Our Oldest Self-Help Book

The New World's self-help mentality


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I’ve often thought of America as a nation forged in loneliness. That pioneer spirit, that radical self-reliance that claims to need nothing but itself, is another way of talking about a people dislocated, living off the fragments of each other’s traditions. Breaking ground in the rural wilds far from cities, settlers of the New World were forced to democratize the very idea of tradition out of necessity. Religion, science, Old World remedies brought from Europe on scraps of paper, New World cures just discovered — Americans were interested in any scrap of custom or ritual that could help them be more independent. Even magic and the occult were useful. In this, ritualized independence itself may be the primary tradition that Americans — a society of fragments — has produced. It can be found in all the important American texts, from the Constitution to Leaves of Grass. It is in the utopian health manifestoes of John Harvey Kellogg and Sylvester Graham whose message we literally devour every time we eat the cereals and crackers that bear their names. It is in our national anthem, in all our songs and jingles. 


• The Long-Lost Friend: A 19th Century American Grimoire: A New Biography by John George Hohman. 312 pages. Llewellyn Publications. $17.95.

Most of the early how-to guides of practical wisdom and useful magic have been absorbed and forgotten. But a couple of them still get reprinted now and again to provide clues about how America came to be the land of three hundred million sovereign individuals. One of these guides is The Long Lost Friend. Officially, The Long Lost Friend is a grimoire, a book of magic. According to Daniel Harms — who has meticulously edited and annotated a new edition for Llewellyn — The Long Lost Friend may well be the most influential and, at one time, most well known grimoire to have originated in the New World. First published in German in 1820 as Der lange verborgene Freund (‘The Long-Hidden Friend’) — and receiving a second translation in 1856 with the subtitle A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies, for Man as Well as Animals: Of Their Virtue and Efficacy in Healing Diseases, etc., the Greater Part of Which Was Never Published Until They Appeared in Print for the First Time in the U.S. in the Year 1820, The Long Lost Friend is a “practical manual of spellcraft” (Harms) composed from bits of Santeria, hoodoo, Catholic prayers, medieval European spells, Native American herbal treatments, and German folk medicine.

Calling The Long Lost Friend a book of magic is misleading to the modern mind. Usually, magic books have a cryptic aura about them; they are filled with an arcane knowledge that is difficult to interpret or understand — untouchable, unknowable. As Harms writes in his Introduction, The Long Lost Friend is more of a compendium of household tips and prayers for all manner of supernatural ends, a guide for everyday people who are looking to kill their bedbugs, heal wounds, compel a thief to return stolen goods, extinguish fire without water, “fasten or spell-bind anything”, and generally fend off the forces of evil. 

Harms attributes the popularity of The Long Lost Friend to the fact that the book was inexpensive, simple to understand, bold and comprehensive. The magic in The Long Lost Friend is a user-friendly kind of magic, a book of recipes just mystical enough to feel authoritative but familiar enough to be accessible. There is “A very good remedy for the Colic” using “half a gill of good old rye whiskey” and “a pipe full of tobacco”, and a benediction To Release Spell-bound Persons that goes like this:

You horseman and footman, whom I here conjured at this time, you may pass on in the name of Jesus Christ, through the word of God and the will of Christ; ride ye on now and pass.

The author of The Long Lost Friend was a man named John George Hohman, a German Catholic who sailed to America in 1802 from Hamburg and settled in Reading among the Protestant Pennsylvania Dutch, that community of settlers hailing from southwestern Germany and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland and France (‘Dutch’ meaning German, ‘Deutsch’, rather than Netherlandish, as is often assumed). Hohman scraped together a living writing and publishing everything from musical broadsides and hymns (for which he was well known) to books of catechism, apocryphal gospels and medicinal guides. The Long Lost Friend drew from all these influences and more. Its roots, writes Harms, are in a genre of books called Hausvaterliteratur (House-Father-Literature), written for farmers and rural folk of limited means and with limited access to medical services. Although the desire for these books was dying out in early 19th century Europe — with its growing cities and growing regulation, centralization, and professionalization of social services — they were in big demand among isolated American settlers. Unable to rely on doctors or professionals or the clergy, rural pioneers had to become their own doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and spiritual healers. Hohman catered to all these needs, creating a book that is wonderfully holistic. The spells and cures in The Long Lost Friend often had multiple purposes and worked with multiple methodologies. For instance, his spell To prevent Witches from bewitching Cattle, to be written and placed in the stable; and against Bad Men and Evil Spirits, which nightly torment old and young people, to be written and placed on the bedstead is part incantation, part Hail Mary. It promises to protect and free all persons and animals from witchcraft.

At one time, says Harms, everyone either owned a copy of The Long Lost Friend or knew someone who did. Much like the Bible, just being near a copy of The Long Lost Friend was said to thwart malevolence. But The Long Lost Friend was not only popular. Some considered it powerful and potentially dangerous. The post-Enlightenment American medical establishment, for one, publicly denounced all claims of self-healing or any medical practice not overseen by a recognized authority. Hohman was not to be deterred. He had seen the magic work, had seen people healed. What greater sin could there be than to refuse helping a fellow human being if you could, even if you didn’t know exactly how it all worked? Hohman defends his book with the following:

The majority, undoubtedly, approve of the publication and sale of such books, yet some are always found who will persist in denouncing them as something wrong.… It is true, whosoever taketh the name of JESUS in vain, commiteth a great sin. Yet…. I say: any and every man who knowlingly neglects using this book in saving the eye, or the leg, or any other limb of his fellow-man, is guilty of the loss of such limb, and thus commits a sin, by which he may forfeit to himself all hope of salvation.

And then Hohman provides a long list of testimonials. Ben Stoudt, son of a Lutheran schoolmaster, cured of wheal in the eye in just 24 hours. Daughter of John Arnold, burns banished in the year 1815. John Allgaier of Reading, whose wild fires were cured by Hohman’s sympathetic words. A cure for rheumatism written by Hohman and sold in shops for a dollar or two that was so potent it didn’t come with directions. “Where is the doctor who has ever cured or banished the panting or palpitation of the heart, and hideboundedness?” Hohman asked. “All these cures, and a great many more mysterious and wonderful things are contained in this book; and its author could take an oath at any time upon the fact of his having successfully applied many of the prescriptions contained herein.”

The active discrediting of doctors, which Hohman does repeatedly (“I doubt very much whether any physician in the United States can make a plaster equal to this”), at first seems unnecessary. But the attack is part of Hohman’s ingenious method. Each time he prints a spell “which has effected many a cure where doctors could not help,” he keeps readers believing in their own powers, encouraging them to be self-reliant (and in need of Hohman’s book) even when there may be a professional around.

The Long Lost Friend
was also disturbing to both the Protestant and Catholic clergy who believed Hohman’s spells — which actively, and creatively, evoked the name of God — to be heretical. Homemade prayers to release your horse from colic was already drifting into heresy. What church could approve of the following?

Against Evil Spirits and all manner of Witchcraft








All this be guarded, here in time, and there in eternity. Amen. You must write all the above on a piece of white paper, and carry it about you. The characters or the letters above, signify: “God bless me here in time, and there eternally.”

But the use of prayers and biblical references was essential to The Long Lost Friend. John George Hohman understood well the printed word’s power to be tangible and divine at once. He knew the very fact of The Long Lost Friend’s publication could be proof of its effectiveness. As he wrote in his preface to the first edition, “There are men who will say, if one has used sympathetic words in vain, the medicines of doctors could not avail any, because the words did not effect a cure. This is only the excuse of physicians; because whatever cannot be cured by sympathetic words, can much less be cured by any doctor’s craft or cunning.” 

With the assurance of an apostle, Hohman presented himself as the channel for healing words that came directly from God. “I, Hohman, ask: Who can immediately banish the wheal, or mortification? I reply, and I, Hohman, say: All this is done by the Lord.” With these lines Hohman did something remarkable — and remarkably compelling. He gave himself just enough agency to be credible (I, Hohman, ask. I reply, and I, Hohman, say) and then handed the healing power to his readers in their direct relationship to God. This method made The Long Lost Friend particularly agreeable to the community of Anabaptist Americans he lived among. These were people who preached a personal, immediate relationship with Christ, obtained through experience and through reading the Bible — a Christianity that is a priesthood of friends.

The Long Lost Friend
could be read as a charming bit of old-time esoterica, except that something about it still feels alive. Maybe that’s because The Long Lost Friend is a progenitor of another important contribution to American scripture: the self-help book. Like 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.

Like The Long Lost Friend, the seemingly innocuous self-help book is powerful — and also threatening. Millions of Americans consume self-help books with a devotion usually reserved for sacred texts; the rest believe these guides to be testimonials of stupidity and evil. In its way, the self-help book is as romantic as Whitman, emphasizing independence, experimentation, spirituality. Self-help can itself be an exciting proposition because it promotes the idea that individuals can heal themselves, a job usually reserved for figures of authority, doctors or clergymen. As Hohman might put it, doctors’ offices are filled with secrets. “I sell my books publicly,” Hohman wrote, “and not secretly as other mystical works are sold. I am willing that my books should be seen by everybody, and I shall not secrete [sic] or hide myself away from any preacher. I, Hohman, too, have some knowledge of the Scriptures, and I know when to call and pray unto the Lord for assistance.” Self-help books, from The Long Lost Friend to today’s offerings, are books of revelation.

And the revelations keep coming. There seems to be no end to the promise of increased self-reliance. It’s almost as if the more self-help is promoted the more it is needed. What was once a method for survival in a harsh colonial landscape is now a tool by which society finds itself spiraling ever inward. This is what makes the culture of self-reliance so simultaneously enticing and frightening, even to some of the Americans who use and enjoy self-help literature. Within the pages of self-help books are recipes not just for healing but for divinity, a promise that every American can be individually complete and autonomous.

There’s a mood of disorientation and longing in The Long Lost Friend‘s title that strikes a different note than the confident claims to be found inside. Maybe this is the book’s “Long-Hidden” message, its essence, and the essence of all the self-help books that would follow it. The self-help book, via The Long Lost Friend, is an appeal to the American still wandering in the wilderness, curious about everything, needing nothing, wanting it all but not knowing how to get it, believing in the magic of utility, and the utility of magic. 10 September 2012

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.