The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
By Mitch Horowitz
(Bantam, Hardcover, 9780553806755, 304pp.)
Publication Date: September 8, 2009
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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.
Mitch Horowitz is the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin. He has written for Esopus, Parabola, Fortean Times, and Science of Mind. A well-known voice for occult and esoteric ideas, Horowitz lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
"What a fascinating book. So it happens that another equally compelling take on our complicated national narrative lies just beneath the surface of things; not the grand procession of presidents, generals, and wars, but something more hidden, more mysterious, but often no less revealing."—Ken Burns
“Invisible and mysterious forces have shaped and guided the destiny of individuals and nations throughout history. From Moses to Gandhi, Jesus to Muhammad, Lincoln to Obama, hidden dimensions, in both our personal and collective consciousness, were conceiving, constructing, and shaping the course of civilization. In his precise and often detailed history of mysticism in America, Mitch Horowitz, has, in a way, tracked the evolution of our consciousness over 300 years.” —Deepak Chopra
"A sparkling, down-to-earth and often deeply touching account of a powerful, much misunderstood force in the formation of America's cultural and spiritual identity." —Jacob Needleman, author of The American Soul and The New Religions."
“Occult America is a truly remarkable achievement. Exhaustively researched, it takes the reader from the early concepts of the supernatural, personified by Mother Ann Lee, Joseph Smith, and Madame Blavatsky, through such modern-day figures as Henry A. Wallace and Norman Vincent Peale. It opens the eyes of the relatively uninitiated, in which I include myself, to the effect the occult has had, is having, and will have on the American experience.” —John S.D. Eisenhower, author of The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge and So Far From God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848
"Religious people tend to be afraid of the word occult. Horowitz examines this aspect of life and religion in penetrating ways...and revealing its not unsubstantial influence on mainline Christianity. Truth seekers have always come from the edges. Religion itself should be glad they do." —John Shelby Spong, author of Jesus for the Non-Religious
"This book is a delightfully original tour through American history, as seen through the lives of men and women devoted to all manner of mysticism. Across these pages troop spiritualists, prophets, seers, psychics, numerologists, transcendentalists, theosophists, and historical figures from Mary Todd Lincoln to Marcus Garvey to Henry Wallace. Their stories are part of the deep-seated American tradition of searching for the new—a tradition that Occult America both explains and enriches." — Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
“Fascinating…Occult America is a serious, wide-ranging study of all the magical, mystical, and spiritual movements that have arisen and influenced American history in often-surprising ways.” —Washington Post Book World Podcast
“Occult America treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today's raised-voice discussions about religion and belief systems.” —Washington Post Express
“One of the most readable histories of American mysticism ever written…This is historical reporting that is crafted so well, it holds the reader much like a Voodoo spell.”—Tucson Citizen
“Horowitz teases out fascinating stories of the ‘dreamers and planners who flourished along the Psychic Highway’…In showing how the paths of these figures occasionally intersected with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Horowitz argues that the influence of the occult extends beyond the séance room and into the mainstream of American thought.” —Washington Post Book World
“A brilliant job of tracking down how positive thinker Norman Vincent Peale borrowed his core self-help philosophy from a religious movement called New Thought.” —Washington Times
“Exhaustively researched and written in a very accessible style...Occult America fills a gap in the knowledge of religion for most people.” —Huntington News, VA
“Excellent.” —Library Journal
“One of the best recent books on patterns of belief.” —Fortean Times
“A fantastic tour guide to the fringes of reason, high weirdness, deep esoterica, secret societies, and mystery religions.” —Boing Boing
“Employing extensive research while writing with an authoritative tone, Horowitz succeeds in showing how a ‘new spiritual culture’ developed in America.”—Publishers Weekly