Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz

Horwitz, Tony. Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide   Penguin, 2019.

Book review by Katherine Allocco (Western Connecticut State University)

Tony Horwitz’s last book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, tells two stories. First, he recounts details of Frederick Law Olmsted’s two journeys across the Southern States in the 1850s. Second, Horwitz narrates his own travels through the South during Barack Obama’s second term as he tries to replicate Olmsted’s path. Horwitz examines the cultural development of American regionalism during the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries and draws constant parallels between the divisions and prejudices of Olmsted’s era and our own.

Book cover to Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz

Throughout his journey, Horwitz attempts to travel similar routes and in similar means- via barge, steamboat, trains and mules- as Olmsted had. Using Olmsted’s published travel journals as his guide, he begins in West Virginia, then travels through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana on his way to Texas. Along the way, he stops at sites mentioned in Olmsted’s book and talks to as many people as he can. Although Horwitz can tell that the strangers he meets in bars and restaurants and churches and boats are initially suspicious of his motives because he is a self-labelled “liberal Yankee Jew” and that they tend to make it clear that they hold views very different than his own, nonetheless, the people he encounters treat him with hospitality and friendliness that impresses him and enriches his reporting. Although people joke that he must be “spying on the South”, Horwitz searches for commonalities and shows no desire in stoking our divisive culture war.

Horwitz has written a genuinely non-judgmental book. He reports on monster truck rallies in the mud, speed boat drag races, plantation tours, gun shows and his personal consumption of more fried food than he had probably eaten in his whole lifetime. Horwitz has no interest in treating the southerners and Texans he encounters as foreign or other. Although he is concerned with the divisiveness that characterizes our time, he does not seek to assign blame to any one group. Rather, he speaks openly and honestly with the people he meets and he trusts everyone he encounters. He fearlessly jumps into strangers’ cars and travels with them to remote campgrounds or across the border into Mexico. He trick-or-treats with a family he had just met while dressed as a traditional cowboy. He helps keep time at a Republican town meeting and attends a service at an historically black church in New Orleans. Throughout his journeys, he learns a great deal about the United States, broadening his appreciation of American culture.

Along the way, Horwitz encounters sites that Olmsted had visited during the antebellum era and consults his letters and journals in hopes of uncovering the sentiments and experiences that Olmsted had chronicled. Horwitz interjects stories of Olmsted’s own struggles and challenges in his career and as a Yankee traveler disgusted with slavery and hostile to the slave holding culture he encountered. Horwitz tried to understand how the three years he spent traveling through the rough territory of swamp, desert and prairie shaped Olmsted’s projects and worldview. Although Olmsted’s story is certainly secondary to Horwitz’s own, the book ends with Horwitz wandering through Central Park in New York City looking for evidence of Olmsted’s southern odyssey in the designs of the park. As Horwitz ponders the implications of the 2016 election, he also reflects on his own relationship with Central Park, measuring it against Olmsted’s desires to create an oasis in the giant metropolis for the placid reflection and escape of New Yorkers. Horwitz happily notes that most people he encounters in the park seem to demonstrate Olmsted’s vision as diverse groups of Americans and travelers relax together and interact without hostility.

Spying on the South is a joy to read. Horwitz’s engaging writing style, his honesty and the wonderfully optimistic reporting on our divided and broken country will make any reader smile. This book would work well in an American Studies class. It is, however, a very personal travelogue designed for a general audience rather than the classroom.

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