Alternet reviews Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation:
If witch-burning Puritans are the original jocks of American history, then the mystics surrounding Johannes Kelpius are the first goths. While the rest of the British colonies were still dutifully worshipping their angry Christian god, Kelpius and his followers—who fled Austria to settle in Philadelphia during the late seventeenth-century—busied themselves with astrology, alchemy, Kabbalah, and other “dark arts” with tangled roots in the Italian Renaissance, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and various (often fabricated) antiquities. We meet Kelpius early in Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, an uneven but always interesting account of 400 years of New World Strange. Among the several misconceptions Horowitz seeks to dispel, the most foundational is the idea that Colonial America provided shelter only for persecuted Christian sects. Almost from the beginning, North America was also home to a fair number of those who, like Kelpius, had more arcane spiritual interests.
Horowitz never claims that these beliefs were as formative an influence as Christianity in the making of America, but after finishing his book, one can’t help but wonder if maybe Ouija boards don’t belong next to King James in every motel room. Horowitz ably chronicles how occult traditions have, over the centuries, deeply and consistently influenced the American mainstream—sometimes entering the mainstream themselves in the process. Many of the figures that populate Horowitz’s narrative will be unknown to the uninitiated, but their impact is illustrated by the frequent appearance of more familiar names. Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, after a childhood in the Hudson Valley’s famously heterodox “Burnt-over District,” was at the time of his death studying Hebrew and Kabbalah. Henry Ford was a fan of the New Thought leader Ralph Waldo Trine, and he often gave visitors copies of Trine’s In Tune With the Infinite. Frederick Douglass left open the possibility that a magic “hoodoo” root (not to be confused with “voodoo”) helped him secure victory against a cruel slave master.