I’ve been thinking a lot about Tony Horwitz since hearing that he died this week, at age 60, while on book tour. I’ve been thinking, especially, of the first time I heard him speak, in 2005—I can still picture him wearing a blue shirt and standing at the podium at the Key West Literary Seminar, telling the audience about a guy whose special skill was pretending to be the bloated corpse of a Civil War soldier.
The story came from Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic, which details his experiences traveling around the South, looking at the long-tail legacy of the Civil War. It’s a hell of a book, packed with meticulous research about the actual events of the war (all relayed with an academic’s precision and a storyteller’s artfulness), plus the remarkable tales of Horwitz’s own travels. He sleeps in battlefields with Bloated Corpse Guy and other hardcore reenactors (and learns that if it’s cold and you’re all cuddling, you want to be the inside spoon). He meets the last surviving widow of a Confederate soldier and a whole group of Scarlett O’Hara lookalikes and goes to a museum with a Ku Klux Klan robe on display, alongside a sign reading, “The Klan’s purpose was to rid the South of the carpetbag-scalawag-black governments, which were often corrupt.”
Moments like these are the unsettling the heart of the book, and something you can only get with this sort of history-plus-travel fusion: a visceral, often upsetting connection between past and present. You can hear the cicadas, taste the dirt of the back roads, feel the power of the spirits moving across the centuries. In one of the final chapters, Horwitz visits a high school in Alabama and learns about the ongoing, if unofficial, segregation of schools. “It’s a vicious cycle, and the whole South is caught in it, the whole nation, really,” a retired teacher tells him, in just one of the many moments in the book still feels jarringly current in 2019.
I devoured Confederates in the Attic as soon as I got home from Key West. I finished it in the laundry room of my apartment building, while the drying thumped along and then buzzed and fell quiet and I stayed in my spot, unable to move except to turn the page. The book was pieced together so intricately that I wanted to examine it at the microscopic level. It made me want to write and explore and read all the plaques and try to figure out this beautiful, maddening, confusing world. Here was someone having a blast but also grappling with serious issues. I’d been reading travelogues since I was a kid, but this was the first time I understood that they could move beyond the went-here-did-that personal journey and grapple with weighty societal issues, while still being fun.
At the time, I had one published travel story to my name, but I wanted to do more—lots more, maybe even make it a career. And suddenly, Horwitz had shown me an entirely new way of doing it, a path I hadn’t known existed. It’s a path I’ve tried to follow, with varying degrees of success, as I’ve built that career over the last fourteen years.
I’d been reading travelogues since I was a kid, but this was the first time I understood that they could grapple with weighty societal issues while still being fun.
I’ve kept reading his books, including his Confederates in the Attic follow-up, Blue Latitudes, during a long period of debilitating illness in the mid-Aughts. I was curled up in bed, but with Horwitz, I was sailing around the Pacific in the path of Captain Cook. Here were tropical islands, lush and beguiling but also complicated and sometimes pretty messed up, due largely to the legacy of colonialism. It was transportive but also realistic, exactly what I needed to get through the hardest time of my life. And years later, it served as a model for my own island-hopping travelogue, The Not-Quite States of America. Throughout my research and writing process, I kept finding myself asking, What would Tony Horwitz do? How would he integrate this particular bit of research? What questions would he ask this person? How would he untangle this thorny issue?
Horwitz’s great gift was pulling together vast amounts of information and anecdotes, harnessing all that noise to make a soul-stirring song. (It helps, certainly, that he started out as a reporter, winning a Pulitzer while at the Wall Street Journal). He brought history out of the realm of textbook abstractions and museum-exhibit tropes, introducing readers to the people whose lives are directly impacted by the past. Indeed, he showed how history impacts all of us, shaping every contour of our present-day society.
Horwitz was especially adept at dismantling the obfuscations and lies of collectively-understood history, showing the ways we get it wrong. As Horwitz demonstrates in Confederates in the Attic, for example, whitewashed Confederate history is not just easy to find but, in many places, all too hard to avoid (as Pam discusess elsewhere in this issue). Horwitz seemed to take true delight in digging deeper to understand whose stories are getting told and whose stories have been silenced, and to rectify that imbalance.
Perhaps most important of all, Horwitz knew how to package it. His genial, up-for-anything approach—working as a crewman on a replica of one of Captain Cook’s ships, in Blue Latitudes, or riding a mule in his latest book, Spying on the South—provided bait for a general audience (not just academics or the already-interested). And when the time came to discuss uncomfortable truths, Horwitz did so without being strident, condescending, or pedantic. He engaged with his subjects so he could engage with his readers, draw them in, and make them whisper, “Go on. Tell me more.” Tell us about the bloated-corpse reenactor, and also tell us about the insidious reach of racism. These two things can work in the same story, even in the same paragraph; it’s all part of the bigger, messy American story.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk about The Not-Quite States of America at a small book festival in Massachusetts. The organizers asked if I could recommend someone to appear with me. I offered the names of a couple of travel writer friends and then added that my dream would be Tony Horwitz, explaining that I’d always admired him. Honestly, it was a throwaway suggestion mostly meant to amuse myself. He was a big name, they probably wouldn’t even ask, he probably would say no. But they asked. And he said yes. He was kind, he was gracious, he was looking forward to it. I nearly dropped my phone when I got the email.
The event was planned for September, and I was already trying to think of what to say to him. How to thank him for the inspiration and for getting me through the worst of times, how to express how much I admired him, without turning into a babbling fanboy. I’m not sure I would have succeeded. It would have been awkward, because you can’t say all those things without it being awkward. Then again, a man who’s talked his way out of a beat-down at a biker bar (another scene in Confederates in the Attic) can probably handle an admiring author just fine.
It’s not to be, alas. But I hope that, no matter who might fill that event slot, we’ll take some time to talk about Tony Horwitz and what his books mean to us. For now, I still need to read Spying on the South, which was published earlier this month. This time, I’ll read slowly and savor it, fully enjoying one last journey with one of my favorite guides.