Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted is known mostly for his design of Central Park and other nationally renowned projects, but at one point in his life he was a journalist commissioned by the New York Daily Times, now The New York Times, to report on the slave economy of the South about 10 years before the Civil War. These missives were collected and are still some of the most-read documents of pre-war social reporting. Tony Horwitz was required to read the volumes when he was in college and found them again while cleaning out his house a couple years ago. He went back to them during the summer of 2016, another time of great division in our country. In much the same vein as his earlier works, Horwitz decides to take a trip, to follow Olmsted’s route and comment on 150 years of change.
Spying on the South is a travelogue filled with personal reflection and social observation… From train, steamboat, and stagecoach to coal tug, rental car, ATV, and mule, Horwitz and Olmsted travel from Ohio to West Virginia through Kentucky and Louisiana, and on to the expanse of Texas. The author uses a tested formula of one foot in the past and one in the present. Searching out the remnants of the antebellum south in edifice and all aspects of culture: politics, food, religion, mores, and most striking, race relations.
The narrative combines a multitude of sources: Olmsted’s writings, guides on tours, and interviews and conversations with locals in the various towns and hamlets along the way. Horwitz has always had a penchant for meeting the most colorful people and extracting their tales or connections to the place and time. The museum assistant, the reenactor, the groundskeeper… But he’s sure to add the view through Olmsted’s keen eye as a landscape architect and point out how the natural beauty the countryside has changed. Omsted traveled much of the route with his brother John and Horwitz is accompanied on a few stops with his witty Australian friend Andrew. This creates some good back-and-forth that the reader can enjoy.
Horwitz poses certain questions along the way: What about that time period is remembered and how? What is now romanticized, whitewashed, and what has been dutifully researched or turned into modern-day political propaganda? Hot button issues of the 2016 campaigns are explored and several times the author comments on how remarkably ‘farsighted’ Olmsted’s views were of the near future and into the next century and beyond. And as both a Northerner and a liberal there are certainly times when Horwitz drops his try for balance, and discusses his fatigue of the far-right rhetoric he encounters.
A trip north to New York City at the end fo the book serves as a chance to reflect on the changes Olmsted’s encountered as he started the work he is most known for. Horwitz takes the time to reflect on the outcome of election and the lasting lessons of Olmsted’s own words at that time before The War Between the States.
Olmsted on one side, 2016 on the other, and Horwitz in the middle. I’ve read four of his other works and this is a much more immediate view of history and the United States than the other books. It is view of many things: the legacy of the Alamo, the struggling coal industry, modern tourism, and a man who changed the way cities and recreation spaces are built in this country. But the narrative kept going back to the way history endures through many people’s eyes.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Releases on May 14th
Thank you to Edelweiss, Penguin Press, and Mr. Horwitz for an advanced copy for review.