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Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the…

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide (2019)

by Tony Horwitz

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1548121,908 (4)30
"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"--… (more)



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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. ( )
  Alphawoman | Oct 23, 2019 |
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.

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.

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.

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. ( )
  nbmars | Sep 11, 2019 |
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. ( )
1 vote Othemts | Sep 10, 2019 |
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. ( )
  Beamis12 | Sep 1, 2019 |
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". ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | Jul 29, 2019 |
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