The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In his last book, Tony Horwitz sets out once more to find America

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David Blight is a professor of American history at Yale and the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

On Tuesday, May 28, I was riding an early-morning train into New York from my home in Connecticut to attend the Pulitzer Prize awards luncheon. I had Tony Horwitz’s new book, “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide,” on my lap, his toothy smile staring up at me. I began to outline this review for The Washington Post when I received a brief email informing me that Horwitz had suddenly died on Monday at age 60 in Washington, D.C., from an apparent heart attack. He was to appear the next day at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, the city where he was born and raised.

A unique voice had gone silent. The man who could make anyone talk to him, even when in bitter disagreement, would talk no more. But Horwitz is hardly silent. His astonishing works of history and journalism about the nation and the world in our time will stand as the creation of one of our great writers.

Forever a wanderer, Horwitz told the stories of either his own remarkable journeys or those of famous travelers. In “One for the Road: Hitchhiking Through the Australian Outback” (1987), he produced a beer-drinking ethnography of the people one meets in the Outback’s expanses and its distinct cultures. In “Devil May Care: Fifty Intrepid Americans and Their Quest for the Unknown” (2003), he illuminated the famous and the hardly known hikers and explorers of American lore. In “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World” (2008), Horwitz moved into early American history and traced the adventures of the Vikings, conquistadors and various colonists who made the Americas their dreamscapes and their graveyards. In “Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before” (2002), Horwitz sailed the Pacific to grasp and experience the seas and the routes of the famous mariner. Horwitz was as bold as his subjects, and he wrote about them with a rare humanity.

Horwitz won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting at the Wall Street Journal, where he was also a foreign correspondent in Europe and the Middle East. In his book “Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia” (1991), Horwitz wrote about the Arab world with a keen eye, and he demonstrated his chops as a war correspondent. In a chapter called “Bodies,” he took readers to the front of the Iran-Iraq War and its horrific aftermath. In a voice comparable to all great war writers, he described the war zone east and north of Basra, Iraq. “Wars have a way of finding inhospitable terrain,” he wrote. “The plain . . . is a treeless expanse of grit and marsh, torched by searing winds. Winter was the season for slaughter. In summer, when the temperature hovered at 120 degrees, small arms became too hot to handle and tank drivers risked being cooked in their metal canisters.”

In all of his books, Horwitz practiced participant journalism as a traveling reporter, as well as doing deep archival research. While he was working on “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War” (2011), I had the privilege of spending a day with him around Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, W.Va., observing artifacts and tracing the steps of Old Man Brown. Horwitz advanced his own interpretation of Brown: the hero as a hapless strategist with a “readiness to die” in order to cause a shock that would foment conflict between North and South over slavery’s future. The “manifest implausibility” of Brown’s suicidal scheme at the federal arsenal, Horwitz suggested, meant that the abolitionist sought and made his own martyrdom. For legions of readers fascinated with Brown’s peculiar place in American history, Horwitz’s book is the best place to start.

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War” (1998) is Horwitz’s most well-known book. An instant classic, it is a masterpiece of ground-level detective work and storytelling about just how much Americans, especially in the South, have forged a popular culture of Civil War remembrance — sometimes with a certain hilarious innocence but sometimes with dangerous racist and social ends. The book is too often seen as a study of the phenomenon of reenactors, but it is much more, as I have discovered over and over again by teaching it with undergraduates.

The book is a window on late-1990s America, the post-Ken Burns “Civil War” era when popular interest in America’s military and racial Armageddon experienced a wide revival. What Horwitz found were the reasons for that revival among all manner of real people — at battlefields, in trailer parks, schools, bars and town squares. It boiled down to the fact that many Americans love their Civil War a bit too much, turning it into the “Civil Wargasm” that Horwitz uncovered by getting many eccentric people to talk honestly about their lives and their passion for a sentimental 19th-century bloodbath.

But he also found that many Americans just cannot get over their racism; they cherish their tribal beliefs in worn-out versions of the Lost Cause tradition. At the turn of 21st century we were a culture with persistently irreconcilable notions of the meaning of our Civil War. “Confederates” was written with such a raucous sense of humor that readers both loved and resented it, a measure of success on this topic. In the countless interviews he conducted for his many books, Horwitz deftly walked a delicate line between revealing, lampooning and respecting his subjects. Always, he made them real.

In “Spying on the South,” Horwitz may have found his true historical alter-ego in Frederick Law Olmsted, the elite Northeastern adventurer and prolific writer about the American South in the 1850s who later became America’s great landscape artist and designer of parks all over the United States. Horwitz intensely read and then retraced Olmsted and his routes from Baltimore to the Texas border with Mexico. In the 1850s Olmsted made three journeys across the South, the second of which as a correspondent for the New York Times with the byline “Yeoman.” Olmsted came to hate slavery and its million manifestations in American economic and political life, and no doubt this attracted Horwitz, although Horwitz seems even more drawn to the man who declared himself “born for a traveler.” He quotes liberally from Olmsted’s Whitmanesque quest for the open road and the desire to know the people he encountered: “Traveling about, without definite aim . . . gives me an entirely new appreciation of the attachment of nomad tribes to their mode of life.” These words, Horwitz wrote, “stirred the nomad in myself . . . as a roaming scribe in my own country.”

And roam he does. Like Olmsted before him, Horwitz captures the voices of a wide diversity of Americans most of us never meet. He travels along West Virginia back roads and on an Ohio River flat barge carrying coal. His path takes him through Kentucky, where he visits the Creation Museum, a most bizarre and disturbing place to modern believers in science. One can hardly know whether to laugh or scream as our author takes lunch at Noah’s Café, eating an “Eden Wrap while perusing the museum’s arresting literature.” In quoting a state scientist and critic of the museum, Horwitz began to find a theme for many locations he would visit in what we are now calling “Trump’s America.” Dan Phelps, a geologist and head of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, told Horwitz: “The know-nothingness in this country just seems to be getting stronger. People are proud of their ignorance, and when you challenge it, they fall back on conspiracy theories and fake facts.” But Kentucky, Horwitz assures us, is still as beautiful as Olmsted found it.

In Horwitz’s trek through Louisiana, always on Olmsted’s route, we learn about the slaughter of black voters at Colfax during Reconstruction. The Colfax massacre aimed to restore white supremacy in the state, and Horwitz discovers that today in some regions the ideology is still well restored. On his journeys Olmsted met many slaveholders and came to loathe their system and their craven ideology; Horwitz finds their remnants festering.

Before leaving Louisiana, Horwitz treats us to his experience at the “Louisiana Mudfest,” a tale that has to be read, or perhaps seen, to be believed. Hundreds of people gather to race “monster trucks,” with giant wheels and enormous horsepower, through a 400-acre terrain. In deep mud they drive until they crash, destroy their machines or themselves. Horwitz goes on rides into the pits and comes out alive, probably injured and covered with mud. He meets men and women who are daredevil drunks, who plow their passions, their money and their politics into “mudding.” As one sign on a campsite says, “I’ll keep my freedom, my money, and my guns, you can keep the change.” Horwitz writes that he felt as though he “had been kidnapped by friendly aliens for a joyride in a muddy universe almost opposite of mine.”

Cleaned up, Horwitz is soon “Gone to Texas,” in the 19th-century phrase. In Crockett, where Olmsted spent New Year’s Eve in 1853, Horwitz encounters a place full of Second Amendment fanatics, tax and government haters, and birther bigots, some of whom are adamantly convinced that a piece of property not far from town is a “Muslim compound” training Arab men to attack them. Horwitz drives out to the property and discovers that the place is owned by a doctor from Houston of Pakistani background. As he moves on, Horwitz meets some Texas nationalists and secessionists still working assiduously to leave the American Union, even as they benefit from it.

Horwitz finds the geographical and literary heart of Olmsted’s achievement in the old German immigrant section of the Texas Hill Country, particularly around New Braunfels. He meets all manner of descendants of the original German settlers, as well as deep Texas conservatism. We learn a great deal about Olmsted’s admiration for the migrants he met, their egalitarianism and abolitionism. But it is Horwitz’s mule trip through the beauty and partial wildness of the Hill Country, along the Guadalupe River with a brutal and offensive mule skinner and guide named Buck, that readers will find impossible to forget. In this longest chapter of the book, Horwitz’s difficulty managing the mule and coping with Buck’s insults is an expression of his desire to see and feel what Olmsted saw and felt on his own trek with horse and mule.

Horwitz does see the same landscapes that inspired “Fred,” and as a 21st-century “Rhinestone Jew Boy” (his self-description) he tries comically and almost tragically to embody his 19th-century muse. But after his disastrous and truncated mule ride, Horwitz feels as though he has somehow failed Olmsted. Instead of the enlightened, freethinking Germans of the 1850s, he found “a German heritage embalmed in kitschy commercialism.” By the time Horwitz gives up the Hill Country, he is sick and checks into a hospital, suffering from a concussion caused by a head butt from his recalcitrant mule.

Texan readers of the book will probably debate whether Horwitz captures their diversity — of people and politics, especially in their large and culturally vibrant capital, Austin. His “Loon Star Republic” will get up the hackles of many white Republican Texans who will not like the comparisons to the bigots in Crockett. Horwitz channels not only Olmsted but perhaps Molly Ivins, too.

Farther south, at the towns of Eagle Pass on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande and Piedras Negras on the Mexican side, Horwitz finds another central metaphor of his book: the American immigrant story, our brown, black, white and mixed multiplicity along a border where cultures mingle every day. Ninety-five percent of the residents of the two towns, which share a bridge, speak Spanish. He finds people who are not alienated and angry at their government but desire to embrace and join it. They do not resist or complain about the Constitution but seek its benefits. Horwitz poignantly compares Olmsted’s descriptions of “slave patrols” searching for runaways on the border in 1854 with “border patrols” along a highly militarized boundary in 2017.

In Horwitz’s writing, past and present collide and march together on almost every page, prying our minds open with the absurdity, hilarity and humanity we encounter. Olmsted spent nine months traveling 4,000 miles and then wrote hundreds of pages about it; Horwitz spent two years revisiting his paths, his ideas and his psyche, capturing the story in 414 pages of sparkling prose.

“Spying on the South” ends appropriately in Central Park, where Olmsted left his greatest mark. Horwitz goes on a two-day “ramble” from end to end of the great rocky green space, a swath of nature’s peace in the middle of the giant city. Now he sees what Olmsted sees, and made, in the landscapes that give New Yorkers nature’s peace and save them from one another while letting them thrive right next to each other. In the northern section, Horwitz happens upon two boys on bikes. Of course, he asks them for their feelings about the park. They are wary of the adult questioner, but tell him that they ride there all the time. Horwitz informs the boys about Olmsted’s great work in designing the park. As they ride away, one of them looks back and says, “Tell Fred he did good.”

I had finished reading “Spying on the South” the night before I set out for Columbia University for the Pulitzer luncheon. In April I learned I was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history for my book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” But the ceremony now felt bittersweet. To honor Horwitz, I carried “Spying on the South” with me onstage to receive my award, the cover of the book facing outward for everyone to see.

We might fittingly remember Horwitz as we are remembering Walt Whitman at the poet’s 200th anniversary. “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/ Healthy, free, the world before me,/ The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose . . . / Camerado, I give you my hand!” We can only wish we had the chance to tell this Whitmanesque historian, “Tony, you did good.”

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Tony Horwitz died in Chevy Chase, Md. He died in Washington, D.C. The text has been corrected.

David W. Blight is a professor of American history at Yale and the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

By Tony Horwitz

Penguin Press. 476 pp. $30