Mitch Horowitz, a longtime publisher and editor, is the author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, on which he’ll be speaking here in Los Angeles in early October. He chatted with Zócalo about what “occult” means, how it became tied to progressive political movements, and why, when it comes to religion, California has a lot in common with upstate New York.
Q. What was the inspiration behind the book?
A. I started to notice that people who were associated with the American occult seemed to have a different quality about them than what was found among occultists in Europe in, say, the 19th and early 20th centuries. The European occult tended to employ secrecy, tightly-knit societies, mystic individuals, and a quest for moral freedom, in a way, whereas the American occult seemed much more open, much more interested in spreading and evangelizing its ideas as broadly as possible. It had within it a sense that occult or arcane ideas, whether these were divination or some kind of spell work or mesmerism, could be used to improve daily life. The individual could use arcane methods as a means of self-help. The more I looked, the more I discovered that our present culture of self-help really has its roots in arcane and occult movements that flourished in this country really from its founding. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, occult movements – whether it was the mental-cure movement, whether it was Spiritualism, whether it was early expressions of what we call channeling – really gave birth to the New Age, which eventually spread throughout the world. I came to understand America as a country where there were all these religious experiments going on, and it really served as a laboratory for the New Age as it later spread across the world.
Q. If the occult isn’t something secretive, how would you define the occult?
A. It does come from the Latin word occultus, which means hidden or secretive. The way I describe it, very simply, is the belief in an invisible or unseen world that runs parallel to our own, and a belief that its effects can be felt on us or through us. For some people that might mean some kind of a spirit world, where different intelligences can be reached and communicated with. For others that might mean some belief in divination – that we can use different methods, whether tarot cards, astrology, or some other method, that allows us to read and understand the energies emanating from some kind of invisible world that runs parallel to our own but can be felt palpably. This concept of an invisible world tapped by humans and acted upon by humans seems to be the unifying belief that ties together all philosophies that we would call occult.
Q. Has the occult always been more public in America than in Europe, even in the beginning?
A. I would venture that it has always been more public. The American colonies in the 1600s had developed a reputation for being religiously liberal, at least relative to the times, and by the mid-1600s, Philadelphia was a town where you had Quakers, Mennonites, radical offshoots of the Lutheran Church all existing together. The growth of freemasonry in this country tended to occur along more liberal lines, it was less of an exclusive organization, and in some respects more of a progressive organization. Freemasonry was religiously tolerant, and ecumenical, here in the U.S. That was true in Europe as well, but those traits were far more pronounced in American masonry. So for example in 1775, freemasonic officials in Boston granted a group of freed slaves the right to affiliate with masonry under what was called African Lodge Number 1. African Lodge Number 1 became the first black-led abolitionist movement in the U.S. Even from its earliest days, the occult expressions in America tended to be more public, tended to have as their aim some kind of civic virtue or progress. It wasn’t that that was absent from the European occult, but it was more pronounced here in the U.S.
Q. I know you discuss in the book how occultism was tied with abolitionist and feminist movements – can you discuss this a little bit more, the relationship between occultism and progressive movements?
A. The movement called Spiritualism which grew in this country in the mid-19th century was a movement dedicated to séances, spirit communications, spirit channeling-all forms of talking with the dead. That movement created a tremendous opening for women to play leadership roles regularly, publicly, formally for the first time in modern life in a certain sense. Most spirit mediums were women. When the Spiritualist movement began roughly in the year 1848, which is when a series of séances in upstate New York in effect gave birth to the movement, it was from its conception always headed by women. They were the chief religious figures, the chief intellects, and in some respects they were the chief theorists and theologians of this supernatural movement. So many early suffragists and voting rights activists flowed into early Spiritualism, and many early Spiritualists flowed into the Suffragist movement. The two were sister movements. They were almost impossible to separate in the mid-19th century.
There was something enormously arousing and exciting in this movement, not just because of its supernatural dimension, but without ever having declared a politics for itself, it became a women’s rights movement. You’d be hard pressed to come across a single significant figure in the Suffragist movement who didn’t have some ties to Spiritualism, even the biggest names, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was more than an alliance-Spiritualism and early feminism were like two branches growing out of the same tree trunk. The first female presidential candidate in America, a woman named Victoria Woodhull, she was a trance medium who ran for the presidency in 1872, as part of the Equal Rights Party, a consortium of suffragists and abolitionists. She was also a well known voting rights activist, and the first woman to address a joint committee of Congress on the question of voting rights. Into the late 19th century, this marriage between Spiritualism and suffrage was just a basic part of progressive and reformist politics.
There were also really interesting overlaps between occultism and a development of a black reformist politics in America. Marcus Garvey was very interested throughout his career in what we might call the power of positive Thinking, this mind power metaphysics that started with the mental cure movement in the mid-19th century and eventually grew into this vast mind power movement that grew very popular and remains very popular in America. If one goes back and scrutinizes some of Garvey’s statements and speeches, there are unmistakable references to the mind power literature of the day. For Marcus Garvey and other figures of his day, mind power metaphysics or the power of positive thinking was considered a kind of liberating tool that ordinary folks could use to influence their day-to-day lives. At one point, especially in the progressive era, people with radical politics were very interested in the political power of that movement. That’s just another example of how progressive politics and the occult grew up together in America.
Q. Many of those movements are often discussed alongside, say, Christianity, but not occultism. Do you think the history is downplayed, and if so why?
A. It’s misunderstood, and it’s held to a different standard than other aspects of our religious history. Usually when occultism or spiritualism is referenced in most history books or works of religious history, it’s treated as a kind of oddball social trend, run through with fakery and fraud, maybe a reflection of a kind of social pathology. And that’s a mistake, because not only did occultism in this country grow hand in hand with progressive and reformist politics, but it followed the same trajectory of other religious movements. In many respects it had a greater and broader influence on liberal spirituality in America than any one individual religious movement. Occultism in general says there exists a therapeutic and self-help side of all religions, and this influences all religious movements. Occultism needs to be understood as a community of belief. It was a movement and remains a movement, though it is much more diffuse today, with a theology, a point of view, an ethics, a psychology. And it should be understood as a normal part of our religious history.
Q. Why do people so often associate occultism with fraud?
A. They have good reasons to feel that way. Certainly there was a good deal of fraud and chicanery in the Spiritualist movement for example. But I think the question of whether something is real or not almost ceases to become important after a certain point in religious history. The question of Judaism’s value doesn’t hang on whether Moses parted the Red Sea, nor does Christianity’s validity rely on whether Christ rose from the dead. Whether these supernatural events were real or imagined becomes less important over time than the question of whether a religious movement has a compelling ethics, a compelling view of life, a cohesive philosophy. To hold any religion up to the mirror of truth and ask did this really happen is to present a test that almost no religion could survive. Mormonism is a good example. Joseph Smith claimed to have received the sacred text on golden plates that an angel directed him to on a hill near his home. The question of whether that story can be understood as literally true has faded in importance as Mormonism has grown into a robust and successful American religion. I don’t think people are wrong to have those questions, I think it’s more imp to understand occultism as an actual religious movement, and not as a true-or-false test about the supernatural.
Q. Has the commercialism of occultism made it less accepted as a religious movement?
A. That’s a good question. Commercialism has both detracted from occultism’s credibility and popularized it at the same time. The commercialization of the occult really is everywhere. You can hardly find a newspaper that doesn’t have a horoscope section, including the Washington Post. The Ouija board was once so popular in the late 1960s that its sales were neck-and-neck with monopoly. You obviously have a lot of mediums and psychics of varying degrees of integrity who offer services commercially. Sooner or later everything in our society gets a price tag and bar code slapped onto it. The same is true of a wide variety of Christian media, Christian self-help literature. Even within the commercial culture, you find higher and lower iterations of occult ideas. I think the occult has been very successful as a kind of commercialized and repackaged product for a period of time. The Ouija board was maybe the greatest example of that. But gosh I think it probably hasn’t played out in the occult to any greater degree than what we’re seeing right now in terms of the Christian media market.
Q. I have to ask one question for the hometown crowd. California seems uniquely rich in religious experimenting – is that accurate, and if so, why is that?
A. It’s been remarkable. California has really been the driving engine of the New Age since the mid-20th century. It’s funny because in the mid-19th century it was a region of upstate New York called the Burned-over district that gave birth to so many occult philosophies. Upstate New York was the birthplace of Spiritualism, the birthplace of Mormonism. It was the site of many Utopian movements and communities. So many avant garde religious and political ideas grew out of upstate New York in the mid-19th century.
That shifted at a certain point to California. It had to do with the fact, I think, that in a certain kind of funny sense, upstate New York was the California of the early to mid-19th century. It was a place that had become open for land settlement, and people were flowing from New England westward through upstate New York. Upstate New York became a kind of artery through which New Englanders would flow West. Sometimes they would stay and sometimes they would pass through and continue in a westward direction as the country was becoming more and more settled. So you had this enormous flow of people, and many of these folks were relatively liberal-minded New Englanders. There was a lot of religious experimentation.
That same thing started to replicate itself in California after the Gold Rush and in the early 20th century as you had a new flow of people, many of them liberal-minded and interested in new ideas, as migrants often seem to be. You had a new crop of folks flowing into California and I think it was just that wave of people flowing in after the Gold Rush and the economic boom of the late 19th and early 20th century that made California such an attractive place for anyone with new ideas, particularly spiritual ideas. So in a way, the same thing that occurred in upstate New York in the early to mid-19th century reoccurred in California a hundred years later. People obviously came to California and they stayed and it became a kind of permanent religious laboratory, at least from the early 20th century up through the present day. You really see both coasts of this nation mirroring one another in terms of religious experimentation, just at different times.
*Photo courtesy hyperbolation.