The B&N Podcast: Tony Horwitz on an American Odyssey

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

f you’ve ever heard the name Frederick Law Olmstead, it’s probably because of his work as  the co-creator of New York City’s Central Park. But long before that career a young Olmstead was a journalist, and in 1852 he was hired by a still-young New York Times to tour the American South — to meet and interview people, write up his impressions of cities, towns and slave-labor plantations — and to write dispatches for readers about the part of the country that was coming to represent the other side of a political divide from northeastern readers.

Enter journalist and author Tony Horwitz, and his new book Spying on the South. In books like his groundbreaking Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Horwitz has already mapped our national obsession with the conflict that tore the U.S. in two. When Horwitz rediscovered Olmstead’s writings, he decided to set out on his own journey –one that takes us back into the fraught 1850s that Olmstead chronicles, and juxtaposes it with travels that Horwitz takes in the present day –visiting historical sites, taking part in solemn ceremonies and raucous festivals — and mostly talking with the people he meets. Inventive, bold, ever-curious and always good company for his readers, Horwitz joined us in the studio to talk about this ambitious project.

The best-selling author of Confederates in the Attic returns to the South and the Civil War era for an epic adventure on the trail of America’s greatest landscape architect.

In the 1850s, the young Frederick Law Olmsted was adrift, a restless farmer and dreamer in search of a mission. He found it during an extraordinary journey, as an undercover correspondent in the South for the up-and-coming New York Times.

For the Connecticut Yankee, pen name “Yeoman,” the South was alien, often hostile territory. Yet Olmsted traveled for 14 months, by horseback, steamboat, and stagecoach, seeking dialogue and common ground. His vivid dispatches about the lives and beliefs of Southerners were revelatory for readers of his day, and Yeoman’s remarkable trek also reshaped the American landscape, as Olmsted sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for the uplift of all. The result: Central Park and Olmsted’s career as America’s first and foremost landscape architect.

Tony Horwitz rediscovers Yeoman Olmsted amidst the discord and polarization of our own time. Is America still one country? In search of answers, and his own adventures, Horwitz follows Olmsted’s tracks and often his mode of transport (including muleback): through Appalachia, down the Mississippi River, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland. Venturing far off beaten paths, Horwitz uncovers bracing vestiges and strange new mutations of the Cotton Kingdom. Horwitz’s intrepid and often hilarious journey through an outsized American landscape is a masterpiece in the tradition of Great Plains, Bad Land, and the author’s own classic, Confederates in the Attic.

Explore more books by Tony Horwitz.

Like this podcast? Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to discover intriguing new conversations every week.