Spying On The South by Tony Horwitz

In his new book, Spying on the South, Horwitz is back exploring what critic Greil Marcus famously referred to as "the old, weird America." This time, though, Horwitz is 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 seaman 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 slaveholders 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.

Washburn Library