Self-Help, 19th Century Style

Sep 16 2012 @ 6:09pm

Stefany Anne Goldberg reviews a new edition of The Long Lost Friend, possibly "the most influential and, at one time, most well known grimoire to have originated in the New World." The "grimoire" was a genre that was basically a book of magic – and this one was "composed from bits of Santeria, hoodoo, Catholic prayers, medieval European spells, Native American herbal treatments, and German folk medicine." Goldberg sees in this 19th century text a precursor to the American obsession with self-help books:

Like [The Long Lost Friend author John George] Hohman, the self-help author is usually a channeler of a secret that — through the publication of the book — is made manifest and disclosed to the reader. The efficacy of the self-help book depends greatly on personal testimonials. The promise of all self-help books is self-improvement and self-actualization, and like The Long Lost Friend their essence is found less in the ‘help’ than in the ‘self’. How you can be improved, what inside you could be actualized — these are incidental, fluid. The primary message is that one can go it alone by tapping into inner resources that everyone holds. Self-help books — like The Long Lost Friend — are resolutely democratic. To be helped, one only needs enough money to buy the book and enough education to read the words. Whether the purpose is to heal grief or addiction or obesity, or preach the untold benefits of plain vinegar, the self-help guide proposes to improve the lot of anyone and everyone. All the self-help book needs is people who believe. Or try to believe. Or just try.