- - Wednesday, June 26, 2019


By Tony Horwitz

Penguin Press, $30, 476 pages

Tony Horwitz could switch times slicker than a country singer handing off the melody to the girl on the dulcimer. Whether channeling Capt. Cook in the South Seas or bedding down on frozen ground with a company of Confederate re-enactors, his sublime narratives about old times illuminated our own. Part of his genius and appeal — a binocular focus revealing the present through the lens of the past and vice versa.

His latest and last shadows the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted through antebellum Dixie: “Olmsted [travels] across the nation’s enduring fault line — between free and slave states in his time, and red and blue states in mine.” After “Confederates in the Attic” and “Blue Latitudes” and a more conventional portrait of John Brown in “Midnight Rising,” Mr. Horwitz again hopscotches through time with America’s pre-eminent landscaper, the celebrated designer of Central Park, U.S. Capitol grounds, college campuses and urban idylls from Brooklyn to New Orleans.

This odyssey follows Olmsted — “Fred” to family and friends — on two trips through the antebellum South in the 1850s via his journals, letters and newspaper dispatches. Hoping to understand, reveal and change the South’s deplorable dependence on slavery, Olmsted started out as a gradualist and became a vehement abolitionist.

Part travelogue, part historical album, part contemporary contemplation, “Spying on the South” is all vintage Horwitz. Awkwardly long, magisterially researched and curiously intimate, it is rich in delicious tangents and mind-bending excursions into cul-de-sacs of Americana — from contemporarily absurd to historically heinous.

Bayou country provides a classic Horwitz pairing. The Louisiana Mudfest, a days-long orgy of vehicular mud-wrestling, pits monster pickup trucks in 300 acres of mire before flocks of nearly-naked spectators swilling 150-proof moonshine. The modern mosh pit occurs in the same parish as the Colfax Massacre of 1873 in which scores of besieged blacks were burned out of a courthouse refuge, then shot and mutilated.

The massacre’s legal aftermath reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck “a death blow to the legal basis and dwindling powers of Reconstruction.” A plaque dedicated in 1921 demoted it to “Riot” status; then a historical marker in 1951 explained “three white men and 150 negroes were slain” and the event “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” Mr. Horwitz connects the disparate dots into indelible images.

Rambling by car, pickup, barge, riverboat, Amtrak, horseback, shank’s mare and mule, he finds virgin venues for puzzlement and explication. Kentucky’s Creation Museum features Adam and Eve wading waist deep in a pool “like hippies in a rustic hot tub. Except that the surrounding landscape included dinosaurs.” The costumed tour guide at a newly opened slavery museum confesses that “She’d been struck by ‘how little most people know about this history.’ For instance, visitors sometimes asked ‘Why did Africans get on the boat to America in the first place?’” Part of the Horwitz genius lies in getting people to talk guilelessly.

In Eagle Pass, Texas, a longhorn’s trot from the Rio Grande and Mexico, a bilingual mother muses, “Some time soon it will be one of our sons or daughters in the White House.” It’s Halloween night — “neighborly, immigrant, vibrant and family centered” with much candy — and an off-duty border patrolman observes “The only danger here is cavities.”

His day job is guarding our national boundary against foreigners trying to get in, as Mr. Horwitz notes, where Olmsted encountered patrols prowling for runaway slaves trying to get out. The author sums up: “Here at the nation’s edge, celebrating a Northern European holiday in a Spanish-speaking semi-desert, the atmosphere seemed much more hopeful and American … [ellipsis his].” The previous Halloween, in English-speaking West Virginia, “I’d seen no trick-or-treaters because parents feared the kids being out on a fright night amidst drunks and drug addicts.”

Droll and wise, this harlequin narrative celebrates the sublime and ridiculous, do-si-do-ing from hilarious to solemn and sad to cautionary as it proffers a terrible hypothesis: That America’s deepening troubles in the 1850s — the sectional, social and psychological chasms that converged into civil war — seem similar to today’s screaming schisms and polarizing diatribe.

How sad that we will read no more such vagabond parables. A native Washingtonian, Mr. Horwitz came home two weeks ago to launch the publicity campaign for “Spying on the South.” Walking with his wife in Chevy Chase the day before his scheduled reading at Politics & Prose, he collapsed and died.

Aptly, this swan song ends with his last amble through Central Park, where he encounters a sixth-grader skylarking on a skateboard and asks what he likes best about Olmsted’s haven. “Just exploring. Going where I want. Sometimes I get lost.” Mr. Horwitz says the designer would be pleased. “What’s his name?” the boy asks, and hearing it replies, “Tell Fred he did good.” I would tell Tony the same.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc., in Chevy Chase, Md., writes about American history and culture.

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