garvey, were greatly influenced by New Thought.
‘Occult America’ takes the history of the occult and the New Age out of the alleys and byways, and places it squarely within mainstream Americana. Politicians like Lincoln and Henry A Wallace (FDR’s second VP) among many others, were fascinated by the occult.
The last chapter of Occult America zips through a medley of contemporary New Age authors and movements. One wishes that it had the paced, almost leisurely quality of Horowitz’s history of earlier periods of occult history.

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About the author (2009)

Mitch Horowitz is the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin. He has written for Esopus, Parabola, Fortean Times, and Science of Mind. A well-known voice for occult and esoteric ideas, Horowitz lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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