Originally Posted: May 2019
Andrew R. Graybill is the chair of the History Department at Southern Methodist University and the author of The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West.
Several years ago Tony Horwitz was tasked by his wife to “ruthlessly cull” the books he had amassed as a college student during the Carter administration. Sifting through boxes stashed at their house on Martha’s Vineyard, Horwitz came across The Cotton Kingdom, an 1861 book by the New York journalist Frederick Law Olmsted—better known today as the landscape architect who co-designed Manhattan’s Central Park. The book was the culmination of several trips Olmsted had made to the American South, including Texas, in the 1850s. (His account of his rambles around the Lone Star State was also published separately as A Journey Through Texas.) Olmsted, who was then in his early thirties, had been commissioned by the New-York Daily Times to travel widely and describe the conditions below the Mason-Dixon Line, with particular attention to the effects of slavery on its economy and culture. Identified in his correspondence only as “Yeoman,” Olmsted was chosen for this delicate assignment because he was regarded as politically objective. His job, as he understood it, was “to promote the mutual acquaintance of the North and South.”
Although as an undergraduate Horwitz had merely skimmed The Cotton Kingdom, now that he was middle-aged, the book seized him. Part of the attraction, no doubt, was the affinity for travel that he shared with Olmsted; a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Horwitz developed his wanderlust over the course of a decade as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Such nomadism courses through many of his books, like One for the Road, which details his meanderings across Australia, and Boom,his quest to understand energy production in North America. Moreover, Horwitz was struck by the modern-day relevance of Olmsted’s travels, which had begun less than a decade before the Civil War. As he explains in his new book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide (Penguin, May 14), “This journey had also taken Olmsted across the nation’s enduring fault line—between free and slave states in his time, and red and blue states in mine.” Noting the “inescapable echoes of the 1850s” in today’s politics, Horwitz wonders if contemporary America is “unraveling into hostile confederacies.” Or, more pointedly, he asks, “Had that happened already?” He decides to find out by retracing Olmsted’s route and sharing his observations with a divided nation, mixing history with reportage. READ MORE