130: Occult America by Mitch Horowitz

by Gerard


130: Horowitz, Mitch. Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation. New York: Bantam, 2010. 258 pp. ISBN 978-0-553-38515-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 130: Parapsychology and occultism

In 1774, Mother Ann Lee emigrated from England to New York and started a small but important movement in America: the Shakers. Their belief in a more mystical Christian God led to accusations of heresy from mainline believers. From this small band of radical believers sprang pockets on mysticism throughout America over the last 250 years. Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America takes a slightly off-center look at American history through the lens of those who believed, prayed, practiced, and lived a little differently from the rest of us.

One of the many sticky areas that this book stays away from is conspiracy theories. While many nutters use the symbols on various national icons to point towards a nefarious underbelly of our nation, Horowitz chooses to focus on broader religious history in America. There are tons of minor religious figures here to explore and the author tries desperately to take their work and beliefs at face value. They are a few times where falls into the judgment trap when it comes to some of the more fringe belief systems, but on the whole, Horowitz tends to favor sympathy over cynicism. He finds and explores leaders of fringe movements, including Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society and Christian Science’s Mary Baker Eddy, and gives them all equal footing.

Overall, there is a lot of interesting history here but at times seems like a mish-mash of people, dates, events, and stories. Because many of these movements were largely temporary and centered on their initial leader, there is no real story to connect them all except the broad theme under which they all fall. Horowitz’s writing clips along, but never makes any grand gestures. It’s amusing, sure, but in trying to capture more than 200 years of American religious history, there is only so much here. Each figure could probably merit their own biography. In the end, though, this book has a fair amount of research behind it to be useful to many readers.