Connecticut Yankee Frederick Law Olmsted spent 14 months traveling through the South in the early 1850s as a reporter for a little-known newspaper, "The New York Times." His 64 dispatches were eventually combined and published in 1953 by Alfred A. Knopf as a single volume, “The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States.” The purpose of his odyssey was to understand the great divide in the United States, hoping that he could discern and describe Southern views on slavery in order to help the North and South find common ground and a path to abolition.
Tony Horwitz, known through his previous books as an avid wanderer, elected to revisit Olmsted’s path. His mission was “parallel journeys, one hundred and sixty years apart: what he saw then and what I see now.” Horwitz’s search was the same as Olmsted’s: “a reliable understanding of the sentiments and hopes and fears of Americans on the other side of the nation’s widening divide.”
To accomplish this reenactment, Horwitz travels for two years by train, car, a coal tow down the Ohio River, a luxury steamboat on the Mississippi and by foot. His journey, documenting the “diversity and capaciousness of America” takes him through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. He observes “the heartland hollowed out by economic and social decay,” dying rural communities, dirty industries and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. He also surveys the unique cultures of each region such as the Cajun character of South Louisiana and the freethinker philosophy of the German immigrants who settled New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, Texas.
This modern nomad stops to read every historical marker, interviews anyone willing to talk, accepts all invitations and participates in a plethora of peculiar regional events. He participates in a Louisiana Mudfest, visits a creationism museum and takes an injurious, humiliating mule ride in the hill country of Texas. Retracing Olmsted’s trek was not easy in some locations because of the growth of towns since the 1850s, but there are enough parallels to give this journey significance.
What Horwitz hears at almost every restaurant, tour site and street corner are remarks about big government, gun rights and the myth of climate change. He also hears uglier views, like in Crockett, Texas, where white members of the Moosehead Lodge embrace a racist conspiracy theory that a nearby property owned by an Asian doctor is really “a terrorist training camp.” As he leaves Crockett, the author questions if America can ever become one country.
Horwitz is a curious traveler, an adept reporter and charming writer. He inserts humor at surprising, yet appropriate, times. However, when he documents history he becomes serious. His account of the Civil War era slaughter in Texas of anti-slavery German immigrants who tried to seek refuge in slave-free Mexico is tragic and spellbinding.
“Spying on the South” is a valuable addition to the canon of books attempting to bridge the great American divide between the North and the South states. Part history, part biography and part travelogue, it is an instructive story filled with colorful figures, peppered with silliness and a-ha details. I found it to be an enlightening, but sometimes discouraging book to read since many of the 1850 social/political and moral problems Olmsted reported remain unsolved today.