Occult America: the Secret History of how Mysticism shaped our Nation by Mitch Horowitz. New York: Bantam Books, September 8, 2009. Hardcover. 304 p. $27.00.
There has long been a need for an overview on the influence of esoteric movements in America. Catherine L. Albanese’s 2007 A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion while exemplary in many ways is simply too detailed at 628 pages for anyone other than the specialist. In her approach occult, esoteric, and gnostic beliefs are subsumed under the larger rubric of metaphysical, and while acknowledging them with a passing reference they play no dominant part in the narrative. Mitch Horowitz attempts to rectify this with the colorful history of some of the leading exponents in occult America. Starting with the Shakers it quickly moves through the American reception of mesmerism, the development of spiritualism, the growth of Theosophy and New Thought, along the way dealing with charismatic figures like Andrew Jackson Davis (whom Olcott and Blavatsky knew), Edgar Cayce, and Manly Palmer Hall. His treatment of Theosophy is depicted through Olcott’s contribution, usually neglected, during its formative period, and since the focus is on America, leaves off after the departure for India. The portrayal of Blavatsky is neutral, though more sympathetic than works of this kind. The index contains 16 references to her. What Horowitz manages to do, and successfully so, is to show the contribution to the inner life of America by these often disparate figures who were united in their vision of a world made better by better people.