Thank You, Tony Horwitz

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Editors’ Note: This is one of two essays about how journalist Tony Horwitz (1958-2019) impacted the careers of public historians. You can read the first one here.

In May 2019, I was stunned to hear of the death of journalist Tony Horwitz, just as his final book, Spying on the South, was being released. This public historian, and many others, felt they had lost a hero. What follows, then, is a belated thank-you note on the first anniversary of Horwitz’s death. This is an act of commemoration for a writer who drew his readers’ attention to the wealth and diversity of historical representation all around us.

This is a color photograph of a man standing on grass with a body of water in the background. There are very few clouds in the sky (which is blue). The May is wearing dark pants and jacket as well as a blue shirt. He is carrying a narrow sign on a wooden post. The sign reads "RUDIN" down the middle in blue. There is a yellow star at the top. On the left, there is a blue stripe. There is a red stripe on the right.

The author joining Acadians for a historical procession, 2005. Photo credit: Ronald Rudin

In order to appreciate Horwitz’s contribution to public history, we need to go back to the time of his first—and best known—work dealing with the past, Confederates in the Attic, published in 1999. By then, he was already an important writer who had distinguished himself for his willingness to spend time with people whose stories were often ignored, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for reporting in the Wall Street Journal on the difficult working conditions in a range of industries, from financial services to poultry processing. His hands-on reporting style was particularly evident when he went undercover in a processing plant in Mississippi, where workers told him about the dangers connected with their jobs.

Horwitz brought the same sensibility to his books about history, listening to and reporting on the lives of ordinary people who had strong connections to the past. This may not seem very innovative today, but in 1999 public history was still far from mainstream. Instead, history was largely dominated by what historian Peter Novick referred to as “that noble dream,” the belief that we could reach some objective truth about the past, a task facilitated by keeping our subjects at a distance. In that context, lacking any real connection with the larger public, historians were not looked upon very kindly as reliable sources about the past. This point was driven home in surveys carried out by historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen for their path-breaking book, The Presence of the Past (1998), published at roughly the same time as Confederates in the Attic.

But if historians were not held in high regard at the turn of the millennium, there was no lack of interest in history among the general public. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that almost all Americans were engaged in one way or another with the past through activities that ranged from visiting museums to collecting photographs. Horwitz foregrounded the importance of this engagement in a number of books that were constructed around journeys, a technique he also employed in his works that were unrelated to history.

Horwitz’s first encounter with the past took him through the American South and its on-going connection with the Civil War, particularly the Confederacy. The journey began when he met up with a group of men consumed with recreating the lives of Confederate soldiers. They refused to call themselves re-enactors, a term that failed to capture their “absolute fidelity to the 1860s.” Instead, they identified as “hardcores,” one of whom—Rob Hodge—served as Horwitz’s connection to that world, making numerous appearances in Confederates. On one occasion, Hodge explained the importance of weight loss to hardcores in their “never ending quest for authenticity. “If you look at pension records, you realize that very few Civil War soldiers weighed more than a hundred thirty-five pounds.'” So it was the hardcore’s “dream to drop a few pants’ sizes and achieve the gaunt, hollow-look of underfed Confederates.”

Horwitz might have treated the hardcores as eccentrics, but that was not his goal. Rather he was there to listen to their stories, much as the oral historian Alessandro Portelli listened to those of coal-mining families in Kentucky in his They Say in Harlan County (2011). As Portelli put it, “I was not there to study them but to learn from and about them.” Horwitz was inspired by the hardcores, and set off to “spend a year at war, searching out the places and people who kept memory of the conflict alive in the present day.” He met up with hundreds of individuals who visited battlefields, belonged to organizations committed to preserving the ideals of the Confederacy, or participated in a variety of commemorative events.

With very few exceptions, he presented the people he encountered to his readers without judging them. For instance, in the context of a debate in the South Carolina legislature over whether a Confederate battle flag should continue to fly over the capitol’s dome, Horwitz met a man named Walt, who belonged to a far right-group that was on hand to preserve the status quo. From the start, Walt made no effort to conceal his anti-Semitism, but this didn’t prevent Horwitz, a Jew, from observing: “There was a feisty iconoclasm about Walt that I couldn’t help admiring, even if he was on the mailing list of every hate group in America.”

Until I read Confederates in the Attic, it had never occurred to me that a professional historian could do what he was doing, to leave the comfort of the archives, and connect with people who had their own interest in representing the past. As it turned out, I was thinking at the time about a project dealing with the construction of commemorative events in the early twenty-first century that pertained to the Acadians, the French-speakers of Atlantic Canada. But I needed someone to give me the nudge and the courage to go out in the field to talk to people with no historical training who were engaged with the past. Inspired by Horwitz, I set off on a journey of my own that resulted in Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie: A Historian’s Journey through Public Memory (2009).

Once I had the bug, I carried out a number of other projects with oral history components, and throughout I was sustained by Horwitz who had still further journeys to share with his readers, starting with Blue Latitudes (2002). This work differed from Confederates in that it followed a specific route, retracing the voyages across the Pacific of the British explorer James Cook. Starting as a member of a crew on a replica of one of Cook’s ships, Horwitz went on to visit places where Cook had made landfall, from Australia to Alaska, often engaging with the current residents, some as quirky as the hardcores, about how (or if) they remembered Cook.

In his final two history-related books, there were still further journeys that took him back to the American South and the legacy of the Civil War. In Midnight Rising (2011), Horwitz described the route that led John Brown to Harper’s Ferry; and in Spying on the South (2019), he followed the path of Frederick Law Olmsted, before he became the renowned landscape architect, as Olmsted travelled through the antebellum south, reporting for the New York Times. Along the way, Horwitz engaged with Americans about their country during the summer of 2016. At the end of the book, he encountered a boy in Central Park and asked him what he enjoyed about it. When the boy asked Horwitz who created the park, Horwitz told him Olmsted’s name, to which the boy responded, “Tell Fred he did good.”

Speaking for many public historians, I would like to “Tell Tony he did good.”

~ Ronald Rudin is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History and the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University in Montreal. Tony Horwitz’s influence is evident in both his most recent book, Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park, and his most recent documentary film, Unnatural Landscapes.

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