Author cites area’s role as 1800s path to new spirituality; Horowitz traces rise of occultism

The Boston Globe
October 24, 2010 Sunday


BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1072 words

Author Mitch Horowitz says today’s asphalt corridor known as US Route 20 was a highway of occult ideas in the 19th century, when free-thinking New Englanders traveled to upstate New York to immerse themselves in alternative spirituality, and returned with perspectives at odds with the era’s dominant conservative concepts.

At the same time, prominent New England scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson was crafting extensive writings and lectures, touring the country and introducing topics like Hindu mythology, Confucius, Pythagoras, and Buddha to the public, and helped alternative ideas gain acceptance into the mainstream, says Horowitz.

These ideas have helped shape America’s spiritual beliefs and identity, he contends.

“The family tree of American occultism tells us a story about our politics and culture, and opens a window that we rarely look in,” said Horowitz, whose latest book, “Occult America: White House Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation,” was released Oct. 5.

“The occult morphed into the culture of therapeutic and self-help spirituality, which is found across the religious landscape today, from the New Age to evangelical ministries,” he said.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Horowitz will be at the Waltham Public Library to deliver a free talk, “Occult America,” including how Route 20, which runs right past the library as the city’s Main Street, played a role in the formation and spread of occult ideas.

The editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin in New York, and a former political writer with a long interest in the history and impact of alternative spirituality, said spiritual seekers from New England followed the route to upstate New York’s so-called Burned-Over District, where some of the nation’s most influential occult traditions took hold and flourished.

One of those was Spiritualism, a mid-19th-century movement that featured communication with the dead at its center.

In 1848, two young sisters demonstrated to visitors at their home in Rochester, N.Y., how they could communicate with spirits via audible knocking. The phenomenon ignited imaginations among grieving parents and widowers, as well as others enticed by spirit communication.

“When people lost a child or family member to famine, disease, or war, they had nowhere to turn for help,” said Horowitz. Spiritualism offered them hope.

As the years passed, people modeled Spiritualism on the writings of another Burned-Over District native, Andrew Jackson Davis, who wrote an 1851 book with instructions on how to communicate with the dead, and who traveled Route 20 to spend time in Lynn.

Horowitz estimates that at spirit communication’s height in the 19th century, one in 10 Americans – including Mary Todd Lincoln – believed in the practice through trance-mediums and séances, and that Spiritualism attracted activists for women’s rights in part because women could play leading roles while other faiths shut them out.

In short, Spiritualism offered accessibility and pluralist views when other faiths did not.

“The vast network of newspapers that came out of Spiritualism – they made this statement into almost dinnertime conversation,” said Horowitz.

He said Emerson, the famous intellectual and Transcendentalist from Concord, paved the way for Spiritualism and other beliefs, such as Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, a spiritual movement that plumbed the great religions for meaning and later influenced Gandhi, according to the Indian leader’s autobiography.

The Rev. Barry Andrews, a Unitarian Universalist minister who has written two books on Emerson, said the Transcendentalist was the most popular speaker in the lyceum movement, which promoted adult education through lectures by well-known authors and public figures like Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Horace Greeley.

Emerson traveled across the country “trying to awaken people to their own spiritual nature. He thought the possibilities of human experience were not exhausted by our everyday need to make a living,” said Andrews. “He very much wanted people to develop themselves in a whole lot of ways.”

Andrews said that although Emerson read widely from esoteric and worldwide traditions, he never subscribed to any. Instead, he took what resonated with his own experiences and shared them with his audiences. Almost everyone from the era would have been acquainted with Emerson even without attending any of his lectures, said Andrews.

Christopher Lehrich, a professor of religion at Boston University, agrees with Horowitz that things labeled “occult” can’t be separated from religious experience.

“You cannot understand the American religious landscape by pulling out chunks of weirdness and saying it’s not part of the religious experience,” said Lehrich. Doing so “tends to occlude making sense of other people and great founding figures.”

Societies and their elites have widely held occult beliefs in times past, he said.

Lehrich said beliefs such as Freemasonry, a tradition that Horowitz explores, were common and uncontroversial among the country’s Founding Fathers.

“As you get into the Enlightenment, the mainstream character of occultism falls away,” said Lehrich, who teaches about the occult and other religious topics. “Scientific and paradigm shifts make it seem like not a very intellectual or scholarly pursuit. Elites characterize it as something peasants believe.”

Horowitz said he started “Occult America” five years ago after giving a lecture to an occult society in California. Research was often arduous because of a lack of good record-keeping by the principals.

“This material is very diffuse. Occult history has been very poorly kept,” he said. But Horowitz was able to fit in travel, interviews, and research while working his full-time job at Tarcher-Penguin, and spending time with his wife and two young children.

He said he became interested in the occult in his youth, but it remained in the background until he went to work for the publishing house and read its back catalog of New Age titles.

“I found meaning in a lot of ideas that I had never thought to consider before,” he said.

He said he hopes his book helps make the term “New Age” more legitimate, and said he’s embraced the term.

“It’s viewed as an epithet. I’ve actually started using that term more liberally. It feels a lot better to say it than to reach for some euphemism.”

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com

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