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Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  1,250 ratings  ·  193 reviews
It touched lives as disparate as those of Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mary Todd Lincoln—who once convinced her husband, Abe, to host a séance in the White House. Americans all, they were among the famous figures whose paths intertwined with the mystical and esoteric movement broadly known as the occult. Brought over from the Old World and spread throughout ...more
Hardcover, 291 pages
Published September 8th 2009 by Bantam
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Susan Oleksiw I just finished this book, and found it a good overview of the search for the occult, hidden wisdom, in our history. From the founding to the current …moreI just finished this book, and found it a good overview of the search for the occult, hidden wisdom, in our history. From the founding to the current time, for well over 200 years, Americans have explored different authorities to understand the world beyond the material one, to answer questions about the after-life, and more. This book covers all the main teachers and schools beginning with the Fox sisters in the mid 1800s, with a brief reference to the late 1700s, up to the 1970s.(less)

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Tamara Rose
Jan 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: occult, history
Having studied esoteric and occult culture for well over half my life, this book doesn't contain anything that I hadn't already read about. However, the author's treatment of his subject matter is a refreshing change from either the condescending manner of skeptical writers or the credulous tone of New Age proselytizers. While the book itself is a slim volume, its pages are full of characters and their exploits, woven together quite skillfully into a concise history of the main esoteric belief s ...more
Mar 25, 2011 marked it as dnf-or-not-gonna-happen
I just couldn't bring myself to finish this. The title gives the impression that mysticisim and the occult actually played a big role in American history, and that the author will be revealing fascinating secrets. Nope. Instead, it's just a simple history of the various weird things that people have believed in (for a certain value of weird, of course). It's actually very dry, which is a shame. Probably overresearched and overwritten. Top that off with a complete and total lack of critical reaso ...more
This being my first review and this being a non-fiction book, I suppose the best way to review it would to judge it by two criteria: i) the content and ii) the quality of the writing.

THE CONTENT: The title of the book is ambiguous and potentially misleading, suggesting something like an Illuminati style conspiracy theory or perhaps an ultra-orthodox polemic against fringe spiritual movements. It's actually just a straightforward history book (as I knew it was when I picked it up) and as such mak
Nov 04, 2009 rated it liked it
I found Occult America to be an absolutely engaging historical account of the spiritual leaders and movements that helped pave the way for Mysticism in the world today. Many people were brought to my attention that I had never before heard of, but have played such a pivotal role in the spiritual movements such as Johannes Kelpius, Ann Lee, and Jemima Wilkinson to name just a few.

Occult America also discusses well known historical figures such as Mary Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln’s wife) and her
Raj Ayyar
Mar 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Mitch Horowitz: Occult America --
The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam, 2009)
A Review
Raj Ayyar
Mitch Horowitz leads us on a fascinating journey through an alternative U.S. history – a landscape peopled with colorful eccentrics, inspired visionaries and self-help savants. Contrary to a certain stereotype about the hardboiled pragmatism and muscular materialism of the American, Horowitzian America offers us a peek into a radically different, occult America, whose thumbpri
Jul 16, 2009 rated it it was ok
"The secret history of how mysticism shaped our nation," the title says. But it doesn't seem that there's really all that much of a secret to this history -- it's simply not well known. And even more disappointing, the history doesn't reveal much about how the nation was shaped. In fact, as Horowitz admits at the end, it's really more a matter of how the history of mysticism was shaped by our nation: "The encounter between America and occultism resulted in a vast reworking of arcane practices an ...more
Jun 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: library

This is a fascinating book that describes the history of the spiritualist movements in America. Too many details to recount here, but here's a few choice tidbits that I enjoyed hearing about:

1) Spiritualism was associated with the womens' suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Most of the mediums were women. Apparently, the same kind of crazy idea that suggested women should vote were then able to conceive of a spirit world.

2) The eye over the pyramid on the one dollar bill was proposed by
A sweeping and scatter-shot survey of the history of esoteric spirituality in America. Useful as an introductory overview; it helped make sense of some of the connections between occult ideology and more mainstream religious and social movements. Horowitz provides ample illustration of his central thesis -- that occult traditions have had a significant, often largely unseen, influence on the history of the United States, and that American culture in turn has left its distinctive stamp on these t ...more
Jan 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
As the book explains, the occult in America was far less dark than that in the Old World, and most of the US occult/mystic movements were good & positive & emphasized self-improvement. It starts with the Shakers and some of the New York/New England mystics, especially Andrew Jackson Davis - "The Poughkeepsie Seer" - who was one of the most famous/influential mystics of the nineteenth century. Equally influential was Madame Blavatsky & the Theosophical Society. Both Davis & Blavatsky get mentione ...more
Apr 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history

Like I mentioned before this is a very superficial introduction to the not-well-known history of the occult in America. It does a decent job of illustrating that Americans do seem to have a bit of a mystical vein. Today is most widely manifest by the popularization of its once "mysterious teachings" in things like "The Secret", the pentecostal and evangelical mega-church movements, or even motivational speakers for that matter. The whole "Positive-Thinking" the "Imagery" movements all of that st
Sarah {The Bookish Knitter}
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio, 2017, non-fiction
4 Stars

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It dealt with different aspects of the occult and their history. Modern day Witchcraft and more modern practices do get a small mention in the epilogue, and to be honest that's what I was most interesting in reading about.

The narration on this book was great.

♥ RRRC October 2017 Monthly Challenge #1 - 'O' is for October
♥ Candyland Quarterly Challenge - Task #16: Read a book with a title that has red or black letters.
DeAnna Knippling
Dec 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Great subject, the history of the occult in America. Each chapter/section seems interesting. And yet...trying to move through the book is a hassle. There's no spine, nothing to hold the book together--it's a series of disorganized essays that span blocks of time, overlapping in time and space with little organization, and feel like there are huge gaps all over the place. It feels like supplimental essays to a larger, more organized book. ...more
Sep 14, 2009 rated it did not like it
I was excited to have won this book in a Goodreads giveaway.This was the first time that I've participated. I thought it looked very interesting.So when I recieved it I dove in with gusto.The first part was indeed interesting but after about the first 40 pages or so I just could not get any further.I skimmed the rest of the book(which I feel really bad about).It obviously took a tremendous amount of research to write this book,and I really loath giving it such a low rating,but I just couldn't ge ...more
Katharine Kerr
Dec 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: magical-studies
It's important to review a book for what it is, rather than what you wish it were. Judging its intent by a publisher's attempt at a snappy sub-title isn't very fair, either. Horowitz has written a journalistic, superficial survey of various intellectual trends in United States' history. He defines these trends variously as mystical or occult on the basis of criteria that he applies too loosely in some cases, sloppily in others. The concepts of the New Thought movement, for example, that eventual ...more
Bryan Alkire
Oct 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
I learned something new in this book. I learned that the occult goes deeper in American history than I thought, I hadn’t heard of most of the 20th century people profiled. This book also confirmed my belief that Americans will believe anything if it has a price tag attached to it.

That said, it seems the occult in this book is mostly alleged ancient practices which invariably get used to promote American values of self-improvement and self-reliance…it’s religion or a creed, just different words
Alex Kartelias
Sep 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion, history
Really well writen and objective. The subject of the New Age is far more complex than it seems, as this book shows and it really goes back to those Swedenborgians who landed in America in the late 17th century. It's interesting how even people who say they aren't religious, do indeed practice and/ believe in some of the central tenets of what the author believes to be, a uniquely American approach to spirituality. But honestly, America as a concept, has definitely spread its New Age/Spiritualist ...more
B. Rule
This is an interesting miscellany of leading occult, metaphysical, and New Age figures and movements in America, but it is in no sense a "secret history" or even really a history at all. Horowitz clearly labored lovingly over the book, and his research and sourcing are commendable. However, there's really no through-line to the text, nor does it provide any analytical framework for the phenomenon he's tracing. It's more like a bathroom-reader-style assemblage of trivia and anecdotes about intere ...more
Apr 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting book most of the time but there were definitely some chapters that could have been shortened into just simple sections within another chapter. Horowitz had a way of rambling on and on about some people that I did not personally feel had contributed much to "Esoteric America." I learned a lot though from this book; I'm glad I picked it up. ...more
Mar 06, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book covered somethings that I found very interesting, but for the most part didn’t grab my attention as much as I was hoping it would. So, it took me awhile to finish, but it was still good broad overview of the topic of the occult in America.
Nov 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
*gravity falls theme plays spookily in the background*
Dec 28, 2020 added it
This book covers some fascinating history. I only wish it were longer: movements like the Shakers are glossed over, and the author's on to the next. Still, there are many juicy tidbits, and I enjoyed what is there. ...more
Aug 03, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Horror Authors, game masters, those interested in the occult
Recommended to VanHalen by: no one.
I suspect that the extreme period of time which it took me to finish this book has less to do with the subject matter than with me.

I believe that when I am reading a book for review from the Giveaway lists, that I am indeed agreeing to provide an in-depth, honest review of the material.
I also suspect that reading non-fiction books cause me to slow down my normal reading pace in order to attempt to learn the material presented.

However, this book took me much longer to read than I would have expec
Todd Martin
Sep 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Occult America looks at the history of the occult and mysticism in the US from colonial times to the present. Topics include Free Masonry, the Mormon church, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, mediums, hoodoo and voodoo, Norman Vincent Peale and "The Power of Positive Thinking", Rhonda Byrne and “The Secret” and other subjects that can loosely be grouped under an umbrella that the Amazing James Randy would refer to as “Woo Woo”. This superstitious nonsense has a long history in the US and is, in fact, ...more
May 31, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: to-be-sold
I couldn't finish this book. I was looking for a book that did as the subtitle promised, explained "how mysticism shaped our nation." Instead, I got a glossy overview that was neither as salacious and fun as it might have been or in-depth and interesting as it should have been. This was a highly disappointing book.

It begins with Christian mystics settling in the New World, which would have been less than optimal for me, but might have been vaguely intriguing if the text told me how their beliefs
Feb 22, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 100-books
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation seems to be a very well researched book, but the writing comes off heavy-handed, like student's research paper. Horowitz's casts such a wide net with his subjects that most are regulated to a cold recitation of their first publication/occult experience, major events of their career (briefly noted), and their death if it is odd enough to mention. The only figures the author seems to enjoy are Madam Blavatsky, Edgar Cayce, and E ...more
Jan 24, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2012, kindle
This began promisingly but soon fell flat, a grab bag of facts and stories collected from other secondary sources and dwelt upon only long enough to pique the reader's interest. (Do you get the feeling that scholarly history books are ruining their rumpled, anemic, popular cousins for me?) The chapter on Edgar Cayce, who has never previously caught my attention, proved to be the highlight. This is very thin on Freemasonry — though, to be fair, there's plenty of superior research and writing avai ...more
Jul 16, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: first-reads
I was very interested to get this book. I won it on First Reads giveaway. Unfortunately, I was also very disappointed with the book. Based on the title, I thought that it would a macro look at how mysticism and the occult were involved in society/politics/development of the nation. While there were moments where the author touched on this, it really was more of a micro level who's who of occult history. The writing was very slow-moving and I ended up simply skimming the last couple of chapters. ...more
J.D. Stroube
Aug 17, 2012 rated it liked it
I'm not sure what I expected when I opened this book. It was difficult for me to immersed myself in, but that isn't to say that the writing was horrible. Rather that the book did not appeal to me nearly, as much as I hoped it would. Without giving away details, I found some of the content to be incredibly interesting, while other aspects were questionable... ...more
Nov 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating real history of the a movement and a phenomenon that has morphed and evolved since the 1850's. Journalistic in its approach. Not pro-mystic propaganda at all. Very interesting insights into American culture in general. ...more
Feb 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shows how American do it your self mysticism has influenced everything from different kinds of Christianity like 7th Day Adventists, all the way to self help & positive thinking. The book makes occult thinking seem rather harmless, if still kind of odd.
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MITCH HOROWITZ is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author OCCULT AMERICA: THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOW MYSTICISM SHAPED OUR NATION (Bantam, Sept '09), which has been called "a fascinating book" by Ken Burns and "extraordinary" by Deepak Chopra. Visit him online at

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  Rachel Lynn Solomon is best known to her fans for writing heartfelt contemporary YA novels like 2020's Today Tonight Tomorrow and her 2018...
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“Fawn Brodie observed that Westerners traditionally “demanded personality rather than diplomas from the men who called them to God.” Metaphysical teachers journeying from the east in the twentieth century found that they faced little scrutiny concerning educational credentials. Science of Mind’s Ernest Holmes was a playground instructor and purchasing agent for Venice, California. The scribe of the Masters of the Far East, Baird T. Spalding, was a gold prospector. William Dudley Pelley, who spent “seven minutes in eternity,” was a screenwriter. Psychiana’s Frank B. Robinson was a druggist. Levi Dowling, author of The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, was a homeopathic healer. Spencer Lewis, founder of the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), was a commercial illustrator. These were entirely self-made religious leaders. But this is not to say that they were less than able. The occult denizens of the twentieth century, particularly those who found audiences on the West Coast, were extremely capable and often displayed an admirable fluidity to shatter the bonds of social position that might have held back earlier generations. Occultists” 1 likes
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