Book Review: Occult America

Occult America:  The Secret History Of How Mysticism Shaped America, by Mitch Horowitz, read by Paul Michael Garcia

This is the sort of book that could only be written by someone who was an expert on occult history.  Admittedly, this is not the sort of history I am most familiar with, since many New Age thought, quite a bit of which I have come into contact with as a prolific reader and reviewer [1], but in listening to this book being read, I was struck by how much of the book was more familiar than I thought it would be.  The author, who has written other books on the subject and given talks on the burnt-over district as the “spiritual highway” in the United States, and who spends a lot of time here talking about quirky and oddball religious leaders in 20th century Southern California and their upstate New York 19th century predecessors, certainly has crafted a worthwhile book that will provide a lot more evidence of just how weird America’s political leadership is than is commonly known, and the deep influence of the occult in American religious and cultural thought from the Ouija board to self-help thinking.  A reader of this book will not be able to ignore the occult influences in life, and that is a tribute to the author’s command of his material, and the fact that it seems to come entirely out of left field, in a place that few people are looking, demonstrating the modern nature of astrological predictions and sun signs and the occult nature of motivational thinking.

The contents of this book are strong and mostly chronological in nature.  Beginning with the early stirrings of occult thinking in the United States in the colonial period, mostly through the effort of European immigrants, the author explores various odd and mostly forgotten personalities, as well as movements like the Rosicrucians, Mormons, and Freemasons, who proliferated in the United States through our cultural attitudes of religious freedom.  As the author winds his way through American history, he looks at the hermetic importance of symbolism and layered meanings in America’s seal, the importance of creepy séances to American spiritualism, mesermism and astral projection, and the importance of appealing to New Thought voters from the age of Abraham Lincoln to the theosophical speculations of vice president Henry Wallace to the astrological interests of the Reagans.  The author draws parallels in the places where many of these occult thinkers came from, biographical sketches of figures as diverse as Gandhi, Madame Blavatsky, and Marcus Garvey, and seeks to defend the occult world from being tarred with the brush of being associated too closely with Hitler and other neo-Nazis.  That alone ought to point out just how deep of a hole fascism is in, when an artist who speaks highly about wicca and Ouija boards wants to distance himself from someone’s reputation.

Whether or not the reader believes everything the author has to say, especially when he is trying to demonstrate the social and cultural importance of new thought, this book has a lot to say that the reader will likely find to be greatly troubling.  In many ways the role of the occult has been contradictory within the United States, in that it has spawned the uniquely American focus on personal responsibility even as it has also spawned an interest in star signs and the belief that our lives are influenced by the stars.  On the one hand, many Americans have been opposed to secret groups, but on the other hand, people with certain interests in arcane and esoteric matters have found themselves made fun of and have sought secret groups and rituals where they are accepted to keep prying eyes from interfering or ridiculing with those activities.  On the one hand, many American occult activities have been focused on freedom and liberation from oppression, while others have been in support of anti-Semitic extremist groups, and so on.  The author makes a good case for showing the importance of occult thought in contemporary society, but that influence has been complicated and sometimes even contradictory, much like the Gnosticism of the early centuries of Christianity.  A house divided against itself cannot stand, so the ecumenical spirit of much of American mysticism is not likely to amount to as much as the author would think, even if it is likely to have a strong effect so long as its effects are unknown by those who are hostile to the exploration of the mysteries of the ages, various laws or keys of success, or the incredible human potential that have fascinated so many past occult thinkers.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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