The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wanders Dixie in search of what makes it so intractably un-American.
Picking up, in a sense, where Confederates in the Attic (1998) left off, Horwitz (Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, 2011, etc.) follows a fruitful trail in the footsteps of one-time journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled through the South reporting on the region for the precursor to the New York Times before reinventing himself as "a visionary architect of New York's Central Park, among many other spaces." Olmsted found a land bent on racial suppression, even as blacks and whites lived side by side, as well as one on the brink of civil war; Horwitz wonders how much things have changed since then. He discovered plenty of difference. For example, in West Virginia, a state that seceded from secession to rejoin the Union, the author passed time with coal miners who have been perfectly happy to destroy their almost-heaven while complaining that federal environmental scientists "find a puddle in your yard and call it a wetland." Like Olmsted, Horwitz's circuitous path took him along the Mississippi River and into Texas, perhaps the most schizophrenic of states today. As the resident of one East Texas town told him, after the author witnessed one scene after another of casual racism punctuated by an oddly easy mixing of black and white residents, the place is "somewhere between Mayberry and Deliverance." Horwitz seldom reaches deep; his book is casually observed and travelogue-ish ("Eagle Pass was no longer a mud-and-whiskey bedlam at the edge of the American frontier"), more Paul Theroux than de Tocqueville. Still, one can't help but notice that the things that occupied Olmsted's attention haven't changed much in the years since the earlier traveler toured a region that sometimes defies description.
Not as sprightly as some of the author's past reports from the fringes but provocative and well worth reading.
Timely . . . A valuable work that combines biography, history and travelogue. . . . Horwitz is a smooth writer and an even better reporter (hardly surprising, given that he won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at The Wall Street Journal), and he recounts his travels with insight interspersed with humor, as well as with an intermittent raising of the eyebrows at numerous oddities and occasional evils.” —The New York Times Book Review
“In Horwitz’s writing, past and present collide and march together on almost every page, prying our minds open with the absurdity, hilarity and humanity we encounter. Olmsted spent nine months traveling 4,000 miles and then wrote hundreds of pages about it; Horwitz spent two years revisiting his paths, his ideas and his psyche, capturing the story in 414 pages of sparkling prose.” — David Blight, The Washington Post
“A compelling report on the state of our present disunion.” —Wall Street Journal
“I've been waiting for Tony Horwitz to write another big on-the-road book that crisscrosses the American cultural divide . . . Spying on the South is every bit as enlightening and alive with detail, absurdity and colorful characters as Confederates in the Attic was.” —NPR
"He was the rare historian—the only historian I can think of—equally at home in the archive and in an interview, a dedicated scholar, a devoted journalist." —Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
“Horwitz’s excellence as a writer and reporter unearths forgotten chapters of history while making fascinating present-day discoveries.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Horwitz is an amiable narrator who marries a journalist’s knack for scene-setting and chatting folks up with the ability to tell a good historical tale.” —BookPage
“A tour is only as good as its guide, and Horwitz is a seasoned one—inquisitive, open-minded, and opting for observation over judgment, whether at a dive bar, monster truck rally, the Creation Museum, or a historical plantation. The book will appeal to fans of travelogue, Civil War–era history, and current events by way of Southern sensibilities.” —Booklist
“Horwitz brings humor, curiosity, and care to capturing the voices of the larger-than-life characters he encounters. A huge canvas of intricate details, this thoughtful and observant work delicately navigates the long shadow of America’s history.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“With the keen eye and deft pen that he's long brought to telling the odd and wonderful and fascinating story of America, Tony Horwitz has returned to familiar territory—the South—to give us a unique piece of reportage from a region that tells us a whole lot more about the country than the country sometimes wants to admit. Like his classic Confederates in the Attic, this book will be read, remembered, and treasured.” —Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian and author of The Soul of America
“Tony Horwitz’s reporting is fearless and persistent and inspired—and it produces views of America like no one else’s. Spying on the South kept me turning the pages to see what frightening and funny revelation was coming next. An important book for our almost unprecedented moment in history.” —Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and Travels in Siberia
“In the long dark years before the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted toured the South by stage, by boat, by train, and by foot, reporting on a nation unraveling. Tony Horwitz does much more than follow in Olmsted’s footsteps in this searching travel narrative: he chronicles an American agony, the pain of division, the anguish of uncertainty. But he finds, too, an enduring American spirit of generosity, and commonweal, and curiosity.” —Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
“Two journeys, a hundred and sixty years apart, remind us that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In the midst of our country’s long-overdue reckoning with symbols of white supremacy, Tony Horwitz retraces the steps of America’s greatest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, whose encounters with slavery forced him to rethink the role of civic spaces in the American experiment. Horwitz brings home a magnificent account of who we have been and what we might still become.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Stony the Road
“Having grown up amidst the Emerald Necklace, having lived off the northern fringes of Central Park and later the western edge of its rangier cousin, Prospect, and having read Devil In the White City, I truly did not know there were any more astonishments left in the life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Leave it to the incomparable Tony Horwitz to reveal Olmsted’s secret life as a journalistic super-spy, peering not merely into the burgeoning Confederacy, but, as Horowitz poignantly observes, a cultural divide with which we are still reckoning.” —John Hodgman, author of Vacationland
“In the 1850s, Yankees saw the South as a foreign country and the New York Times sent Frederick Law Olmsted on an undercover mission to interpret it for readers. It was a daring and inspired move, and so is Tony Horwitz’s retracing of Olmsted’s path from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. Spoiler alert, things don’t always go well for our dauntless guide, but they sure do for the reader. This is one of the smartest, funniest, and most illuminating books about the South and Texas, and about our own divided times, I’ve had the pleasure to read.” —Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage, The Big Rich and Public Enemies
In his new travelog through the American Southwest, Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) follows in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted, who reported on the South in the 1850s for New York newspapers. Here, Horwitz recounts many memorable people and experiences, including a ride on a slow-moving coal barge on the Ohio River, a weekend of mud racing in Louisiana, an ill-fated trip by mule across Texas, and a visit to adjoining border towns in Texas and Mexico. Similar to Olmsted, who was writing on the eve of the Civil War, many of Horwitz's conversations turned to politics. The author traveled during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign and encountered many disaffected rural voters excited by the candidacy of Donald Trump. These impressions are exaggerated by the little attention Horwitz gives to urban areas and the relatively few number of accounts of African Americans. Horwitz is a skilled writer, and his vignettes are compelling to read. Yet, without a more consistent thread tying these observations together, the looming 2016 election becomes the most compelling theme. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in a selective but engaging glimpse into modern life in the rural South. [See Prepub Alert, 11/19/18.]—Nicholas Graham, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill