Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
Title: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

A few months ago when author Tony Horwitz died, I learned that he’d recently released this new book of his unique blend of history, travel, cultural exploration, and literary journalism.  When I saw that his final work was based on following in the footsteps of one of my favorite historical figures, Frederick Law Olmsted, it seemed as if it was targeted at me.

Olmsted is best known for innovating the field of landscape architecture and designing some of America’s most notable city parks and park systems, college campuses, hospital grounds, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance, and the grounds of the US Capitol.  Prior to his career in designing parks, Olmsted worked as a journalist, and much like Tony Horwitz, he traveled to places and wrote about his experiences. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through the American South submitting his dispatches to the New York Times.  In 1861, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, his writings were compiled in the book Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which remains a significant first-hand document of antebellum Southern society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, a moderate position at the time compared with abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all enslaved people, and in some cases extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed African Americans.  Anti-slavery advocates, which included Abraham Lincoln and other early Republicans, sought to prevent the expansion of slave-holding to new territories and carry out gradual manumission.  Olmsted believed that practice of slavery was inefficient and had a deleterious effect not just on the enslaved people, but on the white society as well.  A goal of his travels was to meet with Southerners, civilly exchange views, and convince them of the error of their ways.  Olmsted would be disappointed, finding Southerners entrenched in their beliefs and uninterested in civil discourse on the matter of slavery.

Tracing Olmsted’s route through the South in 2015-2016, against the background of the contentious presidential election leading to Donald Trump’s victory, Tony Horwitz would also find a deeply divided America.  Some of his encounters with Southerners who supported Trumpist ideology and believed in all manner of conspiracy theory are deeply disturbing.  More disturbing still is that many of these same people treated Horwitz warmly and were happy to speak with him, as long as he hid his own political views.

The travelogue is interesting as Horwitz first journeys down the Ohio River through West Virginia on a ship towing a coal barge, offering insight into a tedious but dangerous job that some “country boys” have found as a source of income in an economically depressed region.  His next river journey is on board a luxurious replica paddle wheeler with stops at historic plantations where the tour guides tend to ignore the enslaved people who made them possible.

In Louisiana, Horwitz is joined by a friend from Australia who is literally nearly killed by the artery-hardening Southern cuisine.  They also enjoy the bizarre Mud Fest, where monster truck drivers come together to drink and drive their modified vehicles through a giant mud bog for a week. Nearby, they visit the site of the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150+ black men were murdered by a white militia organized to reverse the reforms of Reconstruction.  To this day an historic marker on the site only recognizes the deaths of three of the white aggressors.   Continuing on his own across Texas, Horwitz tries and fails to debunk a conspiracy theory about a compound of Islamic extremists and participates in the Battle of the Alamo reenactment, oddly set against the background San Antonio’s tourist trap attractions.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book is the Texas hill country where German immigrants settled before the war, and Olmsted found a community he thought could serve as an example of Free Soilers in the South.  150 years later, the German community persists – albeit in some cheezy ways – and Horwitz describes a part of Texas that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of the state.  Horwitz travels by mule, a humbling experience, in the west of the Texas.  He concludes his narrative along the border with Mexico where he interacts with both the border patrol and the mixed American and Mexican communities.

In many ways, Spying on the South is a sequel to Horwitz’s best book Confederates in the Attic.  It’s also more somber and unsettling.  20 years ago one could chuckle at Confederate devotees as a dwindling number of hobbyists devoted to living in the past.  Today that same energy has been channeled into a dangerous movement that has reached its political ascendancy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

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