History Repeats

An iconic landscape architect’s Southern trek, revisited

Photo: Jacqueline Stofsick

The Southern travelogue constitutes its own subgenre of American lit. One reason, of course, is the sheer volume of writers who’ve documented their rambles through the South—a slew of journalists, plus litterateurs such as Henry Miller, James Agee, V. S. Naipaul, and more recently Paul Theroux. It’s as though writers interpret Shreve McCannon’s famous invocation in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all”—as orders to pack some notebooks and head southward. A chewier reason for according these books their own separate shelf, however, is the sameness that pervades so many of these accounts. The South is different, they all agree, but how—and, as important, why? Journeying writers invariably train their sights on peculiarities, large and small, in order to reckon with the South’s sphinxlike nature, and just as invariably find themselves exasperated by the region’s swelter of contradictions.

This is, in part, by design. One of the first templates for the Southern travelogue is a series of nineteenth-century books eventually condensed into a volume entitled The Cotton Kingdom. Their author—who spent fourteen months traversing the South in the simmering 1850s, as a correspondent for an upstart New York paper now known as the Times—earned great renown, though not for his writing. After his brief stint as a journalist, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) turned to landscape architecture, designing New York City’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Biltmore Estate, and a host of other green spaces. His unrivaled stature as a park maker has obscured his literary repute, but Olmsted set a model for writing about Southern travels. He was clear-eyed, inquisitive, nuanced, attuned to peculiarities, and oftentimes exasperated.

The same goes for Tony Horwitz, who follows Olmsted’s route in Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide. Horwitz, like Olmsted in his time, is alarmed by his country’s “retreat into tribal and partisan camps.” The Washington, D.C., native seeks, then, what Olmsted sought: “‘a reliable understanding of the sentiments and hopes & fears’ of Americans on the other side of the nation’s widening divide.” I’d push back, gently, that our divide is more urban/rural than regional—gently, that is, because Horwitz’s focus is only sporadically political. The true baseplate of his mission is this: “Parallel journeys, 160 years apart: what he saw then and what I’d see now.”

To that end, he does his best to retrace Olmsted’s actual steps. This means riding a coal tow down the Ohio River, a kitschy steamboat down the Mississippi, and a mule in the Texas Hill Country. When literal retracing fails, he goes for figurative: Olmsted’s laments about the South’s mud leads Horwitz to the Louisiana Mudfest, a four-wheel-drive bacchanal held outside of Alexandria. Olmsted “strayed into every byway of antebellum life,” writes Horwitz, who does similar straying in the present. He pokes his head everywhere, gawks at every historical marker, asks questions of everyone in sight, and seems to accept every invitation tendered to him. He’s good company, in short, which hasn’t always been a hallmark of the subgenre (Theroux’s
recent effort, for example, was a book-length sneer). He’s constantly and comically flustered by his inability to tell trees apart, unlike his landscape-minded forerunner. In a New Orleans church, he describes himself as “a parody of a white guy in a black church, clapping out of unison and jerking like a headless chicken.” His escapade with mules in Texas—a hospital visit is involved—almost derails the book into slapstick.

Reconciling Olmsted’s South with today’s isn’t always easy. Vistas lauded by Olmsted are now laced with strip malls. “I felt like a bloodhound,” Horwitz admits at one point, “dispatched on the trail of a long-dead scent.” But enough parallels remain—physical, cultural, and ideological—to give this journey heft, and to require frequent pauses for contemplation, for Horwitz to reckon with those intersections of past and present, and, at times, to home in, intriguingly, on what effects Olmsted’s journey had on his budding aesthetic, which later shaped our national aesthetic. “Let the reader understand that he is invited to travel in company with an honest growler,” Olmsted wrote in 1856. With Horwitz, that invitation still stands.