Author traces iconic architect’s tracks in ‘Spying on the South’

Spying on the South


Review of Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by Tony Horwitz.

Penguin Press.

496 pages.



In 1852, the New York Times sent Frederick Law Olmsted, not yet the iconic architect of city parks, to explore the slave South. Identified in the paper as “Yeoman,” Olmsted, an experienced farmer, mariner, and horseman, reported on the society and culture of the 11 Southern states and the militant defenders of the “peculiar institution” he encountered.

In “Spying on the South,’’ Tony Horwitz, the author, among other books, of “Confederates in the Attic,’’ journeys, as Olmstead did, through Appalachia, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and into Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. He, too, meets lots of colorful characters.

Horwitz, who shares Olmsted’s missionary spirit and his conviction that making room for rational dialog makes it “harder for Americans to demonize each other,” also searches without much success for common ground in a deeply divided nation.

‘Pathway to citizenship’

In Texas, Olmsted discovered that Anglos, who had been granted citizenship by the Mexican government in the 1820s and ‘30s, eventually seized the land of Mexicans, who they regarded “as vermin, to be exterminated.”

Many defenders of the Alamo, including David Crockett and fortune seekers from Denmark, Wales and elsewhere, Horwitz adds, “were effectively illegal immigrants,” while Santa Anna’s army included Europeans and mestizos of mixed Spanish and Indian descent.

Adding to a story that is anything but black and white are little-known facts that Spanish colonialists provided “a pathway to citizenship” for the “natives” and, in the 19th century, Mexico abolished slavery.

21st-century attitudes

Horwitz doesn’t hide his political perspective.

As they described a Muslim terrorist training camp, just outside of town (they hadn’t seen) and the Muslim president, Barack Obama, he writes, the rotating cast of locals at the Moosehead Lodge Breakfast Club in Crockett, Texas “left a bad taste” in his mouth.

Intent on “walling themselves off from contrary information,” even when it’s supplied by a respected sheriff, these folks, he acknowledges, did not comprise a representative sample of Americans.

But Horwitz has heard enough similar commentary throughout his odyssey – and “incessantly” on talk radio – to sense the pervasive attitudes of White southerners in the 21st century.

Leaving Crockett, he felt like Olmsted had after an exchange with slave masters in Nashville, Tennessee.  “Very melancholy,” Olmsted wondered “what is to become of us…this great country & this cursedly little people.”

‘A political jolt’

Spying on the South does introduce us to Southerners, then and now, with redeeming virtues.

Horwitz describes German immigrants, for example, who denounced slavery and experimented with a primitive barter economy. The book also presents some hilarious episodes, including Horwitz’s attempt to ride a mule.

That said, Horwitz indicates that a week after he followed Olmsted to the Rio Grande, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Although not on a par with secession in 1860, the event was a “political jolt” that added to his inclination to see “commonalities” between Olmsted’s “troubled era” and his.  

Central Park visit

For Horwitz, those commonalities include a retreat “into tribal and partisan camps”; the role of ultraists, who stoke divisions, spread conspiracy theories, and trash government; and White Nationalism.

“Spying on the South’’ concludes with a visit to Central Park, Olmsted’s greatest achievement.

Designed to bring people together, sometimes serendipitously, and relief from “the cramped, confined, and controlling circumstances” of urban life, the park, Horwitz reports, is safer and better maintained than it had been in the 1980s; New York would be a lot less livable without it.

And yet, as prone to “the blues” and “the dumps” as Olmsted, Horwitz can’t help noticing that Trump buildings loom over Central Park, in a city (and country) that can’t escape disturbing divisions of class and race.

Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.


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