Book review: Mitch Horowitz. Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

By March 2, 2010

This review, in a slightly different format, will appear in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Mormon History. Grateful acknowledgment to Boyd Petersen, that publication’s book review editor, for permission to publish here is hereby pronounced.

Mitch Horowitz has written an often gleefully fascinating book. Horowitz is editor in chief of the Tarcher imprint of Penguin Books, which publishes volumes on topics like the Mayan apocalypse, interpreting your own dreams, ?energy medicine,? the ?Human Potential Movement,? the investing secrets of King Solomon, and other such esoterica. He built a career writing for such classic publications as The Fortean Times, each issue a veritable encyclopedia of frogs falling from the sky, crop circles, and cryptozoology. The journal is named for Charles Fort, the World War I era prophet who wrote vast compendia of strange phenomena with titles like Lo! and The Book of the Damned, and is generally credited with coming up with the idea of alien abduction, coining the term ?teleportation,? and, crucially, suggesting that there are vast untapped powers available to the human mind–powers that can make you rich, find your keys, and let you see into the future.

In this volume, Horowitz argues that Charles Fort is not, in fact, a crank but rather that Fort had his finger on the American zeitgeist. Horowitz makes his case thus: ?Whether the occult changed America, or the other way around, certainly this much is clear: The encounter between America and occultism resulted in a vast reworking of arcane practices and beliefs from the Old World and the creation of a new spiritual culture. This new culture extolled religious egalitarianism and responded perhaps more than any other movement in history to the inner needs and search of the individual. At work and at church, on television and in bookstores, there was no avoiding it: occult America had prevailed.? (258)

Horowitz believes that what he calls the ?occult? was a radically optimistic movement in America, built around a very American exaltation of ?an unlikely ethic of social progress and individual betterment? (3). It flourished outside the folds of the churches, driven forward by the eccentricities, genius, and spiritual hunger of individuals as diverse as the dentist?s wife Mary Baker Eddy, the cobbler?s son Andrew Jackson Davis, and the druggist Frank B. Robinson–self-made prophets with followings of thousands all. And it was this very confidence in the potential of the average American to access and understand esoteric spiritual knowledge and to use it for individual betterment and empowerment which makes the occult, according to Horowitz, America?s true religion.

Befitting such an argument, the bulk of Horowitz?s book consists of mini-biographies of figures like the ones above. The great Depression-era psychic, theologian, medium, and healer Edgar Cayce gets his own chapter, which emphasizes the coherent structure of Cayce?s mystic thought and argues: ?If there was an inner, or occult, philosophy behind the world?s historic faiths, Cayce had come as close as any modern person to defining it? (235). Similar homage is paid to Manly Hall, the eccentric genius who sat for most of his twenties in the New York Public Library?s Reading Room, composing a vast work reconciling virtually every genre of esoteric thought; to Timothy Drew, the North Carolinian who renamed himself Noble Drew Ali and invented ?Moorish Science?; and the magician Paul Foster Case, whose 1909 encounter with a mysterious person calling himself the ?Master of Wisdom? propelled him into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and eventually into developing a systematic theory of the Tarot.

Yet, despite the tantalizing promises of the dust jacket that Horowitz will explore the ?supernatural passions that marked the career of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith,? he uses a cursory three-page recapitulation of D. Michael Quinn?s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (2nd edition, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998) primarily as a springboard into a subject that seems to interest him more: Masonry.

This sort of frenetic leap from oddball to oddball embodies the basic weaknesses of Horowitz?s book. First, it is weirdly organized. Awareness that Horowitz seems to have intended a chronological approach only gradually emerges after the reader has been spun through two opening chapters which leap from person to person and movement to movement with only the barest thread of argument or transition tying them together. The first chapter after the introduction is entitled ?The Psychic Highway,? referring to the Burned-Over District of antebellum upstate New York. In considering this location, Horowitz in the span of thirty pages deals with, in order, the Shakers, the mysterious ?Dark Day? in 1780 when the sun failed to rise, various Indian mythologies, the Millerites, the Mormons, Masonry, the resurrected Quaker prophetess Jemima Wilkinson, Mesmerism, Emanuel Swedenborg, and the great Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis. One?s head spins, and Horowitz?s book seems so bursting with facts and besotted with the obscure and quirky that it threatens to come apart at the seams.

The second chapter is not much better. Fuzzily titled ?Mystic Americans,? it begins with the late nineteenth century, vaguely Hindu Theosophical movement, leaps back in time to Transcendentalism and the occult traditions of Europe, touches on Mary Todd Lincoln?s enjoyment of séances, and concludes with the psychic proclivities of the late nineteenth-century feminist Victoria Woodhull. Parsing a coherent argument or narrative thread out of such a patchwork is difficult.

Fortunately, Horowitz then calms down and most of the following chapters have a great deal more focus, though his propensity toward narrating the lives of such fascinating figures as Henry Wallace (Theosophist and Franklin Roosevelt?s vice-president for one term) or William Fuld (the stodgy Presbyterian who made the Ouija board into a board game), rather than drawing out evidence to support his argument continually threatens to dismember the book into a collection of anecdotes.

This tendency also illustrates Horowitz?s second great weakness. One gets the sneaking sense that ?occult? means anything Horowitz finds novel, interesting, or appropriately weird. At one point, he defines it as that which ?deals with the inner aspect of religion; the mystical doorways of realization and the secret ways of knowing. Classical occultism regards itself as an initiatory spiritual tradition? (8). This is, though charmingly mystical itself, not a terribly precise definition. Indeed, monastic Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Judaism might well qualify. Elsewhere, occultism emerges as that which deals with the spiritual or hidden world and how it affects the present and material. That definition is clearer, sort of. However, such obscurity allows Horowitz to place Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy in the same pages with the Maharishi Maresh Yogi, which is an achievement not to be sneezed at.

MATTHEW BOWMAN is a graduate student in American religious history at Georgetown University, the assistant editor of Dialogue: a journal of Mormon Thought, and author of several articles on Mormon and evangelical history.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews JIers in Print Popular Culture


Comments

  1. Excellent work, Matt; thanks for sharing it here. You are, by far, the king of esoteric scholarship in these realms.

    How does this book’s thesis compare to Schmidt’s Restless Souls or Albanese’s Republic of Mind and Spirit?

    Comment by Ben — March 3, 2010 @ 7:15 am

  2. Thanks, Ben. Frankly. the Schmidt always seemed to me – with a couple of exceptions, like most of chapter 2 – something of a toss-off from an exceptional scholar, on par with, say, Garry Wills’ Certain Trumpets. Like Gertrude Stein used to say, “There’s no _there_ there.” The Albanese book is more impressive to me. The arguments of both, however, have more follow-through than does Horowitz. He states a thesis, for which, props to him, but it’s a relatively self-evident one. Both of these other authors build on it – except they published before him. Oops.

    Comment by matt b. — March 3, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  3. Enjoyable, as always, Matt. I just hope one of my more dry forthcoming-in-JMH reviews won’t appear alongside yours 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — March 3, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  4. Thanks for the review. I just put a hold on a copy at the county library.

    Comment by larryco_ — March 3, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

  5. I think the focus on esotericism (I don’t think mysticism captures the range of phenomena) since Quinn’s groundbreaking work is great. It’s amazing to see how much this has taken hold in general American history. (i.e. no Mormons involved)

    That said most of the works I’ve read suffer from the fuzzy problem you noted. It’s often not clear what they are discussing nor what patterns they are seeing. Put an other way, I agree that broadly speaking esotericism had a huge effect on the American development. What historians need to do now is move beyond vague parallelitus and start making more precise and specific claims and generate some theoretical models.

    Why that more theoretical scaffolding hasn’t been developed is quite surprising to me. Instead we get the same sort of writing merely transported to new people or periods.

    Comment by Clark — March 4, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  6. To add, I half suspect that the answer to my question is that the “next step” requires strong interdisciplinary work. i.e. someone with a strong background in empirical psychology, in economics, in technical sociology or even philosophy and history of philosophy to draw out the more significant strands.

    Comment by Clark — March 4, 2010 @ 12:58 pm


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