The Gertrude Polk Brown Lecture Series
The Filson Historical Society presents
Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
In the 1850s, the young Frederick Law Olmsted was adrift, a restless farmer and dreamer in search of a mission. He found it during an extraordinary journey, as an undercover correspondent in the South for the up-and-coming New York Times.
For the Connecticut Yankee, pen name “Yeoman,” the South was alien, often hostile territory. Yet Olmsted traveled for 14 months, by horseback, steamboat, and stagecoach, seeking dialogue and common ground. His vivid dispatches about the lives and beliefs of Southerners–white and black, free and enslaved, rich and poor–were revelatory for readers of his day and have endured as classic texts for the study of America on the brink of cataclysmic break-up.
Yeoman’s remarkable trek also reshaped the American landscape. As a rebuke to the caste-bound ideology of the South’s master class, Olmsted sought to reform his own society by creating democratic spaces for the uplift of all. The result: Central Park and Olmsted’s path-breaking career as America’s foremost landscape architect.
Tony Horwitz rediscovers Yeoman Olmsted amidst the angry discord and polarization of our own time. Is America still one country? In search of answers, and his own adventures, Horwitz follows Olmsted’s tracks and often his mode of transport: through Appalachia, down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, into bayou Louisiana, and across Texas to the contested Mexican borderland.
Tony Horwitz is a native of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. As a foreign correspondent, he covered wars in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, mainly for the Wall Street Journal. Returning to the U.S., he won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and wrote for the New Yorker. He has also been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and president of the Society of American Historians.