Occult America

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation by Mitch Horowitz.

Mitch Horowitz Occult America

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz is engaging, entertaining, and educational. It is not, however—despite the assertion of its subtitle—”the secret history of how mysticism shaped our nation.” For one thing, it is not a single history; it is a bricolage of tangentially-related sketches and investigations regarding a topic that Horowitz never manages to subject to any theoretical treatment, nor to encompass with a larger narrative. (An earlier attempt covering nearly the same domain that did succeed in this regard is Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit.) The closest he comes to answering his own initial question “What is the occult?” is to propose that it comprehends all those techniques and teachings that purport to put people in communication with an “unseen world.” But surely many of the most common and non-“occult” of spiritual traditions do so as well.

Although the book starts with the 18th century and ends with the 1970s, the contents don’t progress in a strictly chronological fashion. In one chapter, for example, Horowitz spends the first half discussing the Theosophical Society, and then goes back to describe the advent of Spiritualism in the second half. He jumps forward from there to give the full century-plus history of the Ouija Board, before returning to the early origins of New Thought in the 1830s. This lack of organization in the book is somewhat surprising, since the author’s own background is as an editor, and he is currently editor-in-chief at Penguin’s Tarcher imprint for metaphysical books. He contributed to the publication of the “reader’s edition” of Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages and the trade paper issuance of The Tarot by Paul Foster Case, and when it comes to these figures, and to other trivia of American occult bibliography, Horowitz delivers fascinating and highly credible detail I have never encountered elsewhere.

In a treatment that appears to be attempting a comprehensive sketch, however, the initiatory orders of occultism are markedly absent. Horowitz derides them as being characteristic of the European occult scene, and writes as if they have had only sporadic relevance to America. The one to which he gives the most attention is the Golden Dawn, in his account of Paul Foster Case. But an otherwise-uninformed reader of Horowitz would likely get the impression that in Case’s day the US only had a few fledgling Golden Dawn (really Alpha et Omega) groups, with the bulk of the Order still in England, when in fact the American membership may well have outnumbered the British at that time, just as O.T.O. (never mentioned by Horowitz) had its most populous organizing in America then–and ever since. Even AMORC, whose mail-order initiatory arrangement demonstrates so well the themes of popularization and commodification that seem to interest Horowitz, barely rates a few glancing mentions. This is a book purportedly about the deep traditions of American occultism, in which Paschal Beverly Randolph is given only passing notice, in reference to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor—itself only briefly mentioned as background for the astrological writer C.C. Zain.

His disdain for initiatory orders and the objects of their secrecy puts into question Horowitz’s offer of a “secret” history. Still, one of the high points of the volume is the chapter on “Politics and the Occult,” with sometimes surprising facts regarding the role of mystics on both the right and left in mid-20th-century US politics. Although he is willing to acknowledge the connection of the occult to political ideologies he finds distasteful, Horowitz seems to be whitewashing other key features of American occultism. He does not introduce his readers to figures like sex-guru Oom the Omnipotent or professed antichrist Jack Parsons, nor does he discuss the historical intersection of occultism and drug culture.

Horowitz concludes the book with a claim that the late 20th-century New Age synthesized the occult currents of America and successfully deposited them in mainstream religion and popular culture. The thesis that the New Age Movement was heir to occultism and esotericism has been amply demonstrated in Wouter Hanegraaff’s magisterial New Age Religion and Western Culture, but Horowitz glosses over the more recent fact that the piecemeal adoption of “New Age” ideas and techniques by other groups and personalities has only helped to make superfluous an ostensible movement which was always a shaky sort of coalition.

While Occult America is clearly intended for a popular audience, I think the book’s greatest value will be for those who already grasp the larger historical framework of American metaphysical religion that it doesn’t really clarify. Its wealth of intriguing detail kept me thoroughly interested, and its neglect of the initiatory culture of American esotericism actually makes it a valuable complement to the reading usually undertaken by those of us who have an established interest in that field. [via]