Tony Horwitz was a great travel writer. He was a great writer (full stop). I was two-thirds into Spying on the South when I heard he died on May 27th. I quickly did a search to find out what happened. He wasn’t old enough to die.
I discovered Horwitz’s books through the shelves of travel memoirs in independent bookstores. When I pictured the author I pictured him hitchhiking through Australia like the photo below. I enjoyed all of his books, but my favorite, and his most successful is Confederates in the Attic.
I gave Confederates to lots of people as a gift, as is my habit when I’m enthusiastic about a book. It wasn’t just the humor, the quirky situations he gained access to observe, and the fascinating people he convinced to open up, it was his ability to reveal a Southern culture without mocking or approving.
When I read that he had a new book Spying on the South, I pre-ordered it. Of course he found a quirky angle to revisit the southern United States. Frederick Law Olmstead, the reknowned landscape architect that co-designed New York City’s Central Park, earned his living early in his life by traveling through the South and writing a kind of travelogue and sharing his first-hand accounts of slavery in mid-century 1800s. Horwitz intended to follow in Olmstead’s footsteps and observe the state of things. Horwitz’s timing was lucky in that he was sitting on bar stools talking to Trump voters in 2015 and 2016. He was a first hand witness to the biggest political upset in this century.
When I read that he may have passed away from a heart attack, I remembered the high fat, high carb diet he suffered while researching his book and wondered if it hastened his death. Or was it the whiskey that helped him bond with his interview subjects? Either way, I feel the loss. I am sad for his wife and sons, his friends, and all of his fans, including me, who lost Tony Horwitz at 60 years old.
His colleague and friend Jill Lapore’s obituary in the New Yorker magazine described a gentle, funny person. In Spying he engages the masochistic Buck to guide him on a horse trail through Texas Hill country. If his friendly curiosity is Horwitz’s superpower, Buck the mule man is his kryptonite. He observes about himself, “What stung much more was my failure in a department of which I’d felt I was chair: finding a way to reach and get along with just about anybody, no matter how different our backgrounds or beliefs or temperaments. This was one reason I’d identified with Olmstead. I shared his missionary spirit, believing that there was always room for dialogue, and great value in having it, if only to make it harder for Americans to demonize one another.”
The best way for me to honor him is to read the one book I missed somehow, Midnight Rising. And to do my best to emulate him in staying open and curious to my fellow Americans, and to other humans I meet around the globe. Jill Lapore suggests that he felt a shadow over our democracy as people more than flirted with authoritarian leaders and white supremacy. This is what one might call a natural response, all things considered. I am sorry we’ll all miss his insight as he was just starting his book tour for Spying. Reading the last third of his latest book, with the knowledge that these were in a sense were his last words, made it a little more melancholy, but no less charming and insightful. Treat yourself to a great travel read this summer with any of Horwitz’s books.