'Fresh Air' Remembers Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer Tony Horwitz | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Fresh Air' Remembers Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer Tony Horwitz

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 30, 2019 12:10 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author Tony Horwitz died Monday unexpectedly at the age of 60. He was in the middle of a book tour promoting his new book, "Spying On The South." He's survived by his wife, the journalist Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons. Before becoming a full-time author, Tony Horwitz covered wars and conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq for The Wall Street Journal. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his stories about working conditions in low-wage America.

I interviewed Tony Horwitz in 1998 about his bestseller "Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches From The Unfinished Civil War." At the time, he was covering the South for The Wall Street Journal. The book chronicled the obsession that thousands of Americans have with the Civil War, dressing up in Confederate or Union uniforms and reenacting famous Civil War battles. He spent time with reenactors and traveled around the country to examine the legacy of the Civil War. Here's an excerpt of our 1998 interview.

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GROSS: Tony, give us an overview about the kind of reenactments that happen now in the South.

TONY HORWITZ: Well, that's not just in the South. They do reenactments everywhere now, even in California and even overseas and in Germany. I met a German reenactor who's started a unit over there. So this is really a global phenomenon.

But basically between about now and fall, which is when most Civil War combat occurred, there will be every weekend, particularly in Virginia, reenactments of battles - typically they try and time them for the anniversaries of that battle - where, you know, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people will come out and put on uniforms and shoot blanks.

One of the surprises to me about this is that so many women are involved and that, in fact, the growth area of reenacting is among women who play civilian roles - nurses, laundresses. You can see embalmers. And some women also play soldiers, of course. But this is much more than, you know, men going out and playing boy for the day and going, bang, bang, you're dead.

GROSS: We should say here that reenactment is a word that a lot of the people who participate in these restaged wars really hate. Why do they hate it?

HORWITZ: Well, the ones who hate it the most are called hardcores. And this was a particular group that I hooked up with in my book. They believe in trying to achieve total authenticity. And in their view, really, even reenacting battles is phony because, of course, no bullets are flying.

So what they do instead, for instance, is they'll have a weekend where they play Union and Confederate sentries on either side of a frozen river. And they'll sit there all weekend. And maybe once in the weekend, one of them will say, hey, Yank, want to trade some coffee for some of this fine Southern 'bacco? And that'll be it (laughter).

They'll be, you know, trying to reenact the war as it really happened - a lot of marching, a lot of sitting around. They'll only eat the foods that soldiers would have eaten. They'll only use the language that soldiers, you know, would use. In a sense, they'd say, we're not reenacting; we're living it. We're living historians.

GROSS: Why relive that? Why - what are they getting out of reliving the boredom and the hardship?

HORWITZ: Right. I think part of it is a kind of guilt, almost, about how easy life is in the late 20th century. You know, I guess the draft ended in about '72. For men like myself under the age of about 42 or 43, other than those who served in the Gulf War, we're really among the first generation, really, in this century to not have to go off to war or serve in the military.

And I think there's - because of that, there's perhaps some guilt but also some romanticization of this experience. We heard about it from our fathers and our grandfathers. And I have to suspect that if a few more of these folks had served in Vietnam, for instance, they may not be so keen to reenact their military experience.

GROSS: Now, you did go to a huge reenactment of the Battle of the Wilderness...

HORWITZ: Right.

GROSS: ...Which was fought in 1864. Tell us about the original battle, and then we'll find out more about the reenactment.

HORWITZ: Right. Well, the original battle was really one of the most horrible in the war. It was when Grant took over in the East. And his idea, really, was to just wear down the South and use the North's superiority in numbers to fight battle after battle. And the Wilderness was the first of that campaign. And it was fought in a really very jungly wood in central Virginia, hence the name Wilderness. It was really a draw, but with immense casualties - 25,000, 30,000 casualties in the course of two days. The woods caught on fire and burned some of the wounded. There were hogs feasting on the dead. It was really a very grisly battle.

GROSS: And what's the reenactment like? How many people showed up when you were there?

HORWITZ: (Laughter) Thousands - it was quite a large reenactment. One of the interesting things to me is it's all sort of signposted. You drive, and it'll say Battle of the Wilderness this way...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HORWITZ: ...And Confederate parking lot over here and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HORWITZ: ...Which, of course, wasn't the case in the Wilderness. They wandered around lost in the woods for days. And then you get out there in your unit. I was a Confederate. And you march into battle. And in some ways, it's easy to laugh at this hobby, but there are elements of it that I feel do teach you something about war. I was particularly struck by the music and the drill steps that I had learned keep you - it's a way of dealing with the stress of battle, really. You become almost an automaton. You're locked into this unit, going right, left, right, left, while someone's beating a drum.

For me, though, it all sort of fell apart when you get to the shooting part of the battle because no one wants to die. I mean, you've driven several hours to be there. Who wants to go down in the first five minutes? So you have people shooting at each other for, you know, 20 minutes. And finally a commander will say, OK, guys, you know, time to take some hits. And it's kind of all fall down. So the realism kind of slipped away at that point for me.

GROSS: Who decides who's dead?

HORWITZ: Well, they have all kinds of ways of doing it. They recognize that they have this problem - that people don't want to die. So sometimes at the beginning of the reenactment, they'll say, everyone born January through March, you're dead, March through June, serious casualties - or you know, that sort of thing. It's - but it's really an honor system. If someone points a gun right at you and shoots, you know, in theory, you go down.

GROSS: How long did it take for you to go down?

HORWITZ: I was pretty much like everyone else. I wanted to, you know, take part. So maybe after about 20 minutes, my whole unit went down.

GROSS: How long did you have to play dead?

HORWITZ: Not very long (laughter). It was towards the end of the battle when we joined it. And what amused me was that they play "Taps." And we get up, and - well, actually, the commander says resurrect. And we would all get up and go and shake hands with the Union dead. And everyone in the audience would cheer. So it was quite a companionable ending to it.

GROSS: Did you get a sense of what it might have felt like to be on the battlefield, as much as you could get a sense from a reenactment?

HORWITZ: Well, again, I think the smoke and noise - and again, the battles that I covered overseas - that's what strikes you - the incredible noise and the smoke and this confusion. And I certainly felt that. We couldn't see a thing at the Wilderness. In fact, we almost fired on the spectators at one point. So yeah, I think there are aspects of it that you can appreciate. But again, you know, what really defines war, I think, is the experience of risking death, and since that's not a part of it, I think that that's quite an obstacle.

GROSS: Did the whole reenactment seem particularly strange to you because you had covered real battles abroad?

HORWITZ: Well, again, yes, because I think the kind of tragedy and brutality has been drained out of it, and it's really this sort of reenactment of really just the spectacle and the glamour of war almost, without the grisliness. The other thing that's rather odd is that almost everyone wants to play a rebel, even if they're from the North. So as you may know, in the actual war at the Battle of Wilderness and most others, the North massively outnumbered the South. But in reenactments, it's usually the opposite.

So you have a historical problem. You're trying to reenact, say, Pickett's Charge, and you've got 10,000 screaming rebels and 500 beleaguered blue coats who are somehow supposed to emerge victorious, and that's a little hard to do. And sometimes, in fact, people playing rebels will go a little further and sort of try and, you know, rewrite history. I mean, just because it's the Lost Cause doesn't mean you have to keep losing it forever.

GROSS: Why do more people want to be rebels? Is it because they're Southern, more Southerners participate?

HORWITZ: No, many of them are Northerners, and I think this is a complex and interesting question. You know, I think, one, there's this sort of instinctive allegiance that Americans have to the underdogs and, at least militarily, the South was the underdog. I think it speaks more broadly to the romance of the South. You know, sort of conformist ranks of blue can't compete with these doomed cavaliers, who were somehow very romantic - Ashley Wilkes and J.E.B. Stuart. But I think there's also a really serious question here.

You know, from about 5th grade on, we're always told that the winners write the history, and in the case of the Civil War, I'm not sure that's true. I think that the South lost the war, but in some ways, it's won the history or at least fought it to a draw, and I think that's reflected in the great romance surrounding the South still.

GROSS: Did you bring up the slavery question with white people who were dressing as Confederates? I mean, how did they feel fighting for the side that supported the continuation of slavery?

HORWITZ: Well, again, there's this curious sort of suspension of belief that goes on with reenactments. What reenactors will say to you is that we're not here to debate the issues of the war; we're here to reenact the experience of the common soldier, North or South - their valor, their sacrifice, their suffering - and we're not here to debate ideology. And one of the things I found odd about this is they are so well-informed about the minutia of battle.

For instance, they can tell you how many men were killed in their unit in each battle and exactly what they ate and what they wore. But when it comes to the issues surrounding the war, their memory just really isn't so strong. They just - they really just - really aren't very interested in a way, or they just want to set it aside so that they can have this event that's free of ideology.

GROSS: Well, after one of the reenactments in which you were dressed as a Confederate soldier, you went to a 7-Eleven and ran into some African Americans who were shopping there. And how did it feel to be dressed, you know, as a rebel, as the side that was supporting slavery...

HORWITZ: Right.

GROSS: ...You know, running into African Americans?

HORWITZ: Well, this was a sobering thing for me because somehow, in the course of the weekend, you really are just play acting. It's almost a carnival atmosphere, that you dress up, and you inhabit another role; you become someone else for a day. And it is just play acting; no one's there talking about the causes of the war. And I realized that this really isn't something you can play act and somehow just leave the issues behind, as much as reenactors want to do it. You know, there are some really unresolved issues surrounding the Civil War, and if you're going to reenact it, you need to face those honestly as well.

GROSS: You asked a very good and provocative question to a young African American preacher. You asked if there was any way for white Southerners to honor their forebears without insulting his. What was his response?

HORWITZ: His response was, fine - remember the war, warts and all. I guess what offends him is this attempt to make heroes out of Southern generals and other figures. And his attitude was, if you're going to remember it, remember the bad as well, and then maybe, you know, I'll take part. Another - a black woman said something else to me that stuck with me; she said, they can remember that war all they want, as long as they remember they lost.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're listening back to my 1998 interview with Tony Horwitz, who died Monday at the age of 60. We'll hear more of the conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Journalist and author Tony Horwitz died Monday at age 60. We're listening back to my 1998 interview with him about his book "Confederates In The Attic: Dispatches From The Unfinished Civil War." It's about how the war is, in some ways, still being fought, including in reenactments of famous battles.

You know, I've never really quite understood the obsession that some people still have with the Civil War. But I always figured that must have something to do with the fact that my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They didn't get here until after the Civil War. So the war has no direct ancestral connection for me. But on the other hand, your great grandfather, who was also an Eastern European immigrant, came to America, lived in the North and became very absorbed in Civil War history. What was the nature of his interest in the Civil War?

HORWITZ: Well, in a way, this is what got me started over 30 years ago. I was very fortunate in that my great grandfather lived to be over 100, so I knew him as a child. And one day he took out this quite fantastic book of Civil War sketches that he had purchased soon after arriving from Russia in 1882, and it really drew me into the Civil War. And it wasn't really till years later that I started thinking about this, and I said, why, an immigrant who spoke almost no English, who arrived here as a teenage draft dodger from the Czar's army, you know, what was it about this war that intrigued him so much? And you know, no one ever thought to ask him. I have a few ideas, but, you know, I can't really answer that question. But I think there are millions like myself who have no ancestral or really regional ties to the war, yet we're fascinated by it.

GROSS: So what are your ideas about why your great grandfather was fascinated by the Civil War?

HORWITZ: Well, there's a very thoughtful essay that Robert Penn Warren wrote called "The Legacy Of The Civil War" that, to my mind, is still one of the best things written on the subject. And he talks about the Civil War being the ritual of becoming American, that somehow understanding this great conflict is part of how you feel and become American. And I think perhaps particularly for my great grandfather arriving only 17 years after the end of the war, he came from learned rabbinical stock. And I think perhaps he saw the Civil War as a sort of Talmud that would unlock the secrets of this country that he'd come to and make him feel more American.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. I think one of the things that continues to separate the North and the South is the Civil War in the sense that I think many more Southerners are obsessed with the Civil War in a way that Northerners are not. Do you agree?

HORWITZ: Well, oh, absolutely. I mean, that's sort of the premise of my book - is that, you know, the war is still going on. Some Southerners - and I don't mean to suggest by any means most or - most Southerners, but a strong subculture are really still fighting this war by other means. It's not military anymore, but it's still going on. And I think there are all kinds of reasons for this, some of them quite obvious.

You know, 1 out of every 3 Confederate soldiers died in this war. You know, the casualties - a million people - there were a million casualties in this war when - at a time when this country only had 32, 33 million people. So if you adjust that for today's population, you're talking about 8 million casualties. And in the South, it was much more severe than in the North. So I don't think this is something people forget quickly.

Also, as Shelby Foote has often pointed out, you remember your losses much more than your victories. Winners tend to kind of win and move on. And I think when you lose, there's a sting there, a need to explain it and justify it that continues.

GROSS: Now I have to ask you a pop culture question.

HORWITZ: Sure.

GROSS: What are some of your favorite movies or books about the Civil War?

HORWITZ: I have to say I find most of the movies pretty dreadful. I think "Glory" comes the closest to conveying the experience of Civil War combat much more successfully, say, than "Gettysburg" does. In terms of books, "Cold Mountain" obviously, though it's not about Civil War combat really, I think gives an incredibly rich and true and historically correct image of what life was like in the 1860s South. I'm very fond of things that were written quite a while ago - Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy. Edmund Wilson wrote a very fine book in - during the centennial about the war that I think still stands up very well - has a wonderful line about why it is we still remember the war. And he says America has forgotten all its wars, and it's tried to forget the Civil War. But the enemy is still on the premises, and he won't let us forget it.

GROSS: And what do you think of "Gone With The Wind" (laughter)?

HORWITZ: Well, "Gone With The Wind," again, I think speaks to this issue of the South in some sense winning the history of the war. I think it's obvious that "Gone With The Wind" has done more than any of the 60,000-plus history books written about the Civil War to shape popular notions about the war. I think the novel is quite wonderful. And if you read it carefully, you realize she's by no means an apologist for the lost cause. She's got a lot of scorn for it. I think the movie glossed over that and really created this very soft-focused image of the antebellum South, and I'm less fond of that.

GROSS: Well, Tony Horwitz, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

HORWITZ: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Tony Horwitz was recorded in 1998 after the publication of his book "Confederates In The Attic." He died Monday just a couple of weeks after the publication of his new book "Spying On The South: An Odyssey Across The American Divide." We'll hear Maureen Corrigan's review of that book after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering journalist Tony Horwitz, who died Monday at age 60. Throughout his career, Horwitz covered national news as well as wars and conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. For the last decade or so, Horwitz trained his expert eye on the conflicts ranging in this country. And this month, he published a new book called "Spying On The South." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviewed that book on FRESH AIR last week. Here's that review.

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MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I've been waiting for Tony Horwitz to write another big on-the-road book that criss-crosses the American cultural divide ever since his bestseller "Confederates In The Attic" came out in 1998. For those who haven't read it, "Confederates In The Attic" is a revelatory and very funny first-person travelogue in which Horwitz roams the South, talking to battlefield re-enactors and members of the Daughters of the Confederacy in order to grasp what he calls America's unfinished Civil War.

Now Horwitz is back, exploring what critic Greil Marcus famously referred to as the old, weird America in his new book called "Spying On The South." This time, though, he's not traveling alone. His ghostly companion is Frederick Law Olmsted, the great 19th century landscape architect best known for designing New York's Central Park.

"Spying On The South" opened my eyes to so many things, starting with the figure of Olmsted himself. It turns out that as a young man, Olmsted was monumentally unfocused, dabbling in professions like merchant seamen and farming. His deliverance came in the form of a job offer in 1852 from the paper that would become The New York Times. Olmsted's assignment was to roam the antebellum South as an undercover correspondent. He set out on two journeys that lasted years, the second one taking him as far west as Texas. Eventually Olmsted wrote some 64 dispatches for the Times as well as three books.

But the most unexpected and powerful legacy of Olmsted's travels was Central Park itself. The aristocratic southern slave holders he'd met had insisted to Olmsted that northern society was every bit as hierarchical and closed as the South's. In answer, Olmsted created a people's park designed to be democratically open to all.

Some 160 years after Olmsted set out on the old B&O Railroad, Horwitz tells us he stepped aboard Amtrak - no bookings, no itinerary, just a ramble across America with long-dead Fred as my guide. Horwitz spends his first night on the road as Olmsted did in the town of Cumberland, Md., which Olmsted described as comfortless. Nevertheless, back then, the town was a major transportation hub billed as the gateway to the West.

These days, a Cumberland tavern owner tells Horwitz that the major industry is locking people up in the area's eight correctional facilities. That first night in Cumberland sets the pattern for how Horwitz's impressions will contrast with Olmsted's. For the mostly white working-class Americans Horwitz meets, the old promise of something better waiting beyond the horizon has been exhausted.

Aboard a coal barge, he rides down the Ohio River. Horwitz talks to a first mate who tells him that the barge offers a good living for country boys, a place you can still work from the neck down. But that coal barge is a slow-moving relic of America's industrial past. The small town present that Horwitz travels through is a landscape dominated by abandoned storefronts, rehab centers and wheezing businesses like the Cheapo Depot (ph).

Horwitz rightly prides himself on being a curious and empathetic freestyle conversationalist, a gift that Olmsted apparently shared. Travelling south and west by car, steamboat and even mule in advance of the 2016 primary season, Horwitz wants to gauge what Olmsted called the drift of things in America.

What he hears at almost every restaurant, bar, plantation house tour and town hall meeting is an earful about big government, gun rights and the fallacy of climate change, as well as disgust with handout Democrats. He also hears uglier views, like in Crockett, Texas, where white members of the Moosehead Lodge are convinced even against the word of the local sheriff that a big, gated property owned by a South Asian doctor is really a terrorist training camp.

Horwitz leaves Crockett with his faith in the illuminating power of fact shaken. "Spying On The South" is every bit as enlightening and alive with detail, absurdity and colorful characters as "Confederates In The Attic" was. That said, though, at a time when the American divide seems deeper and more entrenched, both books strike me as more somber than comic.

Horwitz tells us that he began his travels identifying with Olmsted's missionary spirit, believing that there was always room for dialogue and great value in having it, if only to make it harder for Americans to demonize each other. At journey's end, however, the earnest Horwitz finds himself all talked out. In a rainy Central Park, he tells us he walked from one end of Olmsted's great park to another, unaccustomedly alone with my thoughts.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Spying On The South" by Tony Horwitz. He died Monday at age 60.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak. We'll talk about the court's direction on abortion, the role the Court might play in Congressional committee subpoenas that President Trump is resisting and how the Court is changing with Trump's two appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIS COSTELLO AND BURT BACHARACH'S "VAMP DOLCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.