Review of “Spying on the South” by Tony Horwitz

Tony Horwitz was a Pulitzer Prize winning author who made a name for himself by approaching history not as an academic but as a reporter. In Confederates in the Attic, for example, he participated in Civil War battle reenactments to learn just what drove the passionate appeal for this activity. Along the way, he delivered a good deal of history, providing background to flesh out his entertaining interviews.

In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, he again blended historical anecdotes from the past with impressions from the present. The latter were gained through a great deal of audacity and humor, as he attempted to retrace the footsteps of the earliest explorers in the New World.

For Spying on the South, Horwitz decided to follow in the path of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted, who lived from 1822 to 1903, is mostly known today for his landscape designs, which included Central Park in Manhattan. As a young man, however, Olmsted worked as a reporter for the “New York Times.” On assignment, Olmsted travelled through the South from 1852 to 1857, sending back periodic dispatches to the newspaper about the lives and beliefs of Southerners. Olmsted was convinced – at first, anyway – that there had to be common ground between the two increasingly bellicose sides, if only he (and they) could discover what it was.

Frederick Law OlmstedCreditCreditU.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service/Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Olmsted’s articles were eventually collected into three volumes: A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey Through Texas (1857), and A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4 (1860). Horwitz, who was writing around the time of the 2016 election, wondered if the same sort of divisions were tearing apart the country as had characterized the pre-Civil War years. Thus, to get a better handle on what was happening in America, Horwitz used Omsted’s books as tour guides to plan his own trip, or, as he called it, “a ramble across America with long-dead Fred as my guide.”

Olmsted traveled for fourteen months, using steamboats, stagecoaches, horses, and mules, and Horwitz wanted to do the same. We follow Horwitz’s adventures on a coal towboat and on a mule, but also in the occasional rental car. Nevertheless, Horwitz gamely mimicked Olmsted’s trip whenever possible, even eating food that I must admit would never cross my lips. He bravely ventured into what was often hostile territory since he was a Northerner, regarded as one of the “elites” so despised by the many “Trumpers” he encountered. What he found during his own journey was similar to what Olmsted discovered: a vast fissure in the country. While the chasm between North and South was greatest in rural areas, there were still rather stark differences between the South and the North no matter where he ventured.

A Marquette River boat towing a barge full of coal

For a time Olmsted was accompanied by his brother John, and similarly, Horwitz was joined for a while by his Australian comedian friend Andrew Denton. Andrew’s observations were not only hilarious, but much less diplomatic than those of Horwitz.

Horwitz didn’t always get into political discussions, but when they occurred, Horwitz despaired as much as Olmstead had done some 160 years earlier. Horwitz was shocked at hearing unapologetically racist views, and could relate to Olmsted’s “melancholy” over the same phenomenon.

Horwitz’s sojourn through Texas revealed to him quite distinctive regions but also commonalities no matter the region, setting it apart from other states. In particular, he observed widespread support for secessionist movements, or at least, secessionist sympathies – now called “Texit” after Brexit.

As Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement explained about what attracted Texans to the idea of Texit:

“Texas is politically, culturally and economically distinct from the United States as a whole. Texans by and large believe in very limited government, a large measure of economic freedom, and absolute personal liberty.”

[It should be noted that a number of investigations, such as those compiled here, have established ties between Texas secession movements and Kremlin-funded actors in Russia. The interference is reported to be part of larger efforts to foment chaos in the United States and dissatisfaction with the government. At one point, the Russian-created Facebook page “Heart of Texas” had more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined.]

By the end of Horwitz’s odyssey, he, like Olmsted, didn’t feel hopeful about the prospects for seeing any abatement to the polarization of the country. And it has only gotten worse since his book was written.

Discussion: Soon after I began listening to this on audio, the author died unexpectedly on May 27, 2019, at age 60. I felt bereft. I had thoroughly enjoyed “spending time with him” in his other books. But also, as I began this book, my immediate reaction was, “Gee, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have a heart attack from what he is eating on this trip.” Horwitz indeed died of cardiac arrest; I hope this excursion of his wasn’t the tipping point.

Tony Horwitz

Evaluation: Horowitz was an adept raconteur whose observations remain valuable. He comes across as personable, curious, and willing to hear any and all sides of an issue, and in this way, gets almost everyone to open up to him. I always learn a great deal when reading his books, even while being hugely entertained.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Penguin Press, 2019

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book was expertly narrated by Mark Deakins. He did an outstanding job with accents, especially when reproducing dialogue between Horwitz and his part-time travel Australian companion Andrew. Deakins successfully made clear whether the voices he articulated were women rather than men; southerners rather than northerners; or for that matter, Germans or French.

Published unabridged on 14 CDs (approximately 17 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019

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3 Responses to Review of “Spying on the South” by Tony Horwitz

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This does sound fascinating but I do wonder how different regions of our country are. One of the most openly racist people I know (here in the south) is a transplanted northerner.

  2. Jeanne says:

    A yankee venturing into the south to explore civil war-era divisions would be regarded with some suspicion no matter what his politics, so I wonder about the pre-divided way this author looked at the people he met.

  3. Beth F says:

    Not funny but . . . on the eating on the road (ha, ha). I haven’t read this one yet, but I too was sad to hear he had died. I really liked Confederates in the Attic.

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