Exploring the Soul of the South – The New York Times
From Cumberland, Md., Horwitz followed Olmsted’s journey as closely as possible, west and south into Appalachia. Early on he visited a West Virginia bar where a waitress quickly identified him as a “Yankee boy spying on us hillbillies.” But he passed few judgments — at least not while actually on the trip — and only rarely did his obvious outsider status interfere with his mission or provoke hostility. Rather, his honest curiosity got people to open up. As they did, we learn about them, their lives and their communities.
Like Olmsted, Horwitz traveled by boat, train and other means. He went down the Ohio River on a towboat pushing 15,000 tons of coal, on a luxury paddle-wheeler down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and by land across Louisiana and Texas and into Mexico, where he took a dicey road trip to a cartel-infested Mexican town whose mayor was assassinated soon after. Along the way, he visited a creationism museum, enjoyed the gallows humor in a bar in “Cancer Alley” (so named because of the petrochemical plants lining the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge), watched an unforgettable Cajun-country “Mudfest” (trucks bulldozing their way through a kind of combination motocross and demolition derby, all at full speed in thick mire) and endured a humiliating trip on a mule in Texas with a guide who made the Jack Palance character in “City Slickers” seem sweet.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book are brief asides. For example, it may be common knowledge that automation has killed coal jobs, but knowledge deepens into understanding when Horwitz notes that 12 miners a shift produce six million tons of coal a year. That’s a long way from the song “Sixteen Tons” (“and deeper in debt”).
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. When he writes about history he becomes more serious, but often entertaining. There is an account of an aristocratic Southern abolitionist and brawler named Cassius Marcellus Clay: Attacked by a mob and shot in the chest, he carved up the shooter with a Bowie knife. Other episodes are simply tragic — the Civil War slaughter in Texas of dozens of antislavery German immigrants trying to reach slave-free Mexico.
Going back to Olmsted’s time, many books have tried to explain the South. Among the very best are W. J. Cash’s classic “The Mind of the South,” and the recent “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The genre might even be extended to include such not strictly regional books as J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and Jim Webb’s “Born Fighting.”
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