By Carrie Allen Tipton
When speaking of the South in the movie Sweet Home Alabama, Reese Witherspoon declared, “People need a passport to come down here.” She captured what many may think: that the region can seem so distant from the rest of the U.S. that it constitutes another country, maybe another planet.
The latest book attempting to understand this alien land is the late Tony Horwitz’s Spying on the South, a travelogue that effectively proves Witherspoon’s point. The author retraces the Southern travels of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Manhattan’s Central Park and the Biltmore Estate grounds. From 1852 to 1854, Olmsted boated, legged and mule-rode his way through what would soon become the Confederacy. His frequent dispatches back up North were published in The New-York Daily Times (later The New York Times) and collected into books. Horwitz structures his own two-year sojourn around Olmsted’s dispatches, starting in West Virginia coal country and ending along the Rio Grande.
Olmsted concluded his 19th-century Southern tour scandalized by slavery and rabid individualism but remained hopeful for an enlightened, communally-minded South built on a free-labor economy. One hundred and seventy years later, Horwitz chronicles the gap between Olmsted’s hopes and the contemporary Southern reality. In Horwitz’s humane voice, the book highlights both the triumphs and tragedies of this vast and diverse region. The result is not a feel-good book about casseroles and magnolias; instead, Horwitz finds much to lament. He powerfully describes the South’s fractured relationships to its natural resources, decline of manufacturing jobs, legacy of violent westward expansionism and a certain insulated demographic that believes itself perpetually besieged by external threats.
However, Horwitz simultaneously discovers beautiful landscapes, real hospitality, vibrant folk traditions, evidence of compassionate communities and increasing honesty about the trauma of slavery. In true Horwitz style, he intersperses humor with journalistic heft, recounting his participation in a “mudding” festival immediately following his bleakly accurate descriptions of slavery on Louisiana plantations. Spying on the South shows over and over again that the South is a complicated place that must never stop reckoning with its past.
As a raconteur, Horwitz hits his stride when he adopts Olmsted’s modes of transit (mule, barge and riverboat rides are especially memorable) or stays in the same location for a while, as when he spent a week embedded in the political scene of Crockett, Texas. Otherwise, the sheer volume of brief anecdotes and fleeting interactions can be overwhelming. The point-by-point comparisons to Olmsted’s insights at times feel labored, although they do accumulate into a rich and sweeping viewpoint on the region. Explicit acknowledgment of the social privilege afforded by the author’s race felt like an omission given that this subject constitutes a major theme of the book. And everyone except Texans will question the decision to devote nearly half the book to that state—a dubious editorial call even if it does reflect the significance of Olmsted’s own time there.
Nonetheless, this ambitious book is virtuosic in scope and often in execution, with merits far outweighing its flaws. By the end, I came away thinking that “the South” can metaphorically refer to the large swath of disaffected Americans, regardless of geographical location, that feels alienated by modernity. When I heard Horwitz speak at Nashville’s Parnassus Books on May 21, he said as much, acknowledging that the real divide he perceives in our country is the gap between rural and urban worldviews.
Tony Horwitz was the right person to take on both the grueling travel and the difficult reckoning with broad historical and social themes required of this project. A Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist who reported from multiple battle zones, Horwitz also wrote the popular 1988 book Confederates in the Attic, combining ethnography, history and superb storytelling to recount the lingering impact of Lost Cause mythology on the Southern psyche. Additionally, Horwitz was a native Northerner, as well as a long-term Virginia resident. His insider-outsider perspectives on the South resonate throughout the book—affection for the region and concern for the unity of the nation permeates his critiques.
While on book tour May 28, Horwitz died unexpectedly at the age of 60. Spying on the South is, therefore, his last gift to us, and it is a profound one. It should be required reading for those who seek to understand the South—whether from within or without.
Spying on the South is one of our 2019 summer reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.