Olmsted’s Iliad: An Old & New South

Since Ulrich Bonnell Phillips declared a “New South” in the early 20th century, the quest to explain the differences between the Old and the New has enthralled American academia. Was Reconstruction successful at reorienting the social paradigm that long defined it? Or, did the Yankee values enforced upon them fail to permeate? We may never have a clear answer for either. Though changed forever by the abolition of slavery, the South will never be the North. In plenty of ways, that eternal distinction is more than welcome. I come to this conclusion because I have realized that there is a lingering bittersweetness to the New Southern way of life. On one hand, hospitality and evangelical values have replaced much of the old Cavalier, aristocratic, and racist institutions of yesteryear. Might I add, It is particularly hard to find a Southerner that would introduce himself anything but cordially – distinct from the classism of the Old. Still, ever-present are recurring problems that have evolved from the Old South to the New that are less than desirable.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by Tony Horwitz brilliantly exemplifies the South as it was then, and how it is today. Through mirroring the once volatile trek of Frederick Olmsted into the heart of the South, Horwitz finds both staggering differences and dispiriting similarities. The once institutional racism found in the South is no more, but the malign cultural remnants of Jim Crow persist. Further, Horwitz tackles the tough reality of how the death of Southern industries caused by a global economy, alludes to a similar economic divergence of the North and South during the time of Olmsted. And although many stereotypes of Southerners by those in the North are proven inadequate, a dark underbelly of division remains omnipresent. These important factors followed Horwitz throughout his odyssey to an anticlimactic epiphany that – in spirit – not much has truly changed.

Why does Horwitz follow Olmsted’s venture into the South?

While rummaging through an old barn beside his home, Horwitz comes upon a book, The Cotton Kingdom, by Frederick Olmsted. This book, detailing a venturous journey South, encapsulates Horwitz and initiates his obsession with the voyage of Olmsted. A prominent journalist for the New York Daily Times, and later an even more influential architect, Horwitz sees a similar secular bourgeoisie outlook in Olmsted that he finds in himself, “I shared Olmsted’s allergy to theology, and all I could recall about Romans was the line about the wages of sin being death.” Further, both Horwitz and Olmsted hail from the same stock of New England, college-educated, White Americans with a relatively well-off upbringing. Both the obsession with Olmsted’s journey that Horwitz develops, and an ability to project his own upbringing and views onto Olmsted, Horwitz decides to follow in a similar route South.

What does Horwitz search for, find, and how does it affect Society Today?

Rather than “Go West, young man”, the original purpose of Horwitz’s expedition South could be aptly applied as “Go South, old man”. Olmsted writes, “Travelling about, without definite aim, in an original but on the whole, very pleasant fashion.”

Later, this journey would evolve into analyzing the divisions faced in America and understanding exactly how deep that division goes. While in Louisiana, exploring the city of Baton Rouge, Horwitz is demonstrated to look at a bridge initiated by former governor Huey P. Long. While discussing the legacy of Huey P. Long, Horwitz compares him to that of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in modern politics:

‘”As I listened to Long fulminate against the “favored few” and champion the little man, Bernie Sanders was voicing similar themes on the campaign trail. Trump tapped this populism, too, with a style and tactics that Huey foreshadowed.”‘

This theme delves deep within the book, where Horwitz draws from the past throughout his journey to better understand the climate of politics today. Through analyzing Huey P. Long, Horwitz diagnosis the populist movement as one not only unique to our era; this trend continues when he begins to uncover the reality of the opiate crisis, exemplified while visiting Sour Lake in Texas: The forsaken settlement he (Olmsted) described hadn’t changed much, either, including Liberty, which he called “a stunted hamlet.” I stopped there for a cold drink and asked the man at the counter what people here did. “Meth,” he replied. “And Oxy.”

Due to the loss of opportunity in many of these rural areas, local inhabitants have turned to drugs to alleviate pain, boredom, and a sense of unfulfillment. Horwitz’s experience in Sour Lake is but one example of a trend that plagues the South, and he is successful throughout his expedition of uncovering similar persisting issues.

Similarities in the Southern Journey

Other than the obvious similarity of the route taken by Olmsted being followed by Horwitz, the exact locations that Horwitz comes upon sometimes are eerily like that explained by Olmsted in his own venture, some 160 years later. One such example is found in Horwitz’s comparison of the prison system in the South to that of slavery of yesteryear: Angola was also an agribusiness, known as, “the Farm,” with up to a thousand inmates at work each day raising crops and livestock… The current warden once likened the prison to “a big plantation in days gone by.”

In a chilling realization by Horwitz, the blatant slavery of Olmsted’s era is now being undertaken through the prison system itself. The plantation owners that interacted with Olmsted have seemingly been taken over in spirit by the prison wardens. Horwitz dances around this controversial take by including such a comparison but not making personal opinions on it clear, however, the eerie similarity persists.

Throughout Horwitz’s journey, he also came upon far more meager and hopeful similarities to that of Olmsted’s. Locations buried in time, of a seemingly different world, persist in the foundation. In the outskirts of Sisterdale in Texas, Horwitz was greeted by a property owner who owned land relevant to Olmsted’s historical experience, saying that, “He also invited us to tour an old farmhouse on his land that belonged to a German family Olmsted visited.” Experiences like these simultaneously emphasize the Southern hospitality shared in both Horwitz interacting with the modern property owner, and Olmsted interacting with the former. Horwitz elaborates on this similar compassion earlier in his journey while in the religious city of Crockett, Texas, “I liked Joni and many others I’d met in and around Crockett. They’d been very welcoming and open about their beliefs, while doubtless suspecting I didn’t share them.” Both examples show how Horwitz not only experienced the negative down South but also reveled in the positive experiences.

Differences in the Southern Journey

Due to the lapse in time between the trek of Olmsted and Horwitz, change is all but inevitable as both experience different situations state by state. The sheer size and scope of river travel during the time of Olmsted were considerably different than what we think of today with modern shipping: At the time he traveled, Memphis and a few other ports were the only stops of even modest size along the 1,200 miles of river between St. Louis and New Orleans. Most settlements consisted of a handful of crude buildings and a woodyard to supply passing vessels.

Surely this impetus to travel hindered Olmsted’s, path of maneuvering about the Mississippi throughout the South in a way Horwitz was not reserved too. Further, the lack of automobiles would have made the trip considerably longer. This could be an advantage for Olmsted, as he was able to experience the pure South in a less hasty manner.

The explosion of the state of Texas and San Antonio, contrary to the time of Olmsted, becomes immediately apparent to Horwitz, writing:

The meteoric growth of greater Austin and San Antonio, and all points between, was unlike any I could recall seeing in my years of roaming the continent as a reporter and writer.

He adds in the same paragraph, “It was also a striking contrast to the distressed and depopulated areas I’d so often passed on my journey.” This contrasts with Olmsted’s experience in central Texas, specifically San Antonio, where he described it as, “with about six thousand inhabitants.” He adds, “’San Antonio was “outposted” on the frontier, geographically and culturally remote from the rest of the nation.” Where Olmsted encountered a world limited in communication, commerce, and culture, Horwitz describes one still with remnants of such an existence, but much more connected and linked together through globalization and migration.

In Closure

Through following the ghostly path of Frederick Olmsted, Tony Horwitz effectively compares the differences and unfortunate similarities from the once slave-holding empire, to that of a more somber, dejected, and forgotten region still tainted by prejudices of a different era. The health of our nation, as pondered by Horwitz on his journey, is found to be only bustling in major, modern cities – found mostly in Texas and the sunbelt. The deep South that Olmsted spent most of his time wandering about, has fallen back once again to second class status of an ever skill-driven world, in a similar fashion as their failure to industrialize. Horwitz’s own conclusion on his journey is one of great content. Walking through central park, Horwitz meets a young boy questioning what he likes best of the park. Horwitz answers in a similar way to how he would describe his Southern venture as, “Just exploring… going where I want. Sometimes I get lost.”


Horwitz, Tony. Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.