Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Occult America: The Secret History Of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

Occult America: The Secret History Of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
Mitch Horowitz

First, let me get something out of the way. The words “occult” and “mysticism” aren’t synonymous with each other. Secondly, neither of these words describes even a large part of what this book covers. What words would be better? Religion? New Age? Psychology? Therapy? Metaphysics? Yes to all of those, and yes to occult and mysticism, too. That said, this is an unfailingly interesting, stimulating, hilarious and curious book, which covers in less than 300 pages most of the significant beliefs of this kind in American history and the vivid individuals and movements that are tied up with them. Horowitz has taken on a lot, but the book shows little sign of strain.

What is covered? The Burned-over district, the beginnings of Mormonism, Spiritualism, utopian communities, Freemasonry, Theosophy, Hoodoo, urban African-American alternative religions, Psychiana, UFO cults—even Norman Vincent Peale. (Peale? Well, the strain may show here). And that’s only a sampling.

Also, there’s Edgar Cayce. Do you need your conventional notions of history challenged? Horowitz relishes doing this: “If the New Age could be said to possess a starting point, it might be traced to the early autumn of 1923 in Selma, Alabama.” Yes, that’s what the book says. The author makes a convincing case for it. Could much of 20th Century Black American religious alternatives, such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, have their roots in an 18th Century English instructional guide to manners and morals? Was Frederick Douglass influenced, if only temporarily, by hoodoo? Again, the cases are well-made.

It’s well-stocked with little-known, obscure and virtually unknown (at least to me, and I’m well-versed on this stuff, though not a scholar) historical bits. Franz Mesmer (of Mesmerism fame) tried to recruit George Washington to the cause. Washington politely praised Mesmer but did nothing. Mary Todd Lincoln dove headfirst into Spiritualism after the death of her son. That much is well-known. What isn’t is her husband’s attitude toward spooks. Abe was more circumspect. After listening to the spirit’s advice, he said the “celestials” didn’t seem to know how to run a military any better than mortals did. This should be filed under “Lincoln – Wit” rather than “Lincoln – Seeker.”

The Lincoln anecdote is one of many instances of comic relief, which is welcome in a book where more than a couple of personages take themselves too seriously In the Golden Dawn occult group in the Twenties, two members had an affair. The group advocated celibacy, but Lillian Geise and Paul Case defied the restraints. Things ended with Case fessing up to a less-than-chaste relationship with Geise: “The Hierophant and I were observed to exchange significant glances over the altar during the Mystic Repast.” You don’t come across camp like that very often.

A word of caution. Horowitz mentions, in passing, that the Beatles’ White Album and Let it Be contain raga-influenced melodies and lyrics. A howler like this, even though it only pertains to a subject the book doesn’t focus on, makes me somewhat more skeptical about the main course, however well-footnoted it is.

Still, you aren’t going to find a history of alternative religious beliefs in America this entertaining anywhere else. There’s plenty for the novice and there’s plenty that surprised and challenged me. I’m reminded of the saying: “There’s nowt sae queer as folk.” Dive in, the water’s strange.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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