Remembering Tony Horwitz, a Historian Who Reckoned Fearlessly with the Legacy of the Civil War
Tony Horwitz’s great-grandfather Isaac Moses Perski came to America from tsarist Russia in 1882, a penniless teen-ager, and one of the first things he bought in his new country was a book, an illustrated history of the Civil War. In 1965, he showed that book to his very little great-grandson. “Peering over his arm, I saw pen-and-ink soldiers hurtling up at me with bayonets,” Horwitz later wrote in The New Yorker. “I was six, Poppa Isaac a hundred and one.”
Horwitz, who died Monday, at the age of sixty, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, a former New Yorker staff writer, and a distinguished American historian with a singular voice, full of compassion and delight and wry observations and self-deprecating humor—layers that covered but never obscured his deep and abiding moral seriousness about the task of the historian as the conscience of a nation.
The author of “Baghdad Without a Map,” Horwitz undertook adventure. He reported on strikes. He covered the war in Iraq. He once retraced the ocean voyage of James Cook. But, most lastingly, he wrote about the Civil War and its tortured legacy of hatred and division, battles that never ended. Those pen-and-ink soldiers, in the pages of Horwitz’s many books, came to life in their descendants, champions of the Confederacy, modern-day Klansmen, anguished, angry, and haunted.
His book “Confederates in the Attic,” from 1998, shattered his readers’ understanding of the Civil War. When Horwitz and his wife, the novelist Geraldine Brooks, had a son and decided to take a break from their work as war correspondents, they moved to a house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Horwitz started spending his weekends with Civil War reënactors. The Confederacy, he reported, was alive and well, and as full of animus at the idea of equality as ever. Horwitz interviewed a Klanswoman at a gathering, a macramé-making grandmother, who told him about the test she’d had to take, full of tricky questions. “Like, if someone asks, ‘Why do we hate Jews?’ I didn’t know before, but I found out.” Horwitz then asked her why she wasn’t wearing her robe. “It’s a good look,” she said, but “the cleaning bills will kill you.”
Horwitz wasn’t the liberal tourist, laughing at hicks. He hated that stuff. That attic? That was his attic, the American attic. As a boy, he’d painted the walls of the attic of his family’s house with a re-creation of the Battle of Antietam. “The attic became my bedroom,” he wrote, “and each morning I woke to the sound of my father bounding up the attic stairs, blowing a mock bugle call through his fingers and shouting, ‘General, the troops await your command!’ ”
I first met Tony fifteen years ago, when he spent a year at Harvard, and he sat in on a class of mine. We’d meet for lunch and swap stories and take walks and talk books. He’d come by the house and tease my kids. The first time his family came for dinner, we played Fishy, Fishy, Cross My Ocean in the park, and he made an excellent shark. The kindest, gentlest, and most generous people are always the ones most fun to watch trying to be ferocious. He was like an uncle, the one with all the funniest stories. Not the uncle who says “Gosh, you’ve gotten big!” to the littlest kid but the uncle who brings chocolate and says, to that kid, “Eat all of this before your brothers get back and I won’t tell them I brought it.” Mostly, we e-mailed each other terrible jokes, because we both had boys who had a particular passion for really bad one-liners.
Horwitz reckoned with the legacy of the Civil War all his life, fearlessly, long before battles over Confederate monuments and the press’s fascination with the resurgence of white nationalism. He was the rare historian—the only historian I can think of—equally at home in the archive and in an interview, a dedicated scholar, a devoted journalist. He counted, among his heroes, John Brown, the subject of his masterly book “Midnight Rising,” from 2011. But I think he identified most with the subject of his last book, “Spying on the South,” Frederick Law Olmsted, who, on assignment for the Times, reported on the South in the eighteen-fifties, years before he became a landscape architect and designed Central Park. Horwitz retraced Olmsted’s steps, and redid his reporting, in Trump’s America, marvelling at what his “Fred” had seen, and what he hadn’t, and what’s changed, and what hasn’t. He’d send me dispatches from the road, full of despair and homesickness and dread. He’d struggled with writing the end of the book. He wanted to find something beautiful for the ending, and where, now, is beauty? A century and a half after the Civil War, twenty years after “Confederates in the Attic,” people hate one another as much as ever, hurtling tweets as barbed and blood-soaked as bayonets.
He went, in the end, to Central Park, to wander. He struck up a conversation with a sixth grader from Harlem, and asked him what he liked best about the park. “Going where I want,” the kid said. Tony said he thought the man who designed the park would like that, and the kid asked what his name was, and then the kid said, “Tell Fred he did good.”