Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
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 the New by some of the most obscure but gifted men and women of early U.S. history, this “hidden wisdom” transformed the spiritual life of the still-young nation and, through it, much of the Western world.

Yet the story of the American occult has remained largely untold. Now a leading writer on the subject of alternative spirituality brings it out of the shadows. Here is a rich, fascinating, and colorful history of a religious revolution and an epic of offbeat history.

From the meaning of the symbols on the one-dollar bill to the origins of the Ouija board, Occult America briskly sweeps from the nation’s earliest days to the birth of the New Age era and traces many people and episodes, including:

•The spirit medium who became America’s first female religious leader in 1776
•The supernatural passions that marked the career of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
•The rural Sunday-school teacher whose clairvoyant visions instigated the dawn of the New Age
•The prominence of mind-power mysticism in the black-nationalist politics of Marcus Garvey
•The Idaho druggist whose mail-order mystical religion ranked as the eighth-largest faith in the world during the Great Depression

Here, too, are America’s homegrown religious movements, from transcendentalism to spiritualism to Christian Science to the positive-thinking philosophy that continues to exert such a powerful pull on the public today. A feast for believers in alternative spirituality, an eye-opener for anyone curious about the unknown byroads of American history, Occult America is an engaging, long-overdue portrait of one nation, under many gods, whose revolutionary influence is still being felt in every corner of the globe.

291 pages, Hardcover

First published September 8, 2009

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Mitch Horowitz

209 books140 followers
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 www.MitchHorowitz.com
"

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
304 (18%)
4 stars
563 (34%)
3 stars
560 (34%)
2 stars
165 (10%)
1 star
34 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 217 reviews
Profile Image for Tamara Rose.
11 reviews11 followers
January 13, 2012
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 systems and trends from the earliest days of America down to the Aquarian revolution of the late '60's and 70's. As this is the author's first book, I'm willing to overlook its brevity and somewhat superficial treatment of the individual subjects contained therein. Hopefully Occult America will be a basic introduction in a series of works that explores American esoteric practices with more depth. The author's top notch research along with his sensitivity, passion and respect for the subject makes this a fantastic stepping off point and leaves me wanting more.
Profile Image for Brett C.
768 reviews156 followers
October 1, 2022
Mitch Horowitz did a good job of presenting a historical account of American-based occultism and mysticism. There was a wide range of sects, groups, topics, and belief systems discussed here. The opener was the phenomena of New England that included the Shakers, the Burnt-Over District, Joseph Smith and early Mormonism, and the Poughkeepsie Seer. Other topics included modern spiritualism, Mesmerism, theosophy such as Madame Blavatsky and transcendental magic, Mary Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln's wife), Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, and Edgar Cayce The Sleeping Prophet.

Two interesting topics I enjoyed learning about were the history, production, popularity of the Ouija board. Horowitz also gave a history from ancient times of fortune-telling and scrying in relation to the ouija. The second neat topic was Voodoo and Hoodoo. He explained the differences, the history, and cultural impacts of these spiritual paths.

Overall this was informative and read quickly. Horowitz covered a lot of information and kept it light throughout the book. I'm sure there are other authors and sources that touch deeper on these topics but this is a good starting point for anyone. Thanks!
Profile Image for Sesana.
5,006 reviews348 followers
Shelved as 'dnf-or-not-gonna-happen'
March 2, 2012
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 reasoning applied to some of this stuff, and it's both dull and overly credulous. Couldn't even make it past theosophy.
Profile Image for Tim.
83 reviews
March 27, 2016
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 makes no comment on whether the world of the occult exists or not and exhibits no bias for or against it. The issue with the title is just a quibble on my part though; who picks up a book and starts reading it before they find out what it is about?

The narrative begins with the birth of the nation. Many of the people who populated the early United States were leaving behind traditional theocratic nation states so the principle of separating church and state was part of the appeal of the new country. From there the book traces the development of occult practices, ending in the 1970s with the arrival of Wicca and the flowering of the New Age Movement. Along the way it documents things that are often taken for granted these days: how and when horoscopes first began to appear in newspapers, the origins of the Ouija board and how it came to be marketed as a toy for children, etc.

Some chapters are more interesting than others. There is a lot of trivia interspersed through the text for people that enjoy that sort of thing. Examples: the now universally maligned swastika was a Hindu spiritual symbol co-opted by the Third Reich; the magic word 'abracadabra'is taken from Abrac/Abraxas, a Gnostic term for God.

THE WRITING: This is where the book really fell down for me. The tone was very dry and lifeless, not so much like a book written for a lay audience as a thesis written for a university course.

I wavered between giving this a two and a three (if goodreads had the option, it would be a 2.5). I'd recommend it only if you are interested in history (specifically the history of alternative spiritual practices.)

1 review8 followers
March 20, 2010
Mitch Horowitz: Occult America --
The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam, 2009)
A Review
By
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 thumbprint was felt as far as Asia, through movements like the Theosophical Society.

However, throughout the book, Horowitz emphasizes the uniquely American quality of occult experimentation in the US. American occultism is rooted in do-it-yourself American individualism and equal access. Apparently, in the house of the American occult there are many mansions, ranging from hand-holding séances to good, old-fashioned self-help and positive thinking approaches, from Joseph Smith to Edgar Cayce.

Among other uniquely American features of the different occult movements is the belief “that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality,” (Occult America, p. 257). The New Age slogan ‘you create your own reality’ has deep roots in the history of the American Occult. New Agers may be surprised to learn that the Law of Attraction, popularized by Esther and Jerry Hicks and by the best selling book and DVD ‘The Secret’, has a long history in American Occultism. Horowitz traces LOA back to Andrew Jackson Davis, the Seer of Poughkeepsie in 1855. “The Law of Attraction meant that whatever a person dwelled upon in their thoughts would manifest in events good or bad, joyous or catastrophic in their earthly lives.” (Occult America, p.96).

Horowitz points out that in the context of slavery in the American South, such thinking could seem a ‘naively cruel calculus’. (ibid. p.96.) It is hard to disagree with Horowitz when he argues that the Law of Attraction presupposes an American middle class level of comfort and stability. In fact, one could go further and argue that the Law of Attraction can be easily linked to a do-it-yourself, ‘get rich quick’ capitalist ethic.

On the other hand, Horowitz does not pause to consider how this business of reality creation with thoughts and feelings, can be a profoundly self-empowering calculus, as studies of the placebo effect have shown. Within certain limits, the Law of Attraction can infuse one with the energy, trust and confidence to change one’s circumstances from illness to good health, from poverty to a state of material comfort, from struggling to a life of relative ease.

There are some astonishing counter examples to the bourgeois halo surrounding the Law of Attraction and this business of creating reality with one’s thoughts, feeling and beliefs. Horowitz points out that Wallace Wattles (author of ‘The Science of Getting Rich’), one of the 19th century self-help gurus featured in ‘The Secret’, had a Utopian socialist vision married to the gospel of wealth. Wattles had a great admiration for American socialist Eugene Debs and hoped that the use of mind power to generate wealth would go hand in hand with fighting for the oppressed, and the creation of an equitable social order.

There is another interesting section of Horowitz’s book, dealing with how iconic leaders of 19th Century African – American movements such as Marcus Garvey, were greatly influenced by New Thought.

‘Occult America’ takes the history of the occult and the New Age out of the alleys and byways, and places it squarely within mainstream Americana. Politicians like Lincoln and Henry A Wallace (FDR’s second VP) among many others, were fascinated by the occult.

The last chapter of Occult America zips through a medley of contemporary New Age authors and movements. One wishes that it had the paced, almost leisurely quality of Horowitz’s history of earlier periods of occult history. But then again, maybe the contemporary New Age has such a plethora of ill-assorted motifs, modes and personalities, that it is hard to find thematic threads that might capture its ‘essence’, beyond a sweeping overview.

Profile Image for Allison .
11 reviews49 followers
November 5, 2009
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 fascination with the occult and occult practices, often getting her husband involved in White House seances. Lincoln was well-known for her involvement in Occult matters, especially after the assassination of her husband, the President. Another interesting “celebrity” involved in the occult, so I have found through Occult America, is Sylvia Plath who used the Ouija board along with her husband, Ted Hughes. This is to believed to have been the inspiration for her poem, “Ouija”. It is eerily said that the Ouija predicted fame for Plath, which would cost her both her life with her husband, and her own life. It is a little spooky, if you ask me.

Horowitz’s brief history of the Ouija that both thrilled and terrified me. The account taken from an excerpt in the 2001 International Journal of Parapsychology of an 18 year old’s experiences with the Ouija is enough to give you nightmares for a day or two.

Although Occult America is brief in the subjects it does introduce the reader to (and that is my only true complaint), Horowitz did a wonderful job of introducing subject matters not before heavily discussed. However, because of this – I really felt as if this was almost more of an introductory book about the history of the occult rather than any sort of true detailed literature. Because Occult America frequently jumped from subject to subject, it did have the potential to cause headaches in some readers, who really wish to get more involved in one topic at a time before transitioning to the next. Because of Horowitz’ obvious amount of time spent in research, I hope that this is only a sign of more to come from Horowitz, and am hoping he’ll continue to delve deeper into detailed historical accounts in future books so readers can gain a better understanding of each subject matter.

As there were so many peopled discussed I felt that there were many sections in Occult America that could truly be its own standalone book. I feel it is important that Horowitz takes the introductory information presented in Occult America and use that information as a skeleton for his next books, adding a little bit more meat to the bones so that the reader may truly gain an in depth understanding of the history of Mysticism.
Profile Image for Hans.
837 reviews276 followers
April 25, 2011

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 stuff that is now called "Self-help" once was the domain of the occult and mystics that blended their teaching with American Pragmatism.

Not a whole lot surprising in this book except that it is interesting how history has largely been silent on its influences on important people and movements in American History. It seems like it has been the counter culture of American Materialism and has thrived by promising people everything from wealth and riches to lasting happiness.

Stylistically the author wrote like a High School boy with ADHD jumping around so much from topic to topic and person to person that is can make you dizzy just trying to remember the long list of names and places. This also means that he only lightly touching on them. He could have focused a little more in depth on a few of the critical occult individuals instead of trying to introduce almost all of them in so few pages.
Profile Image for Rachel.
112 reviews5 followers
May 28, 2010
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 thought movements.

The particular connections and contrasts between the various movements discussed, however, were often hard to follow. The lines of influence between occult traditions and certain Christian movements, for example, and the differences (and reasons for those differences) between the variety of esoteric systems were often presented in too quick and cursory a manner for solid comprehension. The choice to proceed in a generally, but not strictly, chronological manner also lends confusion. Key background information is sometimes lacking: for example, Emanuel Swedenborg is repeatedly mentioned as a major influence upon important figures in the narrative, but he is not properly introduced.

The even-handedness of the account is commendable; Horowitz' sympathies with the traditions he describes are sometimes evident, but he doesn't avoid discussing some of the negative dimensions of their history. The result is an insider's account of the history of American occultism that is highly accessible to an outsider, excepting for some points of information that might demand outside research to flesh out the presentation.
54 reviews2 followers
July 12, 2010

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 Henry Wallace, FDR's first vice-president. Of course, both he and FDR were Masons, and the imagery is a Masonic representation of "The Great Architect of the Universe."

3) In the thirties, many of the occult organizations in America were racist and fascist (some openly supported Hitler). FDR (through J. Edgar Hoover) raided the Silver Shirts in 1942 and the leader of that organization (William Dudley Pelley) was sentenced to 15 years for sedition.


My conclusion: The notion that this is a Christian nation is questionable. We certainly are "Christian-ish", but the roots of spiritualism (which is expressly forbidden by the Bible) run deep.
Profile Image for Rachel.
225 reviews7 followers
October 20, 2009
"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 and beliefs from the Old World and the creation of a new spiritual culture. This new culture extolled religious egalitarianism and responded, perhaps more than any other movement in history, to the inner needs and search of the individual" (p. 258).

This book could have been a fascinating study in the intricacies of American occult movements. The prose was easily accessible, and the book itself is well researched and filled with a wealth of information. But there seems to be little direct connection between many of the points raised. Each chapter seems to focus on its on particular piece of occult history, with a unique cast of characters and no clearly delineated development between or among movements. There are exceptions, to be sure, and Horowitz draws a few links between bits of history, but the connections are mostly rather shaky and don't provide a clear sense of purpose. The goal of each of the chapters thus remains a bit muddled, and the role of each of the figures in shaping American history is anything but clear.

I take issue with Horowitz's use of the term "occult," as well. A lot of what Horowitz represents as "occult" seems to me no more than parlor games, and not even mystical or magic ones at that. Certainly Ouija gets a mention, but most of the other historical references are far more obscure and less mystical. And while the title would seem to suggest that these various curiosities shaped American history, they really seem to belong to much more of a fringe audience for most of their existence. Not until the 1960s does the nation really seem to see a significant, culture-altering occult movement. There are smaller influences here and there along the way, but I'm not convinced that they really have the sort of hold on mainstream American lifestyles that Horowitz seems to want to believe they do.

It's certainly an interesting read, but I don't come away from it feeling that I've gained any knowledge that I can really put toward a particular understanding. The book seems more a collection of trivia and random factoids than a well structured, convincing treatise. It's taken me more than two months to get through it, simply because I never really felt that the book was "going" anywhere. It's certainly not the sort of book the title and cover blurb make it out to be.
Profile Image for Andrew.
215 reviews5 followers
January 26, 2010
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 mentioned throughout many of the mystics that follow them.

The Ouija Board? It was marketed after some of the homemade tapping & spirit-contacting boards of the 1850’s.

New Thought was a positive thinking movement that led to Christian Science and Norman Vincent Peale.

Hoodoo (which is different from Voodoo and Santeria) came from Western & Central Afirca, mixed with Native American herbal medicine, the Jewish Kabala and Euoropean folklore. A Hoodoo root workers gave a n amulet to Frederick Douglas, which was instrumental in giving him the strength to fight his slave master.

The twentieth century saw the rise of mail order prophets, Edgar Cayce (who popularized reincarnation & channeling to America), FDR’s second vice president (who was very interested in the occult) and the New Age movement that began in the sixties.

I’m not sure mysticism shaped our nation, but it’s always been an American fascination.
Profile Image for Ann.
1 review
September 14, 2009
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 get through it.It wasn't what I thought it would be.
Profile Image for DeAnna Knippling.
Author 161 books255 followers
December 21, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Katharine Kerr.
Author 72 books1,440 followers
December 9, 2013
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 eventually devolved into Norman Vincent Peale's bestseller were far from "hidden" and have only the most cursory resemblance to mysticism.

Horowitz is particularly weak on the "occult revival" of the 1970s, which actually began in the 1960s. His treatment of the influence of Edgar Cayce on the 1960s is shallow, practically non-existent. In general, although he's done a fair amount of research, his sources are poorly presented as titles crammed into a rambling discussion at the end of the book. What few endnotes to the chapters there are are undocumented.

On the other hand, he does discuss some important persons and writings that other histories have ignored. I had no idea, for instance, that Sec. of Agriculture Henry Wallace, prominent in the 1930s and '40s, held so many off-beat ideas. The book thus has some merit as a list of subjects for future research. I wouldn't take any of Horowitz's judgments on faith without digging into some serious sources, however.

Profile Image for Alex Kartelias.
210 reviews69 followers
September 9, 2016
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 tendencies to most of the world. Definitely the oddest and most chaotic aspect of modernity, and yet too fascinating to ignore.
Profile Image for Alex Gruenenfelder.
322 reviews3 followers
September 8, 2021
As its title suggests, Horowitz presents a book with the essential history of occultism in the United States. It traces occultism in the history of American movements, like the progressivism of Henry A. Wallace, and the history of American leaders, like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. It details occult theories one may never have heard of, like Gandhi's occultism overseas, while disproving commonly known ones, like the widely known myth of Hitler's Nazi occultism. It is a tome that any lover of history and the occult should begin with.

American occultism ranged from egalitarian progressivism, the most mainstream of these divine arts, to the darkest of racialism and fascism. Rather than whitewashing and glossing over this darkness, Horowitz confronts it, the same as he does the cultural appropriation and pseudoscience that underlies many spiritual traditions. And far from just seeing it as a religious or spiritual doctrine, Horowitz dives into the profit motive that corrupts much of occultism.

While many occult books like to go off on whatever tangent sounds interesting in the moment, Horowitz is good at sticking to the facts. That doesn't mean these facts are any less interesting, because the text takes some wild turns. More names are used in this book than one could possibly remember, but that's how histories are, and this is a history book more than it is an occult book. One won't leave this book believing in the supernatural if they didn't come into it a believer, but one will walk away with an insightful understanding of the role of occultism in American history. And that's pretty extraordinary.
Profile Image for B. Rule.
787 reviews20 followers
June 8, 2020
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 interesting religious and occult figures. Most of them are disposed of in a paragraph up to a handful of pages, and on none will you get more than a Wikipedia-level gloss on their thought and lives. To his credit, Horowitz does throw in juicy and odd facts (e.g., that Linda Goodman, the popularizer of astrology in the 70's, was a former Miss America contestant), but they tend to the irrelevant, salacious, or off-kilter rather than illuminating. I wouldn't really recommend this one to most audiences; there are better scholarly works out there, and of course a sea of trash related to these topics. To Horowitz's credit, he maintains a cool, disinterested tone that neither dips into dippiness nor sadistically delights in tearing down fakes, and it serves his account well. I just wish there had been more depth to these secrets. I wanted to hear a real theory about how religious and metaphysical creativity informed American culture, but instead I got a bunch of human interest stories.
Profile Image for Nathan Albright.
4,414 reviews95 followers
July 14, 2016
Occult America: The Secret History Of How Mysticism Shaped America, by Mitch Horowitz, read by Paul Michael Garcia

This is the sort of book that could only be written by someone who was an expert on occult history. Admittedly, this is not the sort of history I am most familiar with, since many New Age thought, quite a bit of which I have come into contact with as a prolific reader and reviewer [1], but in listening to this book being read, I was struck by how much of the book was more familiar than I thought it would be. The author, who has written other books on the subject and given talks on the burnt-over district as the “spiritual highway” in the United States, and who spends a lot of time here talking about quirky and oddball religious leaders in 20th century Southern California and their upstate New York 19th century predecessors, certainly has crafted a worthwhile book that will provide a lot more evidence of just how weird America’s political leadership is than is commonly known, and the deep influence of the occult in American religious and cultural thought from the Ouija board to self-help thinking. A reader of this book will not be able to ignore the occult influences in life, and that is a tribute to the author’s command of his material, and the fact that it seems to come entirely out of left field, in a place that few people are looking, demonstrating the modern nature of astrological predictions and sun signs and the occult nature of motivational thinking.

The contents of this book are strong and mostly chronological in nature. Beginning with the early stirrings of occult thinking in the United States in the colonial period, mostly through the effort of European immigrants, the author explores various odd and mostly forgotten personalities, as well as movements like the Rosicrucians, Mormons, and Freemasons, who proliferated in the United States through our cultural attitudes of religious freedom. As the author winds his way through American history, he looks at the hermetic importance of symbolism and layered meanings in America’s seal, the importance of creepy séances to American spiritualism, mesermism and astral projection, and the importance of appealing to New Thought voters from the age of Abraham Lincoln to the theosophical speculations of vice president Henry Wallace to the astrological interests of the Reagans. The author draws parallels in the places where many of these occult thinkers came from, biographical sketches of figures as diverse as Gandhi, Madame Blavatsky, and Marcus Garvey, and seeks to defend the occult world from being tarred with the brush of being associated too closely with Hitler and other neo-Nazis. That alone ought to point out just how deep of a hole fascism is in, when an artist who speaks highly about wicca and Ouija boards wants to distance himself from someone’s reputation.

Whether or not the reader believes everything the author has to say, especially when he is trying to demonstrate the social and cultural importance of new thought, this book has a lot to say that the reader will likely find to be greatly troubling. In many ways the role of the occult has been contradictory within the United States, in that it has spawned the uniquely American focus on personal responsibility even as it has also spawned an interest in star signs and the belief that our lives are influenced by the stars. On the one hand, many Americans have been opposed to secret groups, but on the other hand, people with certain interests in arcane and esoteric matters have found themselves made fun of and have sought secret groups and rituals where they are accepted to keep prying eyes from interfering or ridiculing with those activities. On the one hand, many American occult activities have been focused on freedom and liberation from oppression, while others have been in support of anti-Semitic extremist groups, and so on. The author makes a good case for showing the importance of occult thought in contemporary society, but that influence has been complicated and sometimes even contradictory, much like the Gnosticism of the early centuries of Christianity. A house divided against itself cannot stand, so the ecumenical spirit of much of American mysticism is not likely to amount to as much as the author would think, even if it is likely to have a strong effect so long as its effects are unknown by those who are hostile to the exploration of the mysteries of the ages, various laws or keys of success, or the incredible human potential that have fascinated so many past occult thinkers.

[1] See, for example:


https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress...
Profile Image for Stephanie.
158 reviews
April 8, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Anna.
37 reviews1 follower
March 7, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Kivi.
117 reviews11 followers
November 8, 2017
*gravity falls theme plays spookily in the background*
Profile Image for Carla.
Author 17 books45 followers
Read
December 29, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Eva.
33 reviews2 followers
July 21, 2021
Great information but the pace was something to be desired.
Profile Image for VanHalen.
55 reviews10 followers
October 3, 2009
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 expected from its 305 page length. 1 page a minute, approx 6 hours... maybe a week worth of time. A month-and-a-half... too long.

Part of the distraction of this book involves the writer & a personal anecdote he provides within the first 6 pages. He speaks of a time, long ago, when he paid 10 cents for a fortune from an old Zolar machine.
"The prophesy read: A LETTER."
The next day, the nine year-old author receives a letter in the mail. An unheard of occurrence for him at that age.

This passing anecdote threw me as a reader.
For many years I have also had an interest in the occult and have of late found myself taking the path of James Randi, Penn & Teller & other skeptics towards the various phenomenon.

So, to have the author speak of this occurrence & then NOT indicate his current position on its meaning to him resulted in my reading every word in the book searching for his thoughts & beliefs on his subject. Is he a skeptic of the various people who claimed "abilities" within the history of America? Would he, at the time, have paid for the various mail order systems he writes of that offered enlightenment & greater spiritual peace in just 10 easy lessons?? Is he a true believer looking to sway others to his thoughts? Is he Eden Grey, or Arthur E. Waite, or Linda Goodman?

In the end, I have to say that I am unable to determine what his position is to the subject matter.
And I find that good.
Despite my desire to have him call the bulk of the people & situations which he writes about frauds, bilkers & charlatans of the lowest order, he never does. Nor however, does he ever express that any of them truly were the enlightened spiritual leaders that they claimed to be. His tone & writing is free of judgment on their character or those who followed them. And on reflection I find that a positive mark for him.

As for the content of the book, I believe that there is a wealth of information within the book regarding the past & perceived history of various pillars of many occult movements with the American history. Even outside of the direct text of the book, the references section at the end is quite detailed in where the facts & quotes used in the text originate.

Occasionally, I found that the time lines of the figures being reviewed within a section are considered independently from other figures who were more popular, or perhaps even influential to the central figure of the moment. This is not always the case, but it seems that there are points in which this "cross pollination" of occult ideas is not explored as fully as it could, or should be.

Overall, I believe that this book can be worth the price for certain people. Specifically, people who have an interest in the occult, or interested in having a solid reference manual on the occult & its history. Although the text will stand up to most arguments & discussions amongst my friends about the true meanings/original sources of numerology, or the tarot decks, or sun signs, it would only serve as a useful pointer towards other research for more in-depth study or arguments.
Additionally, it would work wonders for those wishing to run role-playing games set in the past that utilize real life characters/occurrences. A solid Call of Cthulhu GM would be remiss in not at least looking through this book for additional details or ideas.
Also, horror writers could easily utilize this book in similar research methods as above. I have earned greater respect for the author Brian Keene after seeing ideas & magical beliefs that he had presented in his books _Dark Hallow_ & _Ghost Walk_ being references as actual within this text.

3.5 stars, but not quite 4.
Profile Image for Todd Martin.
Author 4 books73 followers
December 13, 2016
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, still thriving today albeit in a somewhat different form such as new age spiritualism, alternative medicine, television psychics and ghost hunters, and the prosperity gospel promoted by certain mega-churches.

Although written in a dry and uninteresting style, Horowitz does a pretty good job outlining the history of these movements, the principles involved and their beliefs. He also describes how these movements were often tied to other, broader, social issues (such as plurality, equality, and universal suffrage). Unfortunately, Horowitz falls flat in several key respects:
1. While attempting to remain an impartial historian, he fails to insert rationality into the subject. In reality … there are no such things as ghosts or ectoplasm, it is not possible to talk with the dead, or predict the future, and wishing you had a million dollars won’t make a million dollars materialize appear on your bedstead. In fact, these charlatans, frauds and deluded true believers who purvey such silliness fleece people of their money, bring false hopes and are damaging to society in numerous ways.
2. Horowitz could have used the examples he was writing about as a teaching moment to educate his readers. For example, his discussion of the Ouija Board would have made a perfect launching point to educate people about the ideomotor response. Time and again, these opportunities are lost. In fact, pertaining to the Ouija Horowitz resorts to a rather lame “on the one hand” some people think it’s a harmless toy, “while on the other hand” some think the board can bring evil spirits into being. Journalists perform a great disservice when they fail to differentiate truth supported by a scientific evidence from pure speculation and/or opinion in the hopes that they are somehow achieving “balance”.
3. Horowitz seems to find a real distinction between the occult and organized religion and spends the entirety of the book discussing the former and dedicates little to the latter (and when he does so, he steers clear of mainstream orthodoxies). How he justifies this distinction is hard to imagine. Praying is a form of incantation (spell) in which the user attempts to modify physical reality. Religions expound miraculous healings, raising of the dead, virgin births, transubstantiation, a spirit realm and other supernatural phenomenon that would be right at home in a séance. All that’s missing is ectoplasm.
Profile Image for Loren.
Author 47 books318 followers
May 31, 2011
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 diverged from the mainstream. Figuring that Christianity just isn't outre enough for me, I skipped ahead to the chapter about Madame Blavatsky and the foundation of Theosophy.

Unfortunately, after a biography of Olcott, her companion, Blavatsky is brushed off as a crank -- and theosophy itself is never defined or illuminated. The chapter skips backward in time to Caligostro, again without examining or explaining his beliefs, then jumps to Eliphas Levi. If the European history was important to understanding American occultism, couldn't we have started with it and kept the book on a linear timeline? As it was, I never got a grip on any given topic before the author rushed me off to something new. I got the feeling he was trying to distract me from something: perhaps the shallowness of his research?
Profile Image for Bailey.
3 reviews26 followers
March 3, 2010
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 Eden Grey, all of whom receive a few extra lines dedicated to their personal methods and lives.

Horowitz's book provides an encyclopedia of the American occult, but the histories presented within are so terse that the bibliography proved the most interesting part of the book for me. Great for skimming through stateside occult history but that's it.
Profile Image for Sienna.
351 reviews75 followers
January 24, 2012
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 available on that subject — and the Scientologists obviously paid him to exclude their merry band. Just kidding. The epilogue covers the past half-century, as though Horowitz couldn't be bothered to finish his own book. It's short, easy reading, but rest assured, sir, that I struggled, too.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 217 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.