Nonfiction: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by Tony Horwitz

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.

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Nonfiction: The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

That is a mighty audacious title, self-consciously placing The New Mind of the South as a successor to W.J. Cash’s seminal The Mind of the South.

Thompson gives two catalysts for writing this book.  First, she discovers that one of her ancestors was a Union sympathizer.  As someone who grew up in southern Appalachia hearing (inflated) stories about how much Union support up there, I was a bit bemused at her overreaction.  Thompson’s second catalyst is the disappearance of sorts of the South.  This is certainly true, but only to a point.  W.J. Cash’s closing paragraph still rings true today.  Thompson sees the South as defined by, first and foremost, two cultural institutions: slavery and evangelical Protestantism.  The small fact that slavery no longer exists does little to lessen its influence today.  The ruts and scars are still there.  The South has always been religious, and even as the ubiquity of religion has faded its intensity has grown.

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