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'Spying on the South' review: Tony Horwitz retraces an 1850s journey through the American South

Tony Horwitz, author of

Tony Horwitz, author of "Spying on the South" (Penguin Press, May 2019) Photo Credit: Susan Heilbron

SPYING ON THE SOUTH: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, by Tony Horwitz. Penguin Press, 476 pp., $30.

Most people who remember Frederick Law Olmsted credit him with two magnificent accomplishments: his role in the design and construction of both Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. His legacy lives on in dozens of Olmsted-designed or inspired parks throughout the country.

Olmsted was a complicated man; before he settled on creating parks, he was a farmer, a public health worker and, as a young man, a journalist. In the 1850s Olmsted set out to travel the length of the South, in search of the truth of the region and its stubborn embrace of slavery. His dispatches ran in the New-York Daily Times (The New York Times — the newspaper dropped the "Daily" in 1857) and influenced the course of the debate on abolition and, eventually, the war. By the end of his journey he had embraced the abolitionist movement, supporting an effort to settle West Texas with anti-slavery advocates.

Tony Horwitz, an accomplished journalist and author (“Confederates in the Attic,” “Blue Latitudes”), set out to retrace Olmsted’s journey and record his own 21st century impressions. The result is “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide.” Readers will find many parallels between the journeys and perspectives of the two men.

Horwitz follows, as best he can, Olmsted’s meandering trajectory. Traveling by train, boat, car and mule through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, he drops in on a varied group of communities. He visits hollowed-out West Virginia towns devastated by unemployment and the opioid epidemic, where hard times have turned longtime Democrats toward President Donald Trump. He finds the exuberant Cajuns of southern Louisiana following in their ancestors’ dance steps; in one of many eerie historic parallels, one local informant offered Olmsted this description of the Cajun temperament: “habitually gay and careless, as well as kind-hearted, hospitable and dissolute.” Like Olmsted, Horwitz encounters intractable racism in East Texas.

Along the way, his literary companion, the “long-dead Fred,” makes for wonderful reading. Olmsted could write — humorous, opinionated and vivid, dropping gems of description everywhere. But Olmsted’s position as a well-situated Northerner occasionally blinkered his vision, and to some degree Horwitz follows suit. Olmsted complained about the tacky villages he passed on his river journeys (it’s the frontier, mate), and on a quick visit to Nashville, Horwitz, who calls Martha’s Vineyard home, laments that “Music City felt like a themed, blocks-long mall anchored by familiar brands.” Fair enough, but he skips the city’s beautiful old neighborhoods, its extensive 3,100-acre Warner Parks system and its crown jewel, Vanderbilt University.

Both men are food snobs. Olmsted declaimed at length on his loathing of corn pone, missing the obvious fact that it was the staple of poor people who had nothing else to eat. Horwitz despairs of the unhealthy fare in Southern restaurants, apparently unaware of the regional food renaissance blooming in booming Southern cities like Atlanta and Little Rock, Arkansas.

Horwitz doesn’t linger in multicultural Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, because it was "way too big and complicated to get my arms around as a blow-through traveler.” There are few young adults in his telling, people in their 20s and 30s using their smarts and imaginations in the fields of politics, business and education. He loves the absurd, and he’s willing to venture anywhere in the service of a good story, but when a disaffected traveling companion calls him “the concierge of crap,” I couldn’t disagree.

Horwitz is a dedicated, imaginative reporter and a great raconteur, but this book is one man’s travelogue, not an in-depth report from, as the subtitle puts it, “the other side of the American divide.” Read it for its humor, for Horwitz’s thorough excavation of Southern history and for the delights of Olmsted's own dispatches. For the truth of today’s South, go and see for yourself.

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