Spying on the South

An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrated by: Mark Deakins, Tony Horwitz
Length: 17 hrs and 11 mins
Categories: History, Americas
4.4 out of 5 stars (279 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The New York Times best-selling final book by the beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Tony Horwitz.

With Spying on the South, 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.

“A tour is only as good as its guide, and Horwitz is a seasoned one - inquisitive, open-minded, and opting for observation over judgment, whether at a dive bar, monster truck rally, the Creation Museum, or a historical plantation. The book will appeal to fans of travelogue, Civil War-era history, and current events by way of Southern sensibilities.” (Booklist)

“With the keen eye and deft pen that he's long brought to telling the odd and wonderful and fascinating story of America, Tony Horwitz has returned to familiar territory - the South - to give us a unique piece of reportage from a region that tells us a whole lot more about the country than the country sometimes wants to admit. Like his classic Confederates in the Attic, this book will be read, remembered, and treasured.” (Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian and author of The Soul of America

©2019 Tony Horwitz (P)2019 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Tony Horwitz’s reporting is fearless and persistent and inspired - and it produces views of America like no one else’s. Spying on the South kept me turning the pages to see what frightening and funny revelation was coming next. An important book for our almost unprecedented moment in history.” (Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and Travels in Siberia)

“In the long dark years before the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted toured the South by stage, by boat, by train, and by foot, reporting on a nation unraveling. Tony Horwitz does much more than follow in Olmsted’s footsteps in this searching travel narrative: he chronicles an American agony, the pain of division, the anguish of uncertainty. But he finds, too, an enduring American spirit of generosity, and commonweal, and curiosity.” (Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States)

“Two journeys, 160 years apart, remind us that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In the midst of our country’s long-overdue reckoning with symbols of white supremacy, Tony Horwitz retraces the steps of America’s greatest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, whose encounters with slavery forced him to rethink the role of civic spaces in the American experiment. Horwitz brings home a magnificent account of who we have been and what we might still become.” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Stony the Road)

“Having grown up amidst the Emerald Necklace, having lived off the northern fringes of Central Park and later the western edge of its rangier cousin, Prospect, and having read Devil In the White City, I truly did not know there were any more astonishments left in the life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Leave it to the incomparable Tony Horwitz to reveal Olmsted’s secret life as a journalistic super-spy, peering not merely into the burgeoning Confederacy, but, as Horowitz poignantly observes, a cultural divide with which we are still reckoning.” (John Hodgman, author of Vacationland

What listeners say about Spying on the South

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A fitting eulogy

A fitting eulogy for a thoughtful explainer of our complicated history and how it interconnects with our own turbulent times. He will be missed.

4 people found this helpful

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Great final story from a talented author

Tony Horwitz was at his best when he blended history and journalism to tell us of our country’s past and present. He excels at in his final journey: “Spying on the South,” which was published just weeks before his death. The book is a mix of history lesson and travelogue as Horwitz follows in the path of landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted’s journeys through antebellum south. Each chapter includes part of Olmsted’s trip followed by Horwitz’ 21st-century journalism. There are plenty of interesting characters he meets across the south, particularly in Texas, which accounts for the second half of the book. I am sad this is Horwitz’ final journey but think it was a fitting finale for the talented author. I thought the narrator did a great job of capturing Horwitz' personality during the first-person travelogue accounts.

2 people found this helpful

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Amazing American Heroes both men past and present.

This is a most read for all Americans. Central Park, I never knew, and now we have another reason to visit.

1 person found this helpful

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A Boring Odyssey

A lot of unrelated anecdotes told at tedious length that may or may not add up to much - I tuned out somewhere in Tennessee.

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Lovely finale for intrepid journalist/historian

All such works - retracing the steps of a traveler-journalist and, a decade after his long trek, celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and trying to make sense of the people and places he encounters - result in long sequences of, essentially, anecdotes, from which the author/traveler/investigator seeks to draw larger generalizations. The story of Olmsted's mounting animosity toward slavery runs through Horwitz's narrative, as does the author's indefatigable curiosity about "what makes things tick here?" and "who might I talk to that will help me understand?" Horwitz's generous treatment of a region that, to many, has been on the wrong side of history since 1619, or 1787, makes familiar sense of the state's, cities, and towns he passes through: with some exceptions, conservative, individualistic, religious, tribal, history-minded. Mining Olmsted's trilogy that comprises his The Cotton Kingdom enables Horwitz to resurrect history that few nonspecialists who read this book will have known about - for example, the antebellum experience of German 1848ers in Texan exile - and will send readers running back to the original texts. Horwitz does an excellent job following up on such stories and, where possible, bringing them up to date. He's also strong on detailing the horrors of slavery and the wrongs of Jim Crow. He draws unsurprising conclusions about political tribalism that is nearly analogous to the great national divide in the run-up to civil war. He is, however, generous to a near fault in writing about people with whom he disagrees. Horwitz concludes his trip by spending two days in Olmsted's greatest and best known work, NYC's Central Park, a monument to the artist's thoughts on Democracy as well as our first "park," to which the author adds a paean to beautiful open spaces and their place in our history. Tony Horwitz's untimely death, at age 60, in late May 2019, while touring this book, deprives us of an essential observer, commentator, and author.

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Outstanding

Deserves the National Book Award, hands down. In the vein of Travels with Charley, an instant classic of American literature.

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Great concept

By the end I realized I had enjoyed this one! Sort of like two books in one? Olmstead's writings condensed and Horwitz's expanded, detailed slog through Texas and the heart of early American conquests of America. I was happy to get to Central Park finally.

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Fitting companion to Confederates in the Attic

I'm a fan of Tony Horwitz and have read most of his work including Confederates in the Attic, which is an older title. This is an interesting travelogue across the South following in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted. I appreciated learning more about Olmsted and seeing the South through Horwitz's eyes as he went on his adventures, allowing most of the people to speak for themselves while later noting that some of the conversations were dispiriting. The narrator was very pleasant to listen to. I'd highly recommend this book.

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Another superb look at life!

I adore Tony Horwitz's writing! If I ever leave my husband, it will be to run off with Tony for a ramble through history and the world we inhabit! Every one of his books seems to be his best . . . and remains so the second or third time around. He's one of our greatest contemporary writers. Should be required reading before one is allowed to register to vote!

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solid travelogue

This was okay. I have greatly enjoyed Horwtiz's other books but found this one fell a little flat, did quite have the humor that some of his other ones had.