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An Author Goes 'Spying On The South' 160 Years After Frederick Law Olmsted

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book by Pulitzer-winning reporter Tony Horwitz who has covered wars and conflicts abroad but turned his attention to the conflicts in the U.S.



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Other segments from the episode on May 20, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 20, 2019: Interview with John Waters; Review of book 'Spying on the South.'



This is FRESH AIR. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tony Horwitz has covered national news as well as wars and conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. For the last decade or so, however, Horwitz has been training his expert eye on the conflicts raging in this country. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of his new book, "Spying On The South: An Odyssey Across The American Divide."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I've been waiting for Tony Horwitz to write another big on-the-road book that criss-crosses the American cultural divide ever since his bestseller "Confederates In The Attic" came out in 1998. For those who haven't read it, "Confederates In The Attic" is a revelatory and very funny first-person travelogue in which Horwitz roams the South, talking to battlefield re-enactors and members of the Daughters of the Confederacy in order to grasp what he calls America's unfinished Civil War.

Now Horwitz is back, exploring what critic Greil Marcus famously referred to as the old, weird America in his new book called "Spying On The South." This time, though, he's not traveling alone. His ghostly companion is Frederick Law Olmsted, the great 19th century landscape architect best known for designing New York's Central Park.

"Spying On The South" opened my eyes to so many things, starting with the figure of Olmsted himself. It turns out that as a young man, Olmsted was monumentally unfocused, dabbling in professions like merchant seamen and farming. His deliverance came in the form of a job offer in 1852 from the paper that would become The New York Times. Olmsted's assignment was to roam the antebellum South as an undercover correspondent. He set out on two journeys that lasted years, the second one taking him as far west as Texas. Eventually Olmsted wrote some 64 dispatches for the Times as well as three books.

But the most unexpected and powerful legacy of Olmsted's travels was Central Park itself. The aristocratic southern slave holders he'd met had insisted to Olmsted that northern society was every bit as hierarchical and closed as the South's. In answer, Olmsted created a people's park designed to be democratically open to all.

Some 160 years after Olmsted set out on the old B&O Railroad, Horwitz tells us he stepped aboard Amtrak - no bookings, no itinerary, just a ramble across America with long-dead Fred as my guide. Horwitz spends his first night on the road as Olmsted did in the town of Cumberland, Md., which Olmsted described as comfortless. Nevertheless, back then, the town was a major transportation hub billed as the gateway to the West.

These days, a Cumberland tavern owner tells Horwitz that the major industry is locking people up in the area's eight correctional facilities. That first night in Cumberland sets the pattern for how Horwitz's impressions will contrast with Olmsted's. For the mostly white working-class Americans Horwitz meets, the old promise of something better waiting beyond the horizon has been exhausted.

Aboard a coal barge, he rides down the Ohio River. Horwitz talks to a first mate who tells him that the barge offers a good living for country boys, a place you can still work from the neck down. But that coal barge is a slow-moving relic of America's industrial past. The small town present that Horwitz travels through is a landscape dominated by abandoned storefronts, rehab centers and wheezing businesses like the Cheapo Depot (ph).

Horwitz rightly prides himself on being a curious and empathetic freestyle conversationalist, a gift that Olmsted apparently shared. Travelling south and west by car, steamboat and even mule in advance of the 2016 primary season, Horwitz wants to gauge what Olmsted called the drift of things in America.

What he hears at almost every restaurant, bar, plantation house tour and town hall meeting is an earful about big government, gun rights and the fallacy of climate change, as well as disgust with handout Democrats. He also hears uglier views, like in Crockett, Texas, where white members of the Moosehead Lodge are convinced even against the word of the local sheriff that a big, gated property owned by a South Asian doctor is really a terrorist training camp.

Horwitz leaves Crockett with his faith in the illuminating power of fact shaken. "Spying On The South" is every bit as enlightening and alive with detail, absurdity and colorful characters as "Confederates In The Attic" was. That said, though, at a time when the American divide seems deeper and more entrenched, both books strike me as more somber than comic.

Horwitz tells us that he began his travels identifying with Olmsted's missionary spirit, believing that there was always room for dialogue and great value in having it, if only to make it harder for Americans to demonize each other. At journey's end, however, the earnest Horwitz finds himself all talked out. In a rainy Central Park, he tells us he walked from one end of Olmsted's great park to another, unaccustomedly alone with my thoughts.

CORRIGAN: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Spying On The South" by Tony Horwitz.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about dementia, its different causes, why it's been so difficult to find medications to slow its progress and how we can better treat people who have dementia. My guest will be psychiatrist and bioethicist Tia Powell, author of the new book "Dementia Reimagined: Building A Life Of Joy And Dignity From Beginning To End." She cared for her mother who had dementia. I hope you can join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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