Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz
Tony Horwitz’s final book, Spying on the South, follows two “routes.” The first is a fascinating look at a young Frederick Law Olmstead, a mini biography if you will, as Horwitz follows his Southern travels in the 1850s. The second examines and compares the present South as it has evolved—or not—from its early roots.
Before he gained prominence as the architect of Central Park in New York City and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Olmstead was a roving correspondent for the New-York Daily News. He took note of the slang term, “Gone to Texas,” a common term in the South in the mid-19th Century. The phrase, or G.T.T., “was almost equivalent, when added to a man’s name, to branding him a swindler, defaulter, lawless ruffian, or ’scape gallows,” Olmstead wrote under the pseudonym “Yeoman,” which held two meanings for him. It was common for Northerners to travel incognito while in the slave states. The assumed name also spoke to Olmstead’s agrarian roots as “He was a proudly independent tiller of the land, on sabbatical from his farmstead, touring the plantation South and following the trail of those ‘Gone to Texas.’”
Olmstead sought to gather a “reliable understanding of the sentiments and hopes & fears” of Southerners. After two separate journeys that took him from Maryland to Texas, numerous newspaper stories, and three books (the latter under his name), his work was praised but not commercially successful. Nor did he achieve his goal of “promot[ing] the mutual acquaintances of the North and the South” through rational discourse. He found that “the South’s ‘leading men’ had struck him as implacable: convinced of the superiority of their caste-based society, intent on expanding it, and utterly contemptuous of the North.” They were “the dangerous class at the present of the United States.”
While culling the remnants of his college library and papers, Horwitz found his copy of The Cotton Kingdom, a 1953 abridgement of Olmstead’s three books. Arthur Schlesinger called it a “uniquely candid and realistic picture of the pre-Civil War South.” Re-reading a few passages, Horwitz was hooked. He researched those old news articles and began to see a picture of the similarities between the Antebellum South and the modern divide between red and blue states and the people who lived in them. Soon, he was G.T.T.
“As Yeoman, Olmstead’s essential subject matter had been freedom or the absence of it. [The South] was an entire society chained to a system that inhibited free labor, free expression, and the flourishing of free enterprise and fine institutions,” Horwitz writes. After the Civil War “the central quest of his travels and writings endured in his landscape design. As the Brooklyn park essay stated: ‘A sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.’”
Each chapter of Spying on the South recounts a specific portion of Olmstead’s journeys with a brief description of his mode of travel and what he saw and learned from conversations with the locals, often found at a bar. Horwitz follows these journeys as closely as possible: he rides a coal barge down the Ohio River and a paddlewheel steamer down the Mississippi, and he, too, spends time in bars. “Parallel journeys, 160 years apart: what he saw then, and what I’d see now. No bookings. No itinerary. Just a ramble across America with a long-dead Fred as my guide.” Like Olmstead, he “relied upon ‘such chance acquaintance as one may hit upon,’” as the best way to learn.
Spying on the South is written with style and humor marked by thorough research through the eyes of both Olmstead and Horwitz. Horwitz complements his observations by searching original documents before and during his trips, incorporating statistical information and reading materials suggested by those he met along the way.
Much has changed in the South; other things remain stubbornly entrenched. Race relations are better on the individual level, but still severely strained in the aggregate. Levels of poverty are not as widespread, but nowhere near elimination. The slavery of the Antebellum South does not exist, but access to economic freedom is not available to all. In short, the American South is not so different from the remainder of the United States.
Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, collapsed and died on May 27 while walking in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in the midst of his book tour. Writing for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker at various times, he was distinguished for frequently embedding himself into vivid and accurate reporting, both characteristics vividly displayed in Spying. He is survived by Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist in her own right, two children, and a host of loyal fans.