I spent over a decade researching esoteric traditions in America, and the culmination of that work was my PhD dissertation, Occult Americans: Invisible Culture and the Literary Imagination. Expecting to find, perhaps, some interesting aberrations from the Protestant mainstream, I discovered instead that intellectual and spiritual alternatives were central to American life and letters: Emerson’s mental magic; Thoureau’s nature religion; Margaret Fuller’s incipient Goddess worship; Poe’s Platonism and knowledge of ritual magic; George Lippard’s Rosicrucian Brotherhood; Melville’s Gnosticism; Whitman’s Pantheism. I began to wonder ... where wasn’t the Western Hermetic tradition in the American Renaissance period?
But in spite of the copious empirical data I uncovered (such as inventories of occult titles in early American libraries) and my rigorously theoretical approach, I encountered heavy resistance whenever I argued that America had always been less a Christian nation than a metaphysically experimental one. Academics preferred their religious history to be confined to the literate church fathers who subsumed believers, apostates, and the indifferent into the same partial narrative of Christian dominance. The witches, pagans, and healers of my acquaintance sought to align themselves with exotic indigenous practices mined from Peru, Mongolia, and Hawaii, or looked for ethnic religious affiliation by traveling back in time to ancient Egypt or the mists of Albion. No one seemed particularly interested in the religious experience of their American foremothers and fathers, in spite of the fact that a uniquely American approach to belief has been coalescing for four centuries. The two movements most often cited as precursors to the modern New Age, Spiritualism and Theosophy, are both nineteenth-century American products. But how could I interest anyone in the rich diversity of America’s esoteric history?
I remember lamenting my problem to a professor of English Renaissance literature who had published on occult themes: “At least you had the benefit of widespread association of Shakespeare with magic, all those demons and witches and alchemists in his dramas reflecting actual practices in the early modern scene.” She looked at me blankly and said – no, no that hadn’t been the case at all. It had taken pioneering historians such as Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic) and Frances Yates (Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition; The Rosicrucian Enlightenment) to reconstruct occult activity in Shakespeare’s era and thereby enchant the English imagination retrospectively. It seemed obvious that I should write a book about America’s esoteric history – but then, several people already had.
The most complete is probably A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (2008), in which the esteemed religion professor who wrote it, Catherine Albanese, refers to metaphysics as “the dominant mode of American religious life.” The most riveting may be John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire (1996), which details all the vibrant Hermetic practices in early America that helped shape the religious vision of Joseph Smith. Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America (2009) offers a highly entertaining overview of America’s occult history to the general reader. There didn’t seem to be much sense (or much fun) in me repeating arguments that had already been made, just to color in a bit more of the picture.
My unique intervention into the growing body of knowledge surrounding American esoteric history is that much of it was created, fomented, and perpetuated by American writers. There is perhaps a book I could write about this rarefied history, one that would be prized by an elite coterie of academic specialists (no more than fifty in number), on whose shelves such a book might rest comfortably in an exquisite library for decades before ultimately moldering into obscurity. I, however, am after bigger game. I seek nothing less than to connect my American audience with the magical roots of their syncretic metaphysical tradition. I might write an article, or a book, about Emily Dickinson’s uncanny way of tapping into the hidden essences of the natural world; or I could commission a gifted artist to depict her as the Tarot’s Priestess. The effect of the latter, you can see, is immediate and profound, and requires nothing other than the perceptive power of the individual to achieve its end.