These days the name Frederick Law Olmsted means Central Park in Manhattan, the U.S. Capitol grounds or the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C. Olmsted was the country’s major designer of public spaces in the 19th century, a career he stumbled on after hunting his life’s purpose from sailor to artisanal farmer to journalist.
He made some progress as a writer for the fledgling New York Times in 1853-54, sending back dispatches from the South as a witness to the slave culture on the eve of the Civil War. Olmsted collected his newspaper articles into four books that found few readers, sending him in search of another career.
Olmsted’s articles and books, unnoticed for years, have inspired another traveling reporter to cover the same ground more than 160 years later. Veteran reporter Tony Horwitz, 60, follows his successful formula in his ninth book, hitting the road in Olmsted’s tracks to experience the same territory.
In “Spying on the South,” he wanders by coal barge, luxury Mississippi steamboat and rental car from West Virginia to the Deep South, winding up on the Texas-Mexico border. Like Olmsted, he finds unhappiness, anger, bad food, complacency and dissolution (see the chapter on “Mudfest”) below the Mason-Dixon Line.
His predecessor grappled with a greater issue — slavery. Olmsted’s dispatches describe the violence and blindness of the Southern aristocracy about its “peculiar institution” as it condemned the “coarseness” of the Northern states.
Horwitz is an engaging writer and apparently an engaging guy as he banters and quizzes a range of people from the smugly secure to the desperately homeless. Few turn him away, and most are eager to ramble on about their lives and, of course politics.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, writers have fanned out across the hinterlands in search of the causes behind his election, so Horwitz adds little to the attitudes of the Red States. He does find enlightening material along the Mexican border, where people of both countries mix freely. The author describes a miserable picture of ruined lives in Mexican towns caused by the drug wars, a stark contrast to conditions in Texas.
Trump’s 2016 victory was “a political jolt unlike any in the forty years since I’d cast my first vote,” he admits. Hours of interviews and days spent in the South left him (and many others) unprepared for result.
“Spying on the South” was written before a change in the political weather last year, so it seems outdated. Yet, Horwitz accomplished his goal of demonstrating how effectively Olmsted captured the South before the cataclysm.
Olmsted could see it coming. Horwitz did not anticipate the shake-up of Trump’s election. Quoting Lincoln, the author “listened in vain for a swelling ‘chorus of the Union’ touched by the ‘better angels of our nature.’ ”
His blend of Olmsted’s 1854 views and his modern experiences produce a readable travelogue without a strong political bent.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Spying on the South
By: Tony Horwitz.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 476 pages, $30.