Into the Weird

If witch-burning Puritans are the original jocks of American history, then the mystics surrounding Johannes Kelpius are the first goths. While the rest of the British colonies were still dutifully worshipping their angry Christian god, Kelpius and his followers—who fled Austria to settle in Philadelphia during the late seventeenth-century—busied themselves with astrology, alchemy, Kabbalah, and other “dark arts” with tangled roots in the Italian Renaissance, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and various (often fabricated) antiquities. We meet Kelpius early in Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, an uneven but always interesting account of 400 years of New World Strange. Among the several misconceptions Horowitz seeks to dispel, the most foundational is the idea that Colonial America provided shelter only for persecuted Christian sects. Almost from the beginning, North America was also home to a fair number of those who, like Kelpius, had more arcane spiritual interests.

Horowitz never claims that these beliefs were as formative an influence as Christianity in the making of America, but after finishing his book, one can’t help but wonder if maybe Ouija boards don’t belong next to King James in every motel room. Horowitz ably chronicles how occult traditions have, over the centuries, deeply and consistently influenced the American mainstream—sometimes entering the mainstream themselves in the process. Many of the figures that populate Horowitz’s narrative will be unknown to the uninitiated, but their impact is illustrated by the frequent appearance of more familiar names. Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, after a childhood in the Hudson Valley’s famously heterodox “Burnt-over District,” was at the time of his death studying Hebrew and Kabbalah. Henry Ford was a fan of the New Thought leader Ralph Waldo Trine, and he often gave visitors copies of Trine’s In Tune With the Infinite. Frederick Douglass left open the possibility that a magic “hoodoo” root (not to be confused with “voodoo”) helped him secure victory against a cruel slave master.

One of the more surprising vignettes involves Henry Wallace, the New Deal figure best remembered today for his doomed third-party challenge to Harry Truman in 1948. As Horowitz shows, it wasn’t Wallace’s alleged ties to Communists that brought a premature end to his political career; it was his relationship with a shadowy Theosophist “guru” named Nicholas Roerich.

Buy the book.

Buy the book.

As often as not in Horowitz’s history, mysticism meant money. Occult America offers numerous examples of hucksters popularizing esoteric ideas to make a buck. Almost all did so by preaching variations on the profoundly American idea of “the power of positive thinking” (or, in the first formulation, “the power of affirmative thought”). It first came to prominence in Jacksonian America, when a Maine clockmaker named Phineas P. Quimby came to believe he had cured his tuberculosis simply by refusing to believe in it. Quimby’s insight, combined with the ideas of Mesmerists and Swedenborgians, gave birth to the movement known as New Thought. Almost a century later, an Idaho druggist named Frank Robinson would build on New Thought premises to found and grow the world’s eighth largest religion, Psychiana, largely by selling memberships (with a money-back guarantee) through mail-order magazine ads. Robinson’s paying adherents received lesson plans that mixed mind-healing, prayer, and good old-fashioned Emersonian self-reliance. Ernest Holmes would employ a similar model to build the still-extant Church of Religious Science. By the mid-twentieth-century, New Thought had been further mainstreamed and repackaged for mass consumption in the form of best-selling books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, and—most famously—Norman Vincent Peale.

Among the forgotten stories Horowitz tells is the role the occult played in the progressive social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The most famous nineteenth-century Theosophists, Spiritualists, and trance mediums preached a radically democratic view of religion, society, and individual empowerment that crossed barriers of gender, religion, and race. Many were active in the fight for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and desegregation. “Spiritualism has inaugurated the era of woman,” declared the Spiritualist suffragette Mary Fenn Love in 1853. Twenty years later, a trance medium named Victoria Woodhull became the nation’s first female presidential candidate, nominated by a coalition of suffragists, abolitionists, and religious free thinkers who counted a wide array of occultists in their number.

Horowitz believes that this historical partnership between the occult and progressive politics has been consistent up to the present. He convincingly knocks down the trendy idea that the Third Reich was an occult phenomenon. “However tantalizing some may find it to conceive of Hitler as a practitioner of black magic,” Horowitz writes, “it is fantasy.” It turns out Hitler had no more patience for ancient Vedic philosophy or Aryan mysticism than he did for Marxism. He just thought the Indian symbol of karma and rebirth looked good on uniforms.

If Occult America is hurt by anything, it is its own ambition. By trying to cover the grand sweep of American history in less than 300 pages, the book is inevitably dense and busy with characters, movements, and ideas constantly being introduced, sketched, and pulled away. There is a good reason that Catherine Albanese’s far more comprehensive work, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion—which is changing the way scholars tell the history of American religion—runs nearly 650 pages. Without much of a chronological or thematic structure, Occult America often reads more like an encyclopedia than a narrative. (But an encyclopedia that’s missing a few pages: Where’s Wilhelm Reich? Robert Anton Wilson? L. Ron Hubbard?) Horowitz’s account of the Ouija board is fascinating, as is the story of Gandhi’s early involvement with Theosophy. But the book would have benefited from a shorter timeframe or a tighter thematic focus.

Because he is busy covering so much ground, Horowitz never really pauses to ask or explore the larger questions behind his history. Why have Americans been continually drawn to and inspired by this unruly family of philosophies? Why did Spiritualism sweep America, and then the globe, in the nineteenth century? As a veteran and respected voice for esoteric ideas, Horowitz understands their appeal better than most. But in Occult America, he settles for too little.

These ideas and movements have existed and continue to thrive, he writes, for the same reason as any religion: because they provide people with “some of the most moving and deeply affecting experiences of their lives.” It is an answer that is as simple as it is unassailable.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, will be released by Wiley in June 2010.