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Remembering Pulitzer-winning journalist and author Tony Horwitz


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Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, we remember and hear from author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz.

He died suddenly yesterday of an apparent cardiac arrest. Horwitz was best known as the author of "Confederates in the Attic," a look at modern-day Southern attitudes about the Civil War and the people who reenact it. The book was a bestseller.

As a journalist, he covered conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans for The Wall Street Journal. He won the Pulitzer in 1995 for a series on income inequality and low-wage jobs, including working at chicken processing plants in the South.

A number of Horwitz's books are told through the narrative of a first-person account.

That's true of his latest book, "Spying on the South."

William Brangham recently sat down with him about it.

Here's that interview.

William Brangham: Almost 160 years ago, with America on the brink of Civil War, a young writer from Connecticut was sent South to file regular dispatches from the so-called Cotton Kingdom of the slave-holding states.

That reporter was Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who'd later gain international renown as the designer and architect of Central Park in Manhattan, the Capitol grounds in Washington, and many other famous sites.

A few years ago, another writer from the north, Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz, recreated Olmsted's trek state by state, often using similar modes of transport, and painting similarly indelible portraits of the people he met.

The resulting work is called "Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide."

And Tony Horwitz joins me now.

Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

Tony Horwitz: Thanks for having me again.

William Brangham: I have to admit this book was such a surprise to me.

As a former New Yorker and now someone who lives in Washington, D.C., I have spent many, many hours in the genius creations of Frederick Law Olmsted, and had no idea that he was a writer and a good one and a good reporter.

Tony Horwitz: Mm-hmm.

William Brangham: How did you find this story and decide this is what you wanted to do?

Tony Horwitz: The true story is that it happened while I was cleaning house.

My wife and I live in an old farmstead in Massachusetts, where everything sags. And our overflowing books don't help. And while sorting through them as we were fighting over shelf space, I rediscovered the "Cotton Kingdom," a book that grew out of Olmsted's reporting that I had been assigned in college.

And I dove back into it and was just instantly captivated by his vivid writing about the South.

William Brangham: Can you give us a sense of what was that it he was reporting?

We know where America was roughly on the cusp of the Civil War. But he was doing this for a Northern audience. What were the stories, what were the dispatches he was sending back North?

Tony Horwitz: Well, he was sent by The New York Times, which had just opened shop, and saw itself as the temperate and measured voice of reason at a time when papers were very overheated and partisan.

And so they wanted quite a sober analysis of the South's economy and society. But Olmsted is this very intrepid and adventurous fellow who is constantly wandering away from his beat into whatever he was curious about.

So he would wander through the open door of a black church in New Orleans, and then he write about the service that he witnessed, or what it was like staying at the homes of poor whites, where he often lodged on the road. At night, he would just knock on the door and pay them $1 for food and lodging.

So he really wrote about the everyday fabric of life in the South. That was the strength of his writing.

William Brangham: I mean, he wasn't an anti-slavery crusader, right? He did report on the gruesomeness that he saw, but he wasn't there to try to convince the North of the rightness of the cause.

Tony Horwitz: When he sets off, he's by no means an abolitionist. He's actually quite in line with Lincoln at that time.

In the course of his journey, his views harden, when he sees slavery up close, and he sees the intransigence of slave holders, who he realizes are willing to fight, rather than give an inch. So while he doesn't become an abolitionist really until the Civil War, his views become harder and harder as he travels the South.

William Brangham: So, you rediscovered these works. And you decide, I'm going to do this, too.

What were you hoping to do?

Tony Horwitz: Well, one, I was just -- I identified with Olmsted. I was a newspaper correspondent...

William Brangham: You wander off your beat all the time.

Tony Horwitz: ... for many years abroad and at home, complaining about my desk and my blown-out expense budget, as Olmsted does in his personal letters.

And I liked his spirit of just approaching strangers and ordinary people, rather than, you know, so-called experts and other sources that journalists often rely on, to just sense what he called the drift of things.

And I liked that. And I thought, well, here we are at another moment of national fracture. I will retrace his journey to see what he saw then and what I see now at another moment of polarization.

William Brangham: As you say, he's setting off when the country is on the cusp of Civil War.

We're obviously not that. But, as you write, I want the read a quote from here. This is 150 years later. You write that you found "inescapable echoes of the 1850s, extreme polarization, racial strife, demonization of the other side, embrace of inflamed opinion, over reasoned dialogue and debate."

Obviously, we have changed. We're not at war, but do you see those similarities that strongly?

Tony Horwitz: I think all of those things hold. There are real echoes of the 1850s, I mean, you know, obviously, entirely different eras, different issues, so I wouldn't want to overplay it.

But, you know, we're really shouting at and past each other in a way that is quite reminiscent. And our government seems paralyzed by its divisions, as it was in the 1850s, a loss of faith in our institutions.

So while I don't think we're on the cusp of violent breakup, and I certainly hope not, I certainly think there are warnings to be found in what Olmsted described in the 1850s.

William Brangham: We had Jared Diamond on the show a few days ago. And he was arguing that political polarization is one of the greatest threats to our democracy.

But you're more optimistic about the ability of the country to get past these divisions, right?

Tony Horwitz: Well, I think the divisions are certainly exaggerated, both by people who want to exploit our differences for political or other gain, but also by social media and the ways that we inhabit our separate silos and precincts.

And when you do, as I did, go out for a long period and meet people on barstools and in churches and workplaces and their homes, we may have very different views, but we can sit down and discuss them in a civil and even friendly manner.

Does that solve the problem? No. But I think it lowers the temperature on our conflict, which I do think can get amplified by our media and politics.

William Brangham: The book is "Spying on the South."

Tony Horwitz, thank you so much for being here.

Tony Horwitz: Thank you for having me.

Judy Woodruff: That interview was conducted earlier this month.

Tony Horwitz died yesterday, at the age of 60.

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