Sunday, September 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Spying on the South

When I was a boy, one of my great aunts gave me a paperback copy of The Slave States before the Civil War, an abridged version of Frederick Law Olmsted's travels through the antebellum South in the 1850s. I kept that book and finally read it with great interest many years later while in graduate school. I still have that old book in my library and have referred to it on several occasions due to its excellent insights. Therefore, I was naturally happy to hear earlier this year that journalist/author/historian Tony Horwitz was publishing a book based on Olmsted's travels. The book's pre-release heralded the volume much in the spirit of one Horwitz's previous books, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Having found Confederates in the Attic a fun yet thought-provoking read, I eagerly dove into Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide.

In this, Horwitz's latest and last book (he unfortunately passed away in May, just a couple of weeks after its release), he attempts to follow Olmstead's routes through the South. However, not only does he follow Olmsted's paths, he also attempts (when possible) to travel by means of transportation as his precursor did. Naturally, that was practically impossible for travel on conveyances such as stagecoach. But, when Olmsted traveled by a certain means, Horwitz tried to, too. For example, from Wheeling, West Virginia, Horwitz received permission to go by way of a coal barge.

Like Olmsted before, Horwitz used his travel to gather insight into a divided America. Along his routes Horwitz engages people from many different walks of life and occupations, and of course, from various socioeconomic, educational levels, and political bents. Through his travels Horwitz deftly weaves in Olmsted's experiences and writings. And whereas Olmsted commented on the primary issue dividing the country in his time (slavery), Horwitz converses with Americans from Maryland to western Texas on a host of divisive political issues including climate change, crime, gun rights, perceptions of so-called liberals and conservatives of each other, and a host of others.

At times hilarious, at others quite sad, but always provoking the reader to think, Horwitz shares his adventures of sharing quarters with the Ohio River coal barge workers, traveling on a high-line Mississippi River steamboat cruise, attending a mud bog race in Louisiana, chatting with locals in a number of local bars, sitting in on political meetings in East Texas, and crossing part of the West Texas plains by way of a challenging mule and with a crusty guide. Like Olmsted, Horwitz seems to gain a great deal of useful knowledge from his travels. Olmsted used his experiences to write pieces for what became the New York Times, which helped shape northern perceptions of the South at the time. He also incorporated many of the landscapes and plants he encountered into his later work in monumental landscape architecture projects like New York City's Central Park and Vanderbilt's Biltmore. Horwitz's experience gives us this book, Spying on the South, which challenges us to try to understand and remember that not everyone sees the world as you or I do.

Written in a way that encourages one to learn more, several in our book club at work mentioned that Spying on the South prompted them to read other books on subjects that both Olmsted and Horwitz mention. I fully concur! After concluding this book I read Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 by Andrew J. Torget.

I think that if Horwitz could learn that his book led people to read more, he would break out into his well known friendly grin. I highly recommend Spying on the South. It is fun to read, written as a true page turner, while at the same time being intellectually stimulating.

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