Publisher’s Weekly Review: Spying on the South

Originally published in Publisher’s Weekly, April 2019

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic) follows the trail of Frederick Law Olmsted, 19th-century reporter and legendary landscape architect, across the American South in this expansive and generously conceived travelogue.

His pursuit of Olmsted, “a Connecticut Yankee exploring the Cotton Kingdom on the eve of secession and civil war” for the New York Daily Times, takes Horwitz by train, boat, car, and mule through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, as he documents the “diversity and capaciousness of America.”

Horwitz observes general challenges throughout the region—a “heartland hollowed out by economic and social decay,” disappearing rural towns, toxic industries, jobs moving from manufacture to tourism, obesity, and drugs—and allegiances, especially to evangelical Christianity and guns, but also discerns a unique character in each region, among them the Cajun identity of south Louisiana and the history of German radicals in Texas.

Horwitz delights in the absurd and easily interlaces history with his many adventures—among them cruises on a coal tow and a steamboat, mudding in Louisiana, a re-enactment at the Alamo—where he encounters generous hospitality, warm intelligence, and, occasionally, bald bigotry. Throughout, Horwitz brings humor, curiosity, and care to capturing the voices of the larger-than-life characters he encounters.

A huge canvas of intricate details, this thoughtful and observant work delicately navigates the long shadow of America’s history.

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