Ahead of Lawrence visit, Pulitzer winner discusses the ‘American Divide’

photo by: Contributed Photo

Award-winning author Tony Horwitz is pictured with his alpacas on the property he owns with his wife, author Geraldine Brooks, in West Tisbury, Mass.

If Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz’s 1998 bestseller, “Confederates in the Attic,” trained a magnifying glass on a still-divided American South more than 130 years after the Civil War, then his latest work, “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide,” aims to employ a microscope for a similar task 20 years later.

In “Spying on the South,” Horwitz follows in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted, a journalist who later found greater fame as the country’s premier landscape architect.

In the mid-1850s, Olmsted journeyed for 14 months by horse, stagecoach and steamboat, conversing with Southerners at both ends of the racial, social and socioeconomic spectrum at the behest of the New York Daily Times (now The New York Times) to research the impact of slavery on the economy and social conditions of the region.

His dispatches to the newspaper — published under a pseudonym, “Yeoman,” and later collected into three volumes — revealed that slavery was not efficient, not profitable except for a very few, and certainly not moral.

That journey, remarkable enough in its findings, made a further significant mark on Olmsted and still further on the American landscape.

Disturbed by the class system he found in the Cotton States, Olmsted drew upon those feelings in creating Central Park in New York and the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., as places of and for the people – all the people.

Horwitz, also a journalist by trade, having worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker and as a foreign correspondent, had no media company commissioning his reports from his travels across the South, but his findings about the polarization that persists today promise to be no less revealing.

For “Spying on the South,” Horwitz followed Olmsted’s routes and often used similar modes of transportation, traveling through Appalachia, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, into bayou country in Louisiana, and across Texas to the Mexican border. What he found is not so much that “the South will rise again” as perhaps that the habits and horrors of the prewar and wartime South never really died.

Horwitz will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. May 23 at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. The event is sponsored by the Lawrence Public Library and the Raven Book Store, which will have copies of “Spying on the South” for sale at the event. In advance of his visit, Horwitz answered a few questions for the Journal-World.

Q: “Spying on the South” seems like a reconnaissance mission bent on gaining intel that’s crucial to saving the republic. If that’s a fair description, what did you learn on your mission?

A: I was certainly on a reconnaissance, but gaining intel “crucial to saving the republic” sounds way too grand. I’m not a super-spy or wannabe savior. Just a writer who was very intrigued by what Frederick Law Olmsted saw in the 1850s South and what I’d see if I retraced his journey in our own era of national division.

Q: Olmsted probably didn’t consider his exploration of the South futile, but the notion that it was worthy of being followed up on more than 160 years later suggests that it might have been. Do you think it was? And what of your journey; did you find any reason to be hopeful that Americans can ever bridge this seemingly widening cultural chasm?

A: Olmsted’s exploration wasn’t by any means futile. His dispatches and books educated readers about the lives and beliefs of Southerners, from all walks of life, and were a wake-up call to a nation on the verge of violent fracture.

His journey also crystallized his own beliefs and ambitions, propelling him to (the creation of) Central Park and a career as America’s greatest landscape architect.

I felt this subject was worthy of revisiting because it explains a great deal about the lead-up to the Civil War and about Olmsted’s development. Also, attempting, as he did, to cross geographic and ideological divides to understand how others think and feel seemed like a relevant project in an era when we too often view our fellow citizens through stereotype.

As to our widening “chasm,” it’s both real and overstated. No question we’re more polarized than at any time since the 1960s. But on a personal and individual level, it’s not hard to connect and discover our commonalities as Americans.

That sort of interaction, which I had across the South, doesn’t solve our problems. But it’s a reminder that we’re still capable of civil discourse, that most Americans want to get along, and that our national politics – and media ranters – exaggerate and inflame our differences.

Q: Kirkus Reviews, among others, suggests that “Confederates in the Attic” and “Spying on the South” are kind of like bookends on the subject of the South. Do you agree? Was that in your head when you began mapping out or writing “Spying”? How do you see the relationship between the two books, if you see one at all?

A: There are similarities to “Confederates in the Attic,” in that I’m traveling the South and exploring both its past and present, while having some antic adventures.

But as I first conceived of “Spying on the South,” it felt fresh. First, because I’d be following Olmsted and his life rather than wandering like an unguided missile. And second, because the territory I’d be covering was different from before, when I focused on the core Confederate states and Civil War sites east of the Mississippi.

This time I traversed Appalachia, the upper South, Mississippi Valley, Louisiana, and a great deal of Texas, all the way to the Rio Grande.

Also, historically, I was looking more at the 1850s, slavery, and the looming crisis than at the Civil War itself. These subjects are closely related, and there was inevitably overlap with “Confederates,” for instance when I visited slave plantations. But overall, I cover quite different ground in the two books. Call them first cousins, once removed.

Q: Why are we drawn to the South? What makes its history so compelling and its past so informative to our present (and, arguably, our future)?

A: I’ve been drawn to the South ever since I became a Civil War nut as a young child, while growing up in the D.C. area and often visiting Virginia. Over time, I migrated from boyhood obsession with battles and leaders to adult fascination with the South in all its aspects.

The region and its history speak to so much of the American story, including our ongoing conflicts over race and the essential question of whether we’re really one country.

Also, I just love being in the South. A lot of stereotypes about the region don’t hold, but it is true that Southerners tend to be colorful talkers who are open and hospitable to strangers. And you rarely have to dig too deep before hitting rich veins of history. These and other qualities are catnip for a writer like me.

Q: Where do you want to go next?

A: I don’t have a clue. Four years of intensive research and writing, on any topic, is extremely draining. When I finish a book, I need a year or so to refill the well, not to mention reacquainting myself with family, dogs, and neighbors.

So for the moment I want to go … nowhere. Check back about the middle of 2020!

– Sharon Bishop-Baldwin can be reached at shmaryon@gmail.com.


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