Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist for the Wall Street Journal and a best-selling author who made his year-round home in West Tisbury, died suddenly Monday in Washington, D.C.
Horwitz, 60, had just released a new book, “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide.” He is survived by his wife, author Geraldine Brooks, and their sons Nathaniel and Bizu.
His latest book follows Frederick Law Olmstead’s journey through the South in the 1850s as an undercover correspondent for the New York Times.
“My journey in Olmsted’s wake opens in a seedy tavern — OK, two taverns — and a lot of beer flows before I drain the last, at a casino bar in Texas. My travels with Fred could reasonably be cast as a pub crawl across the old Confederacy,” Horwitz wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times on April 29. In that piece he wondered aloud if “bar-stool Democracy could save America,” adding that the best material for his book came from those tavern interviews.
“Now that I’m back home in Massachusetts, I listen differently when I hear comments that cast blue-collar conservatives as some sort of alien, monolithic species. I conjure instead the three-dimensional individuals I drank and debated with in factory towns, Gulf Coast oil fields, and distressed rural crossroads,” he wrote. “And I hope they occasionally remember me. Not as a Fox-induced boogeyman on the bar TV, one of those ‘coastal elites’ dripping with contempt and condescension toward Middle America. But rather, as that guy from ‘up north’ who appeared on the next barstool one Friday after work, asked about their job and life and hopes for the future, and thought what they said was important enough to write down.”
In an interview with The Times about his new book, Horwitz said of his experience touring the South, “In one sense I’m discouraged, but there are reasons for optimism, including the next generation, who are bright and tolerant. They get it.”
His publisher, Penguin Press, issued a statement that Horwitz died of apparent cardiac arrest.
Along with his latest release, Horwitz’s books include New York Times bestsellers “Confederates in the Attic,” “Blue Latitudes,” and “A Voyage Long and Strange.”
Horwitz was a native of Washington, D.C., and graduated from Brown University and the Columbia School of Journalism. He was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study.
He won the Pulitzer in 1995 after taking a low-paying job at a chicken-packing plant in the South and writing about widening income inequality and low-wage jobs. According to a tweet from Tim Hanrahan of the Wall Street Journal, Horwitz disclosed that he worked for Dow Jones, and listed his journalism degree on his application for the job.
Horwitz has written for The Times, including a tribute to Chilmark softball commissioner Bill Edison in 2017: “At 9 am last Sunday, the game paused so the 50 or so players, spectators, and dog walkers present could honor the outgoing commish. Veteran pitcher Hans Solmssen, who began playing in Chilmark about the same time as Mr. Edison, read a history of the game and presented the commissioner with a plastic trophy. Sig Van Raan, another superannuated hurler, read a poem he’d composed, ‘The Boy of Summer,’ which rhymed ‘Peaked Hill’ with ‘softball legend Bill.’”
Sig Van Raan recalled Horwitz as a “pretty damn good ballplayer.” The game features many players, like Horwitz, with elevated status in their professions. “On the softball field, he was just a goofy kid. He used to just love to razz himself or razz others,” Van Raan said. “He just had such a good time. He played with exuberance and joy.”
While Van Raan provided an account of the game to Valerie Sonnenthal for the Chilmark column, Horwitz was known for sending an outrageous parody as the self-appointed scribe by email blast. “Some of them were totally ridiculous and funny,” Van Raan said.
When the season starts in late June, Horwitz will be remembered by his fellow players. “We are really, really going to miss him,” Van Raan said.
Horwitz was also someone who would help fledgling writers with the process of writing and marketing their work. “He took a couple of us under his wing,” Van Raan said.
Horwitz was a frequent contributor to Islanders Write, an annual event sponsored by The Times that highlights writers with connections to the Vineyard. He was also a contributor to Martha’s Vineyard Arts & Ideas.
“My brother had a lifelong love affair with the Vineyard, going back to our childhood summers outside Woods Hole,” his brother Joshua Horwitz said. “He was proud to be a year-round resident, an ardent advocate for historic preservation and conservation, and a ferocious outfielder at the Chilmark softball game.”
Nancy Slonim Aronie was with her friend Geraldine as Horwitz got on the ferry to leave for his book tour. “We have not only lost a brilliant writer and a gifted journalist, but we have lost a major mensch of a human being,” Aronie said. “Our community is in shock, and our collective hearts are broken. All we can think of now is holding Geraldine.”
Arnie Reisman, a friend of Horwitz, also expressed shock. “I find words at this moment to be inadequate. We are still in shock. He was so energetic, so vibrant, so alive. We still don’t know why or how this happened,” Reisman said. “But he’s gone, and this Island has lost a wonderful human being as well as a literary and journalistic treasure.”
Reisman described Horwitz’s latest book as “an incredible reportorial study.” “He was on his way to more greatness,” he said. “Our hearts and warmest thoughts go out to his Geraldine and their boys at this very sad and tragic time.”
Jack Shea, a Times contributor who had interviewed and written about Horwitz on several occasions, described him as a “shoe-leather reporter” who often put in years of time and effort to get the story “before telling it in his Pulitzer-winning style.”
“In interviews and personal conversations, he seemed nonplussed at his celebrity status in an Island of celebrity, and was happy to sit in the cold bleachers at Dan McCarthy Field watching older son Nathaniel playing high school football,” Shea said. “Horwitz had an instinct for stories. His work in `Boom!’ a story of the dystopian XL Pipeline environment, was years in front of the public waggling. ‘Spying on the South,’ his final book, sent him on a two-year odyssey through the pre-Trump Southern U.S. states, describing the culture and attitudinal national differences we now call the Great Divide.”
This story is being updated frequently as more information and tributes come in.