4 January 2010


Mitch Horowitz. Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped our Nation. Bantam Books, 2009.

No, despite the title and front cover, this isn't another Dan Brown style book extolling how the Masons founded America with the help of the Illuminati and Soroptimists, instead it is sympathetic but never credulous account of the role of 'occultist' and other dissident religions in American history from the revolution down to the early 1960s. 
Horowitz traces these down from the role of such charismatic women as Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers and Jemina Wilkinson 'The Universal Public Friend', though the history of Mormonism, Spiritualism, theosophy, multiple channels (no pun intended) of mind cure, new thought and related groups. Some of these are well know, others, prominent in their day, now forgotten.

There are two big themes in Horowitz's study, one is that most of these people and groups weren't actually occult in the true sense of the word, they rejected the secrecy and elitism of European occultism in favour of a much more open and democratic vision. The other, is that they represented a much more inclusive vision, both religiously and socially than the mainstream, pioneers in women's rights, racial equality and a sense of a universal humanity. They made a sharp contrast to the narrow, exclusivist and harsh fundamentalism, which seemed to characterise much of American religion in the days of George Bush.

There were exceptions, William Dudley Pelley, who journeyed from occultism into a form of imitation Nazism and virulent anti-Semitism, the influence of which goes on today, and which helped propel Ezra Pound down his path of treason.

Looking at many of the other characters, one can perhaps see many a trickster figure, half visionary, half rogue, seeking their way in the capitalist world. One such visionary, Henry Wallace, would have become president of the United States had Roosevelt died a year earlier than he did, there are several topics there for the producers of alternative histories.

In some ways this book stops short at an interesting period, there is only the briefest mention of flying saucer contactees, and the new age movement, and none of the new religious movements of the 1960s onwards. Perhaps it would not have been possible to present such a positive image of these. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

Mitch Horowitz said...

Hi John, Just wanted to express my appreciation for your very intelligent review of Occult America. Not a lot of people pick up on the Pelley drama, which I was glad to see that you did. Your site has a very vibrant and intelligent quality all around. With cheers and regards, Mitch Horowitz