I love Tony Horwitz’s nonfiction. He has a simple formula: he picks some interesting, underappreciated bit of history, then explores the modern day geography. The result is a mix of travelogue and history as Horwitz interweaves his own adventures with the history. His best known work is Confederates in the Attic, which I will eventually get around to covering here. I was beyond overjoyed when I saw that he was returning to the South.
Spying on the South retraces the steps of Frederick Olmstead on a pre-Civil War trip through the South. (It wasn’t my focus or his, but Horwitz’s portrait of a young Olmstead, well before his days as a famed landscape artists, is delightful.) Horwitz alternates historical tidbits with his own misadventures. I said travelogue, but that undersells it. How many travelogues include one leg by coal barge and another by mule? The real joy of these sections are the people Horwitz meets along the way. He treats them with dignity and humanity, and their disparate stories will do far more to flesh out hillbillies and white working class Americans for the person who entry to the field was Hillbilly Elegy than a work like, say, Appalachian Reckoning.
I should make clear, though, that this is not a work that primarily focuses on hillbillies. Horwitz starts in West Virginia, but he also spends time in Kentucky, Tennessee, along the Mississippi, in Louisiana, Texas, and on the Texas-Mexico border. I was disappointed to learn that Horwitz only covers the there (not the back again) of Olmstead’s second trip. He leaves out, then, stops in Chattanooga, Asheville, and Abingdon that would have been of particular interest to me. And I loved the book, but the West Virginia chapter makes me really wish Horwitz had written a book on Appalachia and the Rust Belt instead.
Olmstead made his journeys through the South a mere decade before the Civil War. It wasn’t a pleasure trip: he sent regular dispatches back to New York for newspaper publication, and he collected and edited those dispatches into a three-volume book (since Horwitz skips the return journey with its long leg through Appalachia, I’m going to pick up the third volume, A Journey in the Back Country). Olmstead intended to foster dialogue in a country sharply divided; instead he came to see the South as intransigent and became radicalized (he would later moderate and arguably betray his principles by designed segregated spaces in the South).
As the subtitle suggests, Horwitz also takes an odyssey across the American divide. His experience writing Confederates in the Attic notwithstanding, Horwitz is open about how little he knows about the territory he covers, especially Texas. The people he meets are very much foreign to him—culturally, politically, and economically.
Spying on the South seems well-timed, and it is, but it isn’t directly a response to Trump. Horwitz sets off on his journey in West Virginia before the 2016 primaries even started. This is a good reminder that Trump is not sui generis. There is a lot happening in this country that won’t stop happening when he exits its political stage. As the narrative and timeline progress, Trump begins to intrude, but Horwitz does an admirable job not using him as a crutch.
This is Horwitz’s most political and most pessimistic book, but it still has everything that makes his other books so special. The coal barge highlights “a good living for country boys” where they “can still work from the neck down.” A sojourn at a weekend devoted to mudding and Horwitz’s misadventures on a mule are enormously entertaining. Horwitz humanizes the people of the Red States he crosses throughout (a mortal sin in the eyes of the sort of Leftists Horwitz compares to Wahhabists). Among other things, Horwitz’s narrative highlights the cultural diversity of the Red States. West Virginia is very different than Cajun Louisiana is very different than rural east Texas is very different from the Texas-Mexico border. The focus is rural, with cities like Nashville and Houston getting short shrift. The economic contrast between the rural Appalachia and South and the cities of Texas is stark.
Horwitz works hard to see the best in people, but the South has an ugly history with race, in a place where “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Horwitz goes on plantation tours that somehow manage to avoid any mention of slavery in Mississippi and is subjected to racial slurs by Texans who insist there is a camp of Muslim insurgents in their rural county (Horwitz, who worked extensively in the Middle East as a journalist, offers to go check it out). His story of a slaveholder who attempted to join in political reform after the Civil War ends in the slaughter of dozens of African-Americans.
Spying on the South may not be Horwitz’s most enjoyable book, but it is his most relevant to what I am doing here. It is the sort of book that the working class-curious neophyte ought to read, and early. Even if you aren’t so culturally oblivious, you are sure to learn something from the history side.
4.5 of 5 Stars.