Spying on the South : an odyssey across the American divide

by Tony Horwitz

Hardcover, 2019




New York : Penguin Press, [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"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member Alphawoman
You learn quite a bit reading Tony Horwitz. This time I learned that Texas is full of jackasses. The ratio is about 10:1. The guy who took them across the farmland around the Sister"hood" area, Buck, was a total jerk. How Tony kept his head was a miracle!

Tony had a major lethal heart attack while promoting this book. A tragic shame.

This is the 3rd book I've read in the past several months about re creating an historic journey. This by far the best.

RIP Tony, I'm going to miss all the books you did not get a chance to write.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
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. 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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
In the 1850's, in his journalist days, Frederick Law Olmsted traveled through the slave-holding American South from Maryland to Texas looking for its soul, and hoping to "promote the mutual acquaintance of the North and South" during a very troubled era. His dispatches from the roads and rivers resulted in a trilogy of works which were later abridged into a single volume titled The Cotton Kingdom.

In the 21st century, while attempting to cull some books from his library, Tony Horwitz picked up his college copy of that volume, cracked the covers (as you do when culling), and got caught up by the idea of recreating Olmsted's journey in our own polarized time. Being an intrepid world traveler, journalist, war correspondent and historian himself, he did just that, and this book is the result.

Horwitz cadged a ride on a towboat moving coal barges along the Ohio River; traveled from St. Louis to New Orleans by steamboat (a rather different experience than the rowdy 19th century equivalent); met with remnants of the Old South aristocracy in Tennessee; drank in a lot of local bars in Louisiana and Texas; and took a mule-back expedition along the Rio Grande. He managed it all without getting into any serious trouble until the very end, when he inadvertently offended the mule and got a bit of an attitude adjustment handed to him.

He found a lot of what you would expect in the "unreconstructed south", and reports it as you would expect of a Yankee liberal... and that disturbed me through much of this book. Despite Horwitz's assertion that "Like Olmsted, I'd embarked on my journey believing--or at least hoping--that Americans on opposite sides of the national divide could listen to each other and air their differences in a rational and coolheaded fashion", I got the feeling that the author's own prejudices may have led him mainly to encounters that would reinforce them.

I nearly quit after the chapter titled "The Drift of Things in Ruby-Red America", which related his stay in the Republican stronghold of Crockett, Texas, where despite meeting some people he professed to like, he was left with a "bad taste in {his} mouth", and a very pessimistic feeling about "what is to become of us...this great country & this cursedly little people" (the latter being Olmsted's words). Pretty discouraging stuff, with nothing much to foster hope for coming out on the other side of the current mess. And yet...if I had given up at that point, I would have missed the chapter titled "And Absalom Rode Upon a Mule", which was really a hoot, and in which Horwitz got his come-uppance from both man and mule, restoring my faith in him as an objective observer. It has to be difficult to report your "story" when you're smack in the middle of it yourself; he could have cast himself in a better light and no one would have been the wiser. Neither the mule nor its unidentified handler are likely to read his account.

After a respite to recover from the effects of concussion and saddle sores in the comfort of a New England summer, Horwitz returned to Texas to finish his planned sojourn to the Rio Grande and into Mexico. Here he visited towns on either side of the border, where Americans crossed into Mexico to shop and Mexicans crossed into Texas daily to work; met with a representative of the long-unrecognized Kickapoo tribe; and attended Day of the Dead festivities as guests of a Mexican family.

Horwitz ends his book with a chapter about Olmsted's other iconic endeavor---New York's Central Park. And here he did find grounds for optimism. Touring the park with a former Commissioner of the city's Depatment of Parks and Recreation, he came away with the impression that this "deliberate, democratic experiment" (Olmsted again) worked, and continues to do so, offering an escape from the pressures of urban life to anyone and everyone. He observed an unforced, comfortable mingling of all sorts of strangers, including a Harlem sixth-grader and his little brother who, after Horwitz had given him a brief history of Olmsted's creation, advised him to "Tell Fred he did good".
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LibraryThing member InfoQuest
In this half-travelogue-half-history, Horwitz explores the American South of 2016 and relates the antebellum impressions of Frederick Olmsted, as they follow the same routes through a region unlike their Northern experiences. I was unfamiliar with Olmsted, who later became the architect of NYC's Central Park, among other great landscapes, so it was intriguing to learn more about this fascinating historical figure, as well as about the pre-war Southerners he encountered in his travels. Horwitz also has his own (mis)adventures in the modern era, which I mostly found equally compelling. Like many contemporary nonfiction surveys purporting to explain the current political moment, there's a certain amount of overstatement in this part, but the book as a whole is definitely an intriguing and entertaining read! (This review is based on an e-galley received through Edelweiss.)… (more)
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
Like all of the author’s books, he blends humor, tragedy, history, and his own take on our cultural evolution. In this book he uses a southern journey by the famous landscape architect- Fredrick Law Olstead- a the vehicle and backdrop for a similar journey he undertakes. The result is an informative yet depressing look at the US South through this nation’s history from pre Civil War until present. I have enjoyed Howitz’s book an recommend this one. With his untimely passing we have lost an excellent author.… (more)
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Reading this last book by Horowitz was bittersweet, and since he narrated his own book it was even more special. Following a journey by Frederick Olmstead that he had undertaken between 1852 through 1857 through our southern states, Tony sets out to duplicate this journey as much as was possible. Olmstead took this journey to investigate the slave economy, dispatches he sent back to the Times.

So in-between quotes from Olmstead on his discoveries, we see how much of how little things have changed in the intervening years. As you can imagine much had changed, buildings gone or renovated, previous occupations no longer viable, but Tony dies a great job following his journey as he could. Traveling on the Ohio River by barge, visiting towns, Olmstead had visited, plantations or at least the land where they once stood, San Antonio and the Alamo, Arcadia Southern Louisiana, comparing Olmsteads reflections with his own.

It was the people he talked too, he has the knack of asking the right questions to elicit honest answers, that I most enjoyed. Needless to say in this country if our he ran into some real characters. A man who talked him into going out to the river/swamp at night to try to shoot bars with a crossbow. Hard can reach up to six feet and have huge, sharp teeth and an impaling protuberance on their face. The food he described and the effects of eating such was also humorous. There was much humor here, but none so both funny and frightening as the mule trip through the hill country in Texas that he took on mule with an irascible handler named Buck. Parts just had me giggling.

I also appreciated that he, for the most part, kept his personal opinions out of his discoveries, trusting that the reader was able to form their own opinions. That we are a nation divided by thoughts, beliefs, and the wanted role of our government, a nation of differing opinions is without doubt. After reading this I am more convinced of this than ever. A truly satisfying, informative and entertaining read.

ARC from Edelweiss.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“Olmsted’s initial faith in reasoned discourse had also waned. In the course of his travels, the South’s “leading men” had struck him as implacable: convinced of the superiority of their caste-bound society, intent on expanding it, and utterly contemptuous of the North. “They are a mischievous class—”

In the 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War, a young travel writer by the name of Frederick Law Olmsted, is sent by the fledgling New York Times, to travel extensively through the south, sending back disturbing dispatches of slavery and the fiery rhetoric that came along with it.
The late Tony Horwitz, (he died shortly after this book was published) decided to trace the exact route that Olmsted took, even attempting to use the same modes of transportation, whenever possible- train, riverboat, horseback. Similar in tone, to his wonderful book, Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz chats with many people along the way, getting a feel of the past and the distress of the modern south, where a lot of anger and discontent still fester. Horwitz has an easy style of writing and a great and sometimes biting sense of humor. I think this is the perfect swan song for him.
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LibraryThing member ilovemycat1
Tony Horwitz recreates the journey that Frederick Law Olmsted took through the South as a travel reporter for the NY Times 160 years ago. He recreates the journey as the journeyman himself, although, the road he is searching for is often now a developed subdivision, the historic site is now in the midst of a strip mall or the public means of transportation is long gone. But, Tony makes do, and has written a wonderful book drawing on the parallels of Olmsted's trip and speaking with as many people as he can to draw a picture of the views of modern day Southerners. Highlights were the times he was accompanied by his brother and his friend from Australia. They were laugh out loud funny.

I am very distressed to learn via this page that Tony Horwitz died while promoting this book. He was an extremely gifted writer, with an eclectic set of interests that allowed him, it seems to me, to make a life pursuing those interests and have us come along for the trip. He was way too young. My deepest condolences to his family.
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LibraryThing member untraveller
Actually, this book was not very interesting. Being reasonably familiar with the areas described in the journey, I found the characters dull and boring. Being a mudder from Arkansas does not make a person interesting. Having read four of Horwitz’ books, I found this to be easily his least enjoyable. Sorry to hear that it was also his last....Finished 29.05.2020 at the NR.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
wonderful book he writes very well and accurately about the south - my wife and i drove this area many times. he writes about texas very well



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