Spying on the South An odyssey across the American divide

Tony Horwitz, 1958-

Book - 2019

"The author retraces Frederick Law Olmsted's journey across the American South in the 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War. Olmsted roamed eleven states and six thousand miles, and the New York Times published his dispatches about slavery and its defenders. More than 150 years later, Tony Horwitz followed Olmsted's route, and whenever possible his mode of transport--rail, riverboats, in the saddle--through Appalachia, down the Ohio and Mississippi, through Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, and across Texas to the Rio Grande, discovering and reporting on vestiges of what Olmsted called the Cotton Kingdom"--

Saved in:

2nd Floor Show me where

3 / 3 copies available
Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 917.5/Horwitz Checked In
2nd Floor 917.5/Horwitz Checked In
2nd Floor 917.5/Horwitz Checked In
Travel writing
New York : Penguin Press 2019.
Main Author
Tony Horwitz, 1958- (author)
Physical Description
476 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 420-462) and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

As brilliant as William Faulkner was, the only lines of his commonly quoted are: " The past is never dead. It's not even past." In several books Tony Horwitz, who died on May 27 of this year, has explored that assertion, finding a vehicle that allows him to examine specific aspects of the past and their resonance in the present. Now, in "Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide," he follows as closely as he can the path taken by Frederick Law Olmsted, who in the early 1850s - long before he thought of designing Central Park or dreamed of having a revolutionary impact on other urban landscapes - traveled through the antebellum South. Olmsted explained what seemed a mysterious society to the Northern readers of The New York Times. He later amended and published his reports as "The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States." Olmsted started on his trip a bit of a lost soul, searching for a purpose. His dispatches provided one. He wanted not only to describe the region (he succeeded in portraying both physical and cultural settings almost as well as Audubon painted birds) but also to understand the great divide in the country, hoping that understanding Southern views on slavery would allow men of good will to find common ground and a path to abolition. He had letters of introduction to and met with Southerners of consequence but said, "My best finds were coarse men with whom I could take a glass of Toddy in the barroom" and "third-rate tavern keepers." Horwitz has taken the same path to explore today's great divide(s). Race is one and he explores that, but he is equally interested in the political divide. These divisions, of course, extend far beyond the South, but in the South they tend to be less hidden. The book is timely, though he started it when no one imagined a Trump presidency. From Cumberland, Md., Horwitz followed Olmsted's journey as closely as possible, west and south into Appalachia. Early on he visited a West Virginia bar where a waitress quickly identified him as a "Yankee boy spying on us hillbillies." But he passed few judgments - at least not while actually on the trip - and only rarely did his obvious outsider status interfere with his mission or provoke hostility. Rather, his honest curiosity got people to open up. As they did, we learn about them, their lives and their communities. Like Olmsted, Horwitz traveled by boat, train and other means. He went down the Ohio River on a towboat pushing 15,000 tons of coal, on a luxury paddle-wheeler down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and by land across Louisiana and Texas and into Mexico, where he took a dicey road trip to a cartel-infested Mexican town whose mayor was assassinated soon after. Along the way, he visited a creationism museum, enjoyed the gallows humor in a bar in "Cancer Alley" (so named because of the petrochemical plants lining the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge), watched an unforgettable Cajun-country "Mudfest" (trucks bulldozing their way through a kind of combination motocross and demolition derby, all at full speed in thick mire) and endured a humiliating trip on a mule in Texas with a guide who made the Jack Palance character in "City Slickers" seem sweet. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are brief asides. For example, it may be common knowledge that automation has killed coal jobs, but knowledge deepens into understanding when Horwitz notes that 12 miners a shift produce six million tons of coal a year. That's a long way from the song "Sixteen Tons" ("and deeper in debt"). Horwitz is a smooth writer and an even better reporter (hardly surprising, given that he won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at The Wall Street Journal), and he recounts his travels with insight interspersed with humor, as well as with an intermittent raising of the eyebrows at numerous oddities and occasional evils. When he writes about history he becomes more serious, but often entertaining. There is an account of an aristocratic Southern abolitionist and brawler named Cassius Marcellus Clay: Attacked by a mob and shot in the chest, he carved up the shooter with a Bowie knife. Other episodes are simply tragic - the Civil War slaughter in Texas of dozens of antislavery German immigrants trying to reach slave-free Mexico. Going back to Olmsted's time, many books have tried to explain the South. Among the very best are W. J. Cash's classic "The Mind of the South," and the recent "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right," by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The genre might even be extended to include such not strictly regional books as J. D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" and Jim Webb's "Born Fighting." "Spying on the South" offers less analysis, more reportage than many of these. Some of the book is predictable, whether in the proTrump politics of most people Horwitz encountered (not surprising, since so many were white Southerners he met drinking beer) or the frustration of isolated liberals, and he does not recreate the past with the detail, elegance and passion of, say, Richard Holmes. One wishes for more depth and more breadth; the views of a few community or business leaders would have added perspective, and Louisiana and Texas constitute over half the book but he has hardly a word about the oil and gas industry (an industry he knows well since one of his books was about the Keystone pipeline). Nonetheless, Horwitz has produced a valuable work that combines biography, history and travelogue. Olmsted began his travels in the hope of finding common ground. He failed. But perhaps Horwitz's book can help us find common ground today. JOHN M. BARRY'S most recent book is "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty." He is currently researching a book about the Mississippi River basin.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 30, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

In the early 1850s, before Frederick Law Olmsted was known as the visionary landscape architect of New York's Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, and the Biltmore Estate, he was a 30-year-old traveling correspondent commissioned by the newly formed New York Times to report pseudonymously on the pre-Civil War culture and slave economy of the Southern states. Horwitz (Midnight Rising, 2011), himself a Northerner and immersive travel writer, retraces Olmsted's 1852 journey from Washington, D.C., to Texas by train, coal barge, steamboat, and other period-specific transport. As he chats up locals and encounters a variety of modern people, places, and politics of the former ""Cotton Kingdom,"" he intersperses Olmsted's commentary with his own. A tour is only as good as its guide, and Horwitz is a seasoned one inquisitive, open-minded, and opting for observation over judgment, whether at a dive bar, monster truck rally, the Creation Museum, or a historical plantation. The book will appeal to fans of travelogue, Civil War-era history, and current events by way of Southern sensibilities.--Chad Comello Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) follows the trail of Frederick Law Olmsted, 19th-century reporter and legendary landscape architect, across the American South in this expansive and generously conceived travelogue . His pursuit of Olmsted, "a Connecticut Yankee exploring the Cotton Kingdom on the eve of secession and civil war" for the New York Daily Times, takes Horwitz by train, boat, car, and mule through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, as he documents the "diversity and capaciousness of America." Horwitz observes general challenges throughout the region-a "heartland hollowed out by economic and social decay," disappearing rural towns, toxic industries, jobs moving from manufacture to tourism, obesity, and drugs-and allegiances, especially to evangelical Christianity and guns, but also discerns a unique character in each region, among them the Cajun identity of south Louisiana and the history of German radicals in Texas. Horwitz delights in the absurd and easily interlaces history with his many adventures-among them cruises on a coal tow and a steamboat, mudding in Louisiana, a re-enactment at the Alamo-where he encounters generous hospitality, warm intelligence, and, occasionally, bald bigotry. Throughout, Horwitz brings humor, curiosity, and care to capturing the voices of the larger-than-life characters he encounters. A huge canvas of intricate details, this thoughtful and observant work delicately navigates the long shadow of America's history. Photos. Agent: Kris Dahl, ICM. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In his new travelog through the American Southwest, Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) follows in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted, who reported on the South in the 1850s for New York newspapers. Here, Horwitz recounts many memorable people and experiences, including a ride on a slow-moving coal barge on the Ohio River, a weekend of mud racing in Louisiana, an ill-fated trip by mule across Texas, and a visit to adjoining border towns in Texas and Mexico. Similar to Olmsted, who was writing on the eve of the Civil War, many of Horwitz's conversations turned to politics. The author traveled during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign and encountered many disaffected rural voters excited by the candidacy of Donald Trump. These impressions are exaggerated by the little attention Horwitz gives to urban areas and the relatively few number of accounts of African Americans. Horwitz is a skilled writer, and his vignettes are compelling to read. Yet, without a more consistent thread tying these observations together, the looming 2016 election becomes the most compelling theme. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in a selective but engaging glimpse into modern life in the rural South. [See Prepub Alert, 11/19/18.]--Nicholas Graham, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wanders Dixie in search of what makes it so intractably un-American.Picking up, in a sense, where Confederates in the Attic (1998) left off, Horwitz (Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, 2011, etc.) follows a fruitful trail in the footsteps of one-time journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled through the South reporting on the region for the precursor to the New York Times before reinventing himself as "a visionary architect of New York's Central Park, among many other spaces." Olmsted found a land bent on racial suppression, even as blacks and whites lived side by side, as well as one on the brink of civil war; Horwitz wonders how much things have changed since then. He discovered plenty of difference. For example, in West Virginia, a state that seceded from secession to rejoin the Union, the author passed time with coal miners who have been perfectly happy to destroy their almost-heaven while complaining that federal environmental scientists "find a puddle in your yard and call it a wetland." Like Olmsted, Horwitz's circuitous path took him along the Mississippi River and into Texas, perhaps the most schizophrenic of states today. As the resident of one East Texas town told him, after the author witnessed one scene after another of casual racism punctuated by an oddly easy mixing of black and white residents, the place is "somewhere between Mayberry and Deliverance." Horwitz seldom reaches deep; his book is casually observed and travelogue-ish ("Eagle Pass was no longer a mud-and-whiskey bedlam at the edge of the American frontier"), more Paul Theroux than de Tocqueville. Still, one can't help but notice that the things that occupied Olmsted's attention haven't changed much in the years since the earlier traveler toured a region that sometimes defies description.Not as sprightly as some of the author's past reports from the fringes but provocative and well worth reading. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.