While reading The Metaphysical Club by Menand I was struck by how many esoteric influences there were on early pragmatism. Of course there was the obvious influence from the American Transcendentalists but Menand also mentioned the influence of Swedenborg on William James and others. Then there was Peirce's well known and somewhat unusual familiarity with both medieval philosophy as well as the philosophy of late antiquity including most of the neoPlatonists. I bought Versluis' The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance primarily to expand upon these trends. Unfortunately beyond discussing Emerson he doesn't really get into the philosophers of this period in American history. Instead he focuses in on many significant literary figures such as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Emily Dickenson. The goal of his book is to examine the influence of western esoteric traditions on all these figures, thus showing how significant these overlooked traditions are in American history. Personally I think he succeeds wonderfully.
Of course many Mormons are familiar with studies into the early Mormon connections to these traditions. I've mentioned them before, but was surprised to find that those studies appear to be one of the influences on Versluis decision to investigation the influence on literary figures.
There have been, however, a few books that have begun to reveal the extent to which nineteenth-century America was influenced and, one might even say, permeated by Western esoteric traditions. Chief among these is John L. Brooke's excellent The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644 - 1844; another such work is Michael Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. These historians, in seeking out the hidden history of Mormonism, have also helped in revealing the extent to which esoteric views and traditions helped shape the American intellectual landscape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The application of these discoveries to literature has many ramifications, not least of which is a re-evaluation of many major literary figures - both American and European - in light of their interests in Western esotericism.
Of course many studies of the influence of such traditions on European figures has been done. Especially in the years since the landmark studies by Francis Yates. Many, for instance, may know of the strong gnostic influence on William Blake. And of course the role of Western esotericism in the European Renaissance can't be overstated. Indeed it was in large part the rediscovery of hermeticism, neoplatonism, kabbalah, and gnosticism that brought about the Renaissance. What Versluis does is show the influence of these same ideas and trends in the American Renaissance.
One only wishes that the book was more comprehensive. Most of the figures receive only 5 - 10 pages. Further outside of a brief discussion of the role of these traditions among the founders of America, all the attention is solely to literary figures. While it is unfair to judge an author by what they didn't set out to accomplish, one almost wishes that more context to these figures was provided - much like Menand does in The Metaphysical Club. Of course such a volume would have become unwieldily. A more valid wish might be to have discussed more figures outside of literature who certainly were important figures in the American Renaissance. Not just philosophers like Peirce or James but perhaps painters, architects and others. One must, I suspect, wait for further historical investigations of the far too long neglected aspect of American history.
Returning to Versluis' mention of Quinn and Brookes, I should say that this is a very good companion for Quinn. Most of the significant flaws of Quinn's book are avoided here. Versluis is very careful to not generalize with ambiguous categories. Rather he points out the significant differences between the strains of esoteric thought. Far too many place hermeticism, kabbalism, and even neoPlatonism in the same category and ignore the significant differences. Versluis' careful consideration of influences as well as recognizing that a text may not be as straightforward as it appears is very welcome after Quinn.
A great example of this is in his discussion of Poe. There Poe appears to use notions of spirits from both Swedenborg as well as neoPlatonic styled mysticism. Yet while an uncautious quote would simply suggest a strong connectoin between Poe's beliefs and the use, Versluis notes Poe's irony and satire and the implications for his own views. A quote of a paragraph undoubtedly of interest to Mormons might illustrate this well.
Poe's treatment of mesmerism is similar: he draws on it in order to elaborate his own fancies; an esoteric tradition provides a basis for his cosmic fancy. In "Mesmeric Revelation," Poe writes about mesmerizing an ill man named Mr. Vankirk, who expresses an interest to the narrator in being mesmerized so as to investigate death, mesmerism supposedly creating a condition similar to death. Much of the story is devoted to a dialogue between "P.," the narrator, and "V.," the mesmerized patient, who when mesmerized launches into a cosmological description of how "there are gradations of matter of which man knows nothing .... [Tjhese gradations of matter increase in rarity or fineness, until we arrive at a matter unparticled . . . . The ultimate or unparticled matter not only permeates all things, but impels all things; and thus is all things within itself. This matter is God." Thus, mesmerism forms a vehicle for Poe's proposition that what we call "spirit" is in fact a rarified kind of matter. "V." goes on to assert that "divested of corporate investure man were God. But he can never be thus divested." Hence, Poe has his mesmerized patient deny a central premise of many Christian mystics and of Neoplatonism: that man's purpose is to return to God or to realize the One. It is interesting, and characteristic, that Poe 's mesmerized patient immediately dies, and the narrator ends the story by wondering whether the speaker had been addressing him "from out of the region of the shadows." For Poe, the afterlife is indeed a matter, not of heaven or hell, but of "shadows" of the material world. (Versluis, 74)
Of course Poe's discussion of matter can't help but call Mormon minds to D&C 131 and its discussion of spirit as matter "more fine or pure." While I should caution that this is one of the few references that really are of interest to Mormons, the book overall provides a strong indication that these esoteric ideas were a strong context in early 19th century America. Indeed I'd say that Versluis' book offers a compelling discussion of this context. As such it ought to be read by anyone who read Quinn, if only to provide a more careful consideration of context.
Just a note that the journal Esoterica published by Michigan State University is available online and has quite a few quite interesting articles similar to the above. It covers the entire esoteric historical phenomena from the medieval era up through more recent history. It is peer reviewed and has quite a few excellent historians writing. One essay is by Versluis and covers a lot of the same material as his first chapter in the above book. It probably ought to be read by those considering the various writings on the similar topic in early Mormon history. "What is Esoteric? Methods in the Study of Western Esotericism"