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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

One of the Washington Post’s Notable Nonfiction Books of 2019

One of NPR's Best Books of 2019 

“Timely.... A valuable work that combines biography, history and travelogue.... Horwitz is a smooth writer and an even better reporter (hardly surprising, given that he won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at The Wall Street Journal), and he recounts his travels with insight interspersed with humor, as well as with an intermittent raising of the eyebrows at numerous oddities and occasional evils.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“In Horwitz’s writing, past and present collide and march together on almost every page, prying our minds open with the absurdity, hilarity and humanity we encounter. Olmsted spent nine months traveling 4,000 miles and then wrote hundreds of pages about it; Horwitz spent two years revisiting his paths, his ideas and his psyche, capturing the story in 414 pages of sparkling prose.” (David Blight, The Washington Post

“A compelling report on the state of our present disunion.” (Wall Street Journal)

What listeners say about Spying on the South

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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.

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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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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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Would Be Better Abridged

There’s a lot of very interesting history in this book, but I can’t recommend it because there is also a lot of material that was of little interest, to me anyway.

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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.

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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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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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blah

I just found it boring. I suppose the content was just not for me.

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One of the Best

As a southerner for seven and a half decades, I smiled often at Horwitz's skill at capturing the good and the bad, the charm and the perversity, the peculiarities and predictability of my homeland and it's peoples. An insightful revelation of Olmsted. Extremely well narrated.

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On and on and on

This was impossible to listen to though I suffered through eight hours of it. Had to delete. It just drones on on on over over over the same thing. Borrrreddd.