Between the Reenactments

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide BY Tony Horwitz. New York: Penguin Press. 496 pages. $30.

The cover of Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide

Not many writers mix up geniality and astuteness as enjoyably as Tony Horwitz does. He’s got a rare knack for spotting topics whose eccentricity lets him juxtapose the baleful past and the cuckoo present in arresting, provocative, hugely entertaining ways. Most readers first discovered his originality thanks to 1998’s Confederates in the Attic, which turned the wacky world of Civil War reenactors into fodder for an inspired, seriocomic meditation on the war itself as America’s ultimate unfinished business.

He did it again with Blue Latitudes, following in Captain James Cook’s watery footsteps almost 250 years after the eighteenth-century explorer encountered Marlon Brando’s future home away from home: Tahiti. Then A Voyage Long and Strange took Horwitz back to the New World to retrace the forgotten century-plus of enterprising attempts to despoil the place, between Columbus’s first voyage and the Mayflower’s 1620 arrival at Plymouth Rock.

A tourist asks Davy Crockett and James Bowie impersonators for directions during the 175th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, March 4, 2011.
A tourist asks Davy Crockett and James Bowie impersonators for directions during the 175th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, March 4, 2011. Brian Moran/Flickr

His new one, Spying on the South, benefits from what could be his niftiest concept for a book since 1998. You could call it an unofficial sequel to Confederates in the Attic, although the author doesn’t invite you to. Still, he’s back in the often blood-soaked territory that spawned the Civil War. More than once on his journey, it turns out that compulsively relitigating yesteryear’s ordeals doesn’t necessarily require uniforms, muskets, proximity to battlefields, or even any conscious intention.

The only formal reenactment he witnesses is the tourist-mobbed charade that commemorates the 1836 fall of the Alamo every March in San Antonio. It’s staged multiple times during the “High Holy Days,” with the casualness of the earlier performances giving way to an impressive solemnity on the actual anniversary. As usual, Horwitz catches wonderful moments: “Hon! . . . Bring the camera and get me with the bad guys,” one woman calls to her husband at the sight of the “troops” impersonating Santa Anna’s Mexican army. (So much for the earnest revisionist attempts by San Antonio’s Latinos and some Anglos alike, even during the festivities, to remind people that the Alamo’s gringo defenders were either foreign invaders or illegal immigrants, depending on your point of view.) Other tourists approach the faux combatants to say “Thank you for your service,” as if to prove that Pavlov was right all along.

As he did in Blue Latitudes, Horwitz himself functions as a reenactor in Spying on the South. The unlikely prototype and kindred spirit he’s stumbled across is landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who’s best known for creating New York’s Central Park with no formal training whatsoever in his then-embryonic specialty. He went on to design the US Capitol grounds, lay out Louisville’s (still magnificent) park system, and provide New Orleans with Audubon Park, among a host of other projects.

But Olmsted was a man in no huge hurry to settle on his eventual calling. That’s how he came to travel extensively in the South between 1852 and 1855 as a correspondent for the New York Times, signing his dispatches “Yeoman.” He then expanded his reporting into three books describing the region as Fort Sumter’s bombardment loomed.

Their one-volume abridgment, The Cotton Kingdom, is still in print. Horwitz had apparently almost forgotten he owned a copy until he found it among the leftovers from his college days and got “hooked,” digging up Olmsted’s original Times articles and his other writings about the South. Then he decided to replicate Olmsted’s 1850s itinerary, from Maryland and the then-future West Virginia to Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and—on a later trip—Texas. It’s incidentally a surprise to learn that a traveler and connoisseur of Americana as inveterate as Horwitz had barely ever spent any time in the Lone Star State, but we’re lucky that Olmsted’s example induced him to remedy the omission.

Whenever possible, he also tried to mimic Olmsted’s means of transportation: trains, riverboats, horseback, muleback. (Understandably, rental cars had to substitute for carriages and stagecoaches.) Since the B&O Railroad no longer exists “except on Monopoly boards,” Horwitz instead Amtraks it to Cumberland, Maryland, his and “Fred’s” first stop. Billed as the “Gateway to the West” in Olmsted’s day, it now only attracts visitors who have relatives doing time in the state penitentiary or the city’s rehab facilities. “Prisons, drugs, and gangs,” Horwitz is told by one resident. “It’s beautiful.”

The sense of bleak decrepitude deepens once he reaches West Virginia. He spots “husks of massive steel plants that sat literally rusting.” A radio host ruefully laments to Horwitz that “at one time every trash can in the country came from Wheeling.” A local Democratic Party chairman tells him, “I feel, I don’t know, extinct.” Approximating Olmsted’s steamboat trip down the Ohio River to Kentucky, Horwitz next hitches a ride on a coal-barge tow crewed by a bunch of galoots who’ve become first-rate jokesmiths to stave off monotony.

Kentucky is where our sherpa’s dialogue with his nine-teenth-century predecessor begins in earnest. Throughout the book, Horwitz quotes Olmsted’s trenchant, occasionally rhapsodic, more often peppery observations on everything he saw at enough length—and with such evident enthusiasm—that “Yeoman” virtually becomes his ghost companion, if not his occasional ghost coauthor.

Olmsted began his journey seeking what he called “matter of fact matter,” not material for an indictment. But seeing the “peculiar institution” up close—including a glimpse of an eight-year-old boy beating a puppy and shouting “I’ll teach you who’s your master” in plain imitation of his father’s treatment of the family’s slaves—soon hardened him into something very close to the “red-hot Abolitionist” he’d disavowed being early on. By the end of his Times jaunt, he was functioning as an agitator in journalistic disguise, building up a Texas community of antislavery German freethinkers for his readers as rather more of a force in the state than the facts warranted. Horwitz admires him so much that he sounds genuinely crestfallen by the discovery that Olmsted was embellishing the truth, but he doesn’t fault him for turning propagandist—not, after all, the work “Yeoman” had been hired for, albeit for an unassailably good cause.

A century and a half later, Horwitz keeps finding the pre–Civil War South surviving in simulacrum form. Sometimes the effect is gruesome—as at Louisiana’s Angola prison, whose largely African American inmates perform essentially the same work their enslaved ancestors did on what was once a plantation. The kitsch version is the Scarlett O’Hara tourist industry, catered to by vintage plantation homes whose hoopskirted docents delicately prattle about “servants,” never slaves. In Natchez, Mississippi, Horwitz learns from a black man named Marcus Chambliss why African Americans resign themselves to such Jim Crow-Magnon stuff: “The Old South is big business,” Chambliss says.

Horwitz is also traveling through “ruby-red America” as the 2016 election ramps up. He’s conscious that the whole region is now irredeemably Trumplandia in his probable readership’s eyes, and he doesn’t soft-pedal the unpleasant prefigurations of our current reality. The Texas Islamophobes convinced that a South Asian doctor’s nearby vacation home is secretly a Muslim training camp appall him, especially once he takes the trouble to learn the truth and they don’t care. But demonization isn’t really his beat.

He’s following Olmsted’s salutary advice: “My best finds were coarse men,” with the proviso that “Innkeepers’ wives are not to be neglected.” Unsurprisingly, at least if you’ve spent any time in the states he’s visiting, Horwitz keeps running into wayward, humorous people who fit nobody’s stereotype. Among other things, it’s good to know that the gonzo redneck version of yesteryear’s hippie culture is alive and well—perhaps most spectacularly at the Louisiana Mudfest, whose devotees spend their days careening their monster trucks into a lake of mud and their nights getting drunk and naked. “The Somme, on meth,” one observer sums it up.

That quip comes from Andrew Denton, an Australian TV comic who’s recruited by Horwitz to substitute for Olmsted’s tubercular brother John on the Louisiana and Texas legs of the trip. (Mimicking John’s health problems more closely than Horwitz anticipated, Denton ends up needing open-heart surgery after his Dixie-fried caloric intake: “It’s a worry when McDonald’s is your healthy meal of the day,” he grouses.) He’s such an ideal foil and fount of drollery that Spying on the South never fully recovers its brio once Denton drops out of the mix in Houston. Still, Horwitz does a nicely undeluded job of sizing up Austin, where you’d expect him to dote—as Olmsted did—on a rare enclave of cosmopolitan kindred spirits. Instead, the city’s theme-park-y “Keep Austin Weird” slogan leaves him rolling his eyes: “It’s hard for a city to stay weird when few of its inhabitants are.”

He’s still got a long way to go, as there is a lot more of Texas to investigate—from San Antonio and the Alamo to a Kickapoo Indian casino in Eagle Pass and the Day of the Dead in neighboring Piedras Negras, just across the border in Mexico. But after two years on the road, a certain fatigue seems to have set in. As hard as Horwitz works to keep the narrative lively, his ramble through Texas lacks the splendidly varied profusion of incidents of the book’s first half. If Spying on the South has a flaw, it could be that it’s simply longer than it needs to be, no matter how much you admire the author’s zeal in trying to pack everything in.

Inevitably, his journey ends in Central Park, which we’ve been subtly led to recognize is a monument to everything Olmsted gleaned about topography, community, and harmonized discrepancies on his own travels 160 years earlier. Besides giving Manhattan a pastoral bower, he sought to promote egalitarianism by creating a space where “the rich and the poor, the cultivated and well bred, and the sturdy and self-made people shall be attracted together and encouraged to assimilate.” In other words, however incongruous the penthouse-crammed skyline may make it seem, the park is New York’s chief manifestation of the democratic ideal. In his own way, Horwitz is championing the same thing.

A longtime writer on pop culture and politics, Tom Carson is the author of the novels Gilligan’s Wake (Picador, 2003) and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).