The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist wanders Dixie in search of what makes it so intractably un-American.
Picking up, in a sense, where Confederates in the Attic (1998) left off, Horwitz (Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, 2011, etc.) follows a fruitful trail in the footsteps of one-time journalist Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled through the South reporting on the region for the precursor to the New York Times before reinventing himself as “a visionary architect of New York’s Central Park, among many other spaces.” Olmsted found a land bent on racial suppression, even as blacks and whites lived side by side, as well as one on the brink of civil war; Horwitz wonders how much things have changed since then. He discovered plenty of difference. For example, in West Virginia, a state that seceded from secession to rejoin the Union, the author passed time with coal miners who have been perfectly happy to destroy their almost-heaven while complaining that federal environmental scientists “find a puddle in your yard and call it a wetland.” Like Olmsted, Horwitz’s circuitous path took him along the Mississippi River and into Texas, perhaps the most schizophrenic of states today. As the resident of one East Texas town told him, after the author witnessed one scene after another of casual racism punctuated by an oddly easy mixing of black and white residents, the place is “somewhere between Mayberry and Deliverance.” Horwitz seldom reaches deep; his book is casually observed and travelogue-ish (“Eagle Pass was no longer a mud-and-whiskey bedlam at the edge of the American frontier"), more Paul Theroux than de Tocqueville. Still, one can’t help but notice that the things that occupied Olmsted’s attention haven’t changed much in the years since the earlier traveler toured a region that sometimes defies description.
Not as sprightly as some of the author’s past reports from the fringes but provocative and well worth reading.