“Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide” by Tony Horwitz— On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Horwitz, Tony. “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide”, Penguin Press, 2019.

On the Trail of America’s Greatest Landscape Architect

Amos Lassen

In the 1850s, the young Frederick Law Olmsted was adrift. He was a restless farmer and dreamer in search of a mission that he found it during an extraordinary journey as an undercover correspondent in the South for the up-and-coming New York Times.
Olmsted was a  Connecticut Yankee with the pen name “Yeoman” and to whom the South was alien, often hostile territory. Nonetheless, he traveled it for 14 months, by horseback, steamboat, and stagecoach looking for dialogue and common ground. His dispatches about the lives and beliefs of Southerners were revelatory for readers of his day, and his remarkable journey  also reshaped the American landscape, as he sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for all. The result was Central Park and Olmsted’s career as America’s first and foremost landscape architect.

Tony Horwitz rediscovers Yeoman Olmsted in the discord and polarization of our own time. He looks for an answer to “Is America still one country?” As he searches for  answers, he follows Olmsted’s tracks and often his mode of transport (including muleback): through Appalachia, down the Mississippi River, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland. on far off beaten paths. Horwitz “uncovers bracing vestiges and strange new mutations of the Cotton Kingdom.” His journey takes him through an outsized American landscape.

Horwitz is a fun guide, self-deprecating, smart, and adventurous. It is fascinating to see through him that two of the most politically divisive eras in the US occurred prior to the Presidential elections of 1860 and 2016. In each of these timeframes, the country was more or less divided (North versus South and Red versus Blue, respectively) and thought the other half was wrong. 

This is what  drives the Horwitz’s narrative as he follows the path Fred Olmstead took in the 1850s and describes his encounters with others below the Mason Dixon line. He meets a very colorful cast of characters and helps to understand the differences and common threads among all Americans. 

Horwitz combines historical text with historical narrative nonfiction giving us a memoir of one man’s present day journey into the South. Horwitz is a seasoned guide. He is inquisitive, open-minded, and prefers observation over judgment and he brings humor, curiosity, and care to the characters he meets. This is unique reportage from a region that tells us a whole lot more about the country than the country wants to admit to. We get views of the South unlike any others along with “an enduring American spirit of generosity, and commonweal, and curiosity.” 

 

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