The first time I wrote to Tony Horwitz, he responded back within 24 hours.
I was a college junior and had just finished reading Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Horwitz’ funny and eye-opening 1998 travelogue across the South. I was blown away by how he had skillfully combined my two main career interests at the time, history and journalism: making the Civil War relatable through the lens of dozens of 20th-century Americans.
And now here he was, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist giving me advice.
“Just get out there and talk to people,” he said. “Everyone has a story and almost everyone is willing to tell it.”
Horwitz, who died in May at age 60, told amazing stories. In three decades as a journalist and historian, he covered Middle East battlegrounds, dangerous low-wage working conditions, and the towns along the route of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. He studied Captain James Cook and abolitionist John Brown, and explored the Europeans who arrived in North America before the Pilgrims.
And in Spying on the South, An Odyssey Across the American Divide, which was published just weeks before his death, he followed the path of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s journeys through the antebellum South.
For me, the best moments always came through his interactions with others. He was able to walk up to complete strangers and get them to open up about their daily routines, their thoughts on the world, and their perspectives on how history has been — or should be — remembered.
How should we remember Horwitz? Was he primarily a reporter who loved and wrote about history, or a historian with a strong journalistic background?
In the week I spent with him in 2012 at the University of Massachusetts, it was clear he was perfectly happy to not fit neatly into either camp.
Horwitz loved carrying a reporter’s notebook in his back pocket but expressed real concerns about news organizations’ ability to survive in the coming decades. And despite being invited to the UMass Amherst campus for a week as the history department’s writer-in-residence, he made no claims to the title of historian, nor did his war stories include a fight for tenure.
On Horwitz’s second day on campus that week, a history professor opened a lunchtime roundtable discussion by asking the author his views on “public history.” Horwitz was considered an essential part of the UMass public history curriculum, which focuses on an approach to teaching history outside the classroom.
“I need a definition of public history,” said Horwitz, a slight grin emerging on his face, his eyes looking at the professor from behind thin-rimmed glasses. “I’m not entirely clear what it is.”
There was an expectation in the history classrooms Horwitz visited that week: that as writer-in-residence he’d unleash major revelations about his own writing or research process.
But when prodded by professors and students, he struggled to label his tactics. He quipped that he must have missed the third-grade class where they taught outlines. Some of the best stories he ever wrote began by walking around without a plan.
For decades, Horwitz had been in a kind of journalism purgatory: his early success emerged from his reporting background, but he said he had to actively work to “unlearn journalistic writing” when he began to author books for a living. And while he was clearly interested in learning about the world around him, he resisted reading newspapers whenever working on a book.
He had never set out to become a journalist. But as an undergraduate history major at Brown University, Horwitz’ senior thesis adviser told him he needed to get out into the world. He became a union organizer in Mississippi, and as he rushed home each night to write about the characters he met and encounters he observed, he discovered a passion for writing and reporting.
He viewed “Mississippi Wood,” a PBS documentary he created about Southern loggers, as his ticket into the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It was there where he met his future wife, Geraldine Brooks, and from that point on, their lives were “interwoven with our writing,” said Horwitz.
Brooks’ reporting career took the couple across the world: first to her native country of Australia, and then into the Middle East — where she became a foreign correspondent and Horwitz tagged along, despite speaking zero Arabic and having no pay guarantee. He wrote stories as a stringer, “the lowest rung of the journalism food chain,” he said. While Brooks interviewed state officials and filed reports, Horwitz wandered the streets, making feeble attempts at conversation in an effort to find stories.
The story ended well for Horwitz. The Wall Street Journal ultimately hired him, and his experiences along the way became the material for his 1991 book Baghdad Without A Map.
When he returned to the United States in 1994, Horwitz began his series on poor labor conditions, for which he would win a Pulitzer Prize. As part of his reporting, he went undercover at poultry processing plants in Mississippi and Arkansas, working along an assembly line of dead chicken mutilation.
“Obviously I couldn’t sit there with a notebook in my hand,” said Horwitz. “I would try to absorb as much as I could while I was in there and … during bathroom breaks I would run and scribble notes or talk into a tape recorder.”
For months, he was unable to eat chicken. When we spoke in 2012, he could still vividly remember the factories’ stench and recall the fatigue that set in after countless hours working on the assembly line, where even going to the bathroom was discouraged.
“I didn’t become physically sick. I just remember being exhausted to the point of feeling like I just wanted to lie down on the floor,” he said.
There were plenty of examples like this throughout Horwitz’ writing: where he thrust himself into wild situations in order to get the best story. In Confederates in the Attic, he donned Civil War garb to join a corps of reenactors, braving the cold to trek across Southern terrain and sleep under the stars.
During the next decade he took a nautical journey for Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before and traveled throughout North America for A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. After the latter was published in 2008, he began to feel as if his travelogue days may be numbered.
“I don’t feel the same thrill I once did … sleeping in ditches and doing some of the rather extreme things I used to do,” Horwitz told me at UMass, likening himself to a 39-year-old baseball player. “Maybe I could play another season or two at this but I don’t want to hang around and embarrass myself.”
For his 2011 book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, he bypassed the cross-country trip in favor of an archival treasure hunt — in which the “rabbit holes” the author threw himself down put a smile on his face.
But Horwitz couldn’t stay away from the road for long. He ended up writing two more travelogues: BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever, his 2014 investigation into the Keystone Pipeline project; and his last book Spying on the South.
I learned about Horwitz’ death nearly eight years to the day I first messaged him. In the hours that followed, the only thing I could think to do was start reading his final story.
In Spying on the South, Horwitz travels by car, train, boat, and mule — following the path that the landscape architect Olmsted took in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In a move that Horwitz surely admired, Olmsted went undercover to travel the South and report back his observations in dispatches to the New York Daily Times.
In a letter home to a family member, Olmsted wrote that the key to travel is “to place oneself in situations and circumstances where … one does not know what to expect next.”
That’s a motto that sums up Horwitz’ life as well as any. And Spying on the South is classic Horwitz: a history lesson on Olmsted mixed with a cultural lesson on the 21st century south. As I read his final journey, I could vividly picture him with his reporter’s notebook at bar counters chatting with patrons — or a sheepish grin emerging across his face as he asked what exactly it would take to be able to hitch a ride on a coal barge.
He was doing what I and so many others admired the most about him: merging journalism and history, teaching us about our country’s past and present, and having fun along the way.