Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz

Years ago I read a book called Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and I was immediately hooked on the story of what I perceived to be insane, crazy, delusional Americans dressing up in Confederate garb in the middle of that brutal Southern summer humidity to reenact Civil War battles that had taken place decades prior. It was a mystifying, hilarious book, written with a keen eye and delicate prose so as not to pass judgement on any of the main characters, so when I found Spying on the South at the bookstore a few weeks ago, I knew I had to give it a look. In this one, Horwitz traces and re-lives the Southern journey of Frederick Law Olmstead from the 1850’s, who, like Horwitz, was a journalist in his time (and the future designer of Central Park, amongst other prominent public spaces) reporting on and detailing the lives and perspectives of those in the South that were largely unknown and misunderstood by his friends in the North. Olmstead would send his dispatches back to The New York Times for print, with a goal to create a better basis of understanding between Northern and Southern factions that looked to be headed to some sort of confrontation in the very near future. In Spying, Horwitz travels to off-the-grid locales in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas where he encounters everyday Americans whose lives are experienced one-day-at-a-time, many of whom have a deep distrust of outsiders, the government, and anyone or anything that would take away what they perceive to be their cherished “way of life”. Horwitz is more of an observer and storyteller here although he does come to some wise and prescient conclusions in the notes below — conclusions that were compiled in the running up-to, and aftermath, of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Sadly, Horwitz died in 2019 of a sudden cardiac arrest, but his writing, like Olmstead’s, will live on for some time.

  • Frederick Law Olmstead is celebrated today as a visionary architect of New York’s Central Park
  • during the later half of the nineteenth century he helped create much of the urban and suburban landscape that Americans still inhabit
  • he was an undercover correspondent for The Times known as Yeoman, a CT Yankee exploring the Cotton Kingdom on the eve of succession an the Civil War
  • in Manhattan, he sought to create a public park that brought together and elevated the poor and rich, the young and old, the vicious and the virtuous
  • 1850’s America: extreme polarization, racial strife, demonization of the other side, embrace of enflamed opinion over reasoned dialogue and debate
  • his encounters with southern gentry stirred a missionary impulse to “elevate” the North, as a rebuke to aristocratic slaveholders and European monarchists who claimed the masses were incapable of uplift and self-governance
  • Greensward: plan for central park, spoke to open meadows and emphasis on the pastoral rather than the statuary, structures, or formal gardens — completed in 1861
  • most glaring parallels between Olmstead’s writings from the 1850’s and post-Trump election was the retreat to tribal and partisan camps, tuned to frequencies so divergent that the reasoned discourse Yeoman sought was impossible
  • “ultraists” — stoked and exploited the nations divisions and spread conspiracy theories, especially in the South
  • fire eaters success in convincing a large swath of the white South that Lincoln was a “Black Republican” in league with radical abolitionists bent on destroying slavery
  • for Tony Horwitz, his observations of his friends on the “left” spoke of a self-righteous certitude that reminded him of Saudi Arabia, where the religious police surveilled and punished citizens for even the faintest deviation from Wahhabi orthodoxy
  • Olmstead had a decade-long transit from moderate, dialogue-minded Yeoman to committed warrior against the South
  • one of his sons helped draft legislation to create the National Park Service
  • as the North’s economy and cities rapidly expanded after the Civil War, Olmstead and his partners became the go-to designers of parks, transport systems, residential neighborhoods, campuses, World’s Columbian Exposition, and the grounds of hospitals, libraries, museums, government buildings, including the Capitol
  • in designing Central Park, he intentionally scrambled the mindset of the “grid” system of NYC — wanted people to get lost
  • convergence of all classes and backgrounds, creating an attractive and diverting spectacle
  • thesis was that strangers interacted more easily and amicably in the park than in the wary and heart hardening atmosphere of the city
  • 50M visitors a year nowadays
  • “Plants and grass have a pacifying effect. I’ve never seen a fistfight in front of a flower bed.”
  • developers, including Olmstead’s son, betrayed his vision in the 20th century with redlining, ordinances excluding Blacks
  • Malcolm X was influenced by Olmstead’s writing when he was in jail — learned about the horrors of slavery
  • Olmstead’s failure, as it were, was that he couldn’t get others to see what he saw — his knowledge of the South and slavery was snubbed and set down and made of no account
  • his essential subject was freedom, or the lack of it
  • “Southerners do not respond well to criticism or ridicule. Or to know it alls. Southerners have a particular sensitivity to being told how to think. It’s an itchy, innate resistance to authority.” this was in Horwitzs’ notes when he was traveling to promote this book, but he died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 2019
  • Horwitz conclusions from his travels -
  • how the past bleeds into the present and how the present informs our understanding of the past
  • never felt hostility as a person
  • drank beers with anyone — Americans can be one thing on social media or while watching TV, and quite another when face to face
  • Trump raised a middle finger at the so-called elite and establishment, which spoke to people, deeply, on an emotional level
  • people don’t like to be talked down to, or dismissed and reviled as ignorant rednecks, or told to spit on their ancestors, even if most folks recognize those ancestors were deeply wrong
  • globalization rewarded the so called elites
  • diminishing sense of nationhood, which puts some of us, who feel more like citizens of the world, having more in common with young professionals abroad than with our own countrymen, while others, hurting, angry, and left behind, become more susceptible to the appeals of populists and nationalists who want to identify and exploit an enemy, whether it’s immigrants or foreigners or that perceived elite
  • people need meaning, purpose, community
  • dignity of work — jobs that pay a decent living wage, access to affordable health care and quality education, nuts and bolts help like paid leave and subsidized day care
  • opportunity to be productive members of society and provide for their family and feel pride and dignity in what they do
  • collapse of belief in, or even quest for, common truth and facts is troublesome
  • apartheid of the mind, of culture — not confined to the far right (RFK Jr.)
  • on the left, a trend toward talking about individual rather than common truths; the notion that everything is conditional, subject to our race, gender, and degree of privilege
  • if we can’t try to agree on our best stab at the facts, on any issue, then there’s no basis for intelligent debate
  • more often than not in his travels, he saw a very frank presentation of slavery, tours of slave cabins, narratives of the barbarity of the institution
  • Confederacy — divide between rural and cities
  • Colfax LA — monuments still exist that extol white supremacy and the slaughter of Blacks during reconstruction
  • Houston is now the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S.
  • mistake to see Hispanics as a monolith that will necessarily be Democratic voters
  • coal barge workers on the Ohio river — feel alienated from this far away world of coastal elites who believe they look down on them
  • national political debate and public policy is alienating to people who don’t think they have a voice in it
  • Trump also questioned military entanglements, and so many people in those regions were military
  • wariness and weariness when it came to the hawkish message of mainstream Republicans
  • Trump offered something different and he thinks it resonated
  • accept we’re in complicated times that call for compassion and forbearance — let’s chill a bit
  • Olmstead — saw public parks for use and uplift for all, as a demonstration that people of all classes, races, and backgrounds could come together, in common enjoyment, peacefully, to mingle and be elevated in a way that wasn’t possible during their harsh and materialistic working day

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.