Author Spotlight: Tony Horwitz

By Alyssa S.

Although restrictions are slowly lifting, life isn’t exactly back to normal in the age of COVID-19, so how about some fun and educational armchair travel with one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Tony Horwitz? When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, embedded journalist, war correspondent, and historian died suddenly a year ago at age 60, I was as shocked as I was by Anthony Bourdain’s passing. He was agelessly youthful and his writing projected such vigor. He was the anti-Bill Bryson in some ways, and I love Bryson. Bryson is terrified of large spiders and other creepies; Horwitz would probably eat them on a dare.

My husband grew up in Australia as one of only three people of color at his school, so we feel a kinship and affection for the continent that’s tempered by its dark side. My introduction to Horwitz was 1987’s One For the Road, his account of hitchhiking around Australia in a big loop that deliberately left out most prominent tourist destinations. Instead of the Sydney Opera House, wine country, and the Gold Coast, we get a long, grubby look at “the Back of Bourke”, the true Outback beyond the coastal cities and inland farmlands. At the time of the book’s writing, some Outback residents measured distances by how many beers you could drink in the car on the way, and twisted and desiccated abandoned vehicles hours from any semblance of services testify to how sensible that is. This book is an absolute blast, but we learn a lot about the legacy of racism and colonialism in Australia along the wild ride.

Horwitz was interested in overlooked history. Here in the US, many of us learned in school about Columbus “discovering” the “New World” and then we jump to some of the first European settler communities like the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. What happened with European presence here between those two eras? Rather a lot, according to Horvitz’ 2008 book A Voyage Long and Strange, in which he follows the routes of various half-forgotten pre-Pilgrim European explorers, relating their eclectic motivations and variable levels of foolishness, and their lasting impacts on the local people and the centuries that followed in what’s now called North America.

Horwitz may be best known for his books about abolition and the Civil War’s legacy. In Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, from 1998, he travels around the South getting to know people from many walks of life, exploring the continuing thrall the “Lost Cause” holds upon many white Southerners and its impact on Southern culture and life in “classrooms, courts, and country bars.” He joins Civil War reenactors so dedicated to physical accuracy that they willingly crash diet, harbor lice, and sleep in ditches in the rain; observes Klan rallies; and interviews scholars and residents who expose the realities behind the mythology.

Confederates was followed by Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War and his final book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. In the latter, Horwitz takes all manner of archaic and old-fashioned transportation to follow the footsteps of journalist and future landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled the antebellum South under an assumed name, dispatching stories that exposed Northern readers to the horrors of slavery and its defenders’ extremism.

I’m always struck by how Horwitz could make rollicking, page-turning reads out of serious, challenging topics without downplaying the realities involved.

More Tony Horwitz and author readalikes.

Who are your favorite travel writers and embedded journalists? Tell us in the comments.

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