Exploring the Soul of the South
SPYING ON THE SOUTH
An Odyssey Across the American Divide
By Tony Horwitz
As brilliant as William Faulkner was, the only lines of his commonly quoted are: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In several books Tony Horwitz has explored that assertion, finding a vehicle that allows him to examine specific aspects of the past and their resonance in the present.
Now, in “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide,” he follows as closely as he can the path taken by Frederick Law Olmsted, who in the early 1850s — long before he thought of designing Central Park or dreamed of having a revolutionary impact on other urban landscapes — traveled through the antebellum South. Olmsted explained what seemed a mysterious society to the Northern readers of The New York Times. He later amended and published his reports as “The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States.”
Olmsted started on his trip a bit of a lost soul, searching for a purpose. His dispatches provided one. He wanted not only to describe the region (he succeeded in portraying both physical and cultural settings almost as well as Audubon painted birds) but also to understand the great divide in the country, hoping that understanding Southern views on slavery would allow men of good will to find common ground and a path to abolition. He had letters of introduction to and met with Southerners of consequence but said, “My best finds were coarse men with whom I could take a glass of Toddy in the barroom” and “third-rate tavern keepers.”
Horwitz has taken the same path to explore today’s great divide(s). Race is one and he explores that, but he is equally interested in the political divide. These divisions, of course, extend far beyond the South, but in the South they tend to be less hidden. The book is timely, though he started it when no one imagined a Trump presidency.
From Cumberland, Md., Horwitz followed Olmsted’s journey as closely as possible, west and south into Appalachia. Early on he visited a West Virginia bar where a waitress quickly identified him as a “Yankee boy spying on us hillbillies.” But he passed few judgments — at least not while actually on the trip — and only rarely did his obvious outsider status interfere with his mission or provoke hostility. Rather, his honest curiosity got people to open up. As they did, we learn about them, their lives and their communities.
Like Olmsted, Horwitz traveled by boat, train and other means. He went down the Ohio River on a towboat pushing 15,000 tons of coal, on a luxury paddle-wheeler down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and by land across Louisiana and Texas and into Mexico, where he took a dicey road trip to a cartel-infested Mexican town whose mayor was assassinated soon after. Along the way, he visited a creationism museum, enjoyed the gallows humor in a bar in “Cancer Alley” (so named because of the petrochemical plants lining the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge), watched an unforgettable Cajun-country “Mudfest” (trucks bulldozing their way through a kind of combination motocross and demolition derby, all at full speed in thick mire) and endured a humiliating trip on a mule in Texas with a guide who made the Jack Palance character in “City Slickers” seem sweet.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book are brief asides. For example, it may be common knowledge that automation has killed coal jobs, but knowledge deepens into understanding when Horwitz notes that 12 miners a shift produce six million tons of coal a year. That’s a long way from the song “Sixteen Tons” (“and deeper in debt”).
Horwitz is a smooth writer and an even better reporter (hardly surprising, given that he won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at The Wall Street Journal), and he recounts his travels with insight interspersed with humor, as well as with an intermittent raising of the eyebrows at numerous oddities and occasional evils. When he writes about history he becomes more serious, but often entertaining. There is an account of an aristocratic Southern abolitionist and brawler named Cassius Marcellus Clay: Attacked by a mob and shot in the chest, he carved up the shooter with a Bowie knife. Other episodes are simply tragic — the Civil War slaughter in Texas of dozens of antislavery German immigrants trying to reach slave-free Mexico.
Going back to Olmsted’s time, many books have tried to explain the South. Among the very best are W. J. Cash’s classic “The Mind of the South,” and the recent “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The genre might even be extended to include such not strictly regional books as J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and Jim Webb’s “Born Fighting.”
“Spying on the South” offers less analysis, more reportage than many of these. Some of the book is predictable, whether in the pro-Trump politics of most people Horwitz encountered (not surprising, since so many were white Southerners he met drinking beer) or the frustration of isolated liberals, and he does not recreate the past with the detail, elegance and passion of, say, Richard Holmes. One wishes for more depth and more breadth; the views of a few community or business leaders would have added perspective, and Louisiana and Texas constitute over half the book but he has hardly a word about the oil and gas industry (an industry he knows well since one of his books was about the Keystone pipeline).
Nonetheless, Horwitz has produced a valuable work that combines biography, history and travelogue. Olmsted began his travels in the hope of finding common ground. He failed. But perhaps Horwitz’s book can help us find common ground today.
John M. Barry’s most recent book is “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty.” He is currently researching a book about the Mississippi River basin.