Tony Horwitz has gone to great lengths to give us a clear, serious, and sometimes rollicking exposition of life and culture in the American South, from West Virginia to West Texas, in his latest nonfiction book, “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide.” You should read it because it’s an excellent story. The book is written with an objective eye, and explains, in Southerners’ words, a lot about the cultural differences and belief systems that get in the way of understanding one another in this period of raw nerves. Horwitz will join other Island writers for this summer’s Islanders Write at Featherstone Center for the Arts on August 11.
We are getting a few books these days without cant and fiery fulminations that deal with understanding each other and our commingled history. This year, Frank Bergon did it for the Old West in “Two-Buck Chuck and the Marlboro Man.” David McCullough’s “The Pioneers” explained the exotic story of how the Ohio wilderness was settled in the late 18th century by a bunch of hungry New Englanders. Who knew?
It occurred to me while reading Horwitz et al: There’s a problem with firmly held beliefs based on no facts. And Edison was right: “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”
Horwitz knows the South. He union-organized in Mississippi as a kid, and has written a bestseller (“Confederates in the Attic”) about the South.
“Spying on the South” has roots in West Tisbury. One day in 2014, Horwitz marched out to his barn in West Tisbury, under spousal orders to cull the Everest of books, papers, and notes built over 30 years. As we all do on those occasions, something caught his eye and he sat down to read a college project he’d done on Frederick Law Olmsted. That’s right, the “park guy.” Before he designed Central Park, Fenway, and Boston Common, et al., Olmsted was a New York Times correspondent, one of a variety of all-consuming missions in his life.
“Spying on the South” is also a two-fer. Horwitz shapes and explains Olmsted, a brilliant, often tortured soul who designed public spaces for people to come together and learn to know each other in a stress-free environment.
In the divided and seething pre–Civil War 1850s, Olmsted, a Connecticut native, spent a couple of years traveling the South “with an open mind” to discover what was driving the South, writing reports to the NYT. He did leave with, and began with, an open mind, but came back with a raging disgust with slavery and its proponents. A battle-hardened overseas reporter, Horwitz did a lot better, and that’s the benefit to us.
Horwitz retraced Olmsted’s precise route from October 2014 to November 2016, observing and talking to a lot of everyday people and the occasional highfaluter. He used planes, bikes, horses and mules, a car, his feet, and was an unlikely passenger on a coal barge down the Mississippi, hitting river towns from West Virginia to Louisiana, then inland by car, stopping, often on a whim, in small towns and cities on the way back.
Trump mania was building in what would become Trump Country, but the conversations we read are remarkably free of political overtones. They are conversations — happy, sad, and flat-out funny — about Southern lives and beliefs. Most are hardscrabbling, like the rest of us. They’ll come out at 3 in the morning to help each other, just like we do. The book’s title comes from a cheery barmaid in West Virginia who asked if he’d “come to spy on the South?”
Nope. As it turns out, he didn’t intend to spy, and didn’t. Good thing for us, because it allows us to read with our biases dozing.
For example, his report on the Louisiana Mudfest, four or five days of mud-churning monster trucks, drinking, and a soupçon of public licentiousness, first seemed to me like Dante’s Seventh Ring of Hell. Then I remembered the North Conway, N.H., Mud Bowl, a four-decade annual three-day early September event in which coed teams from around New England stand in hip-deep mud and water to play touch football in front of a couple of thousand people. Everyone likes to play in the mud.
Horwitz spoke to The Times by phone earlier this week.
Why did you do this?
Two reasons. First, I wanted to understand [Olmsted], a fellow on the cusp of a great career. He was a fellow with multiple careers. He was very intense, anxiety-ridden, suffered periodic depression, which would paralyze him for periods of time.
He was a privileged man, though largely self-educated, and discovers himself as he learns and observes on his Southern odyssey. The roots of his career as a designer of natural spaces were born on that journey.
Second, I wanted to understand the other side of our American divide today. Southerners by nature are hospitable and open. They give you a chance if you demonstrate that you’re not there to denigrate them. They are more genial than we are. When you walk down the street, you are expected to make eye contact. One reason to love the South for me is that I can be wandering around with no clear idea of what I’m doing, and get help.
What did you learn?
We know we’re divided, we know we’re polarized. But on the positive side, Americans, on an individual level, are open and generous and have a lot in common. When you sit in a bar or a restaurant, it’s not hard to discuss the differences. Whether that gets anywhere, I don’t know, but it’s better than shouting past each other.
I hope the book both explores and explains. I don’t have answers related to what I saw. I’m an old-school journalist, and I prefer readers to figure it out for themselves. I don’t like the current [level of] invective and opinion in the media. As I traveled South, I met people with a chip on both shoulders, on the lookout for sneering and condescension.
So where are you at the end?
In one sense I’m discouraged, but there are reasons for optimism, including the next generation, who are bright and tolerant. They get it.
Horwitz is beginning his nationwide book tour this week, and will make several stops on the Island this summer. The first is on June 15 at 6 pm at the Oak Bluffs library.
“Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide,” by Tony Horwitz, from Penguin Press, $30. Available this month at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and Edgartown Books, at Island libraries, and online. Join Tony Horwitz in discussion with David McCullough at Islanders Write on Sunday, August, 11. islanderswrite.com.