Yesterday, I rode the train from Buffalo to New York City. The tracks followed the Mohawk River in Central New York, nearing Albany. I took in the sheer number of shades of green that exist in the natural world. Then there were speckles of purple and white flowers. I tried to take in the scenery and spit it back out on the page into eloquent prose. Even through the rain, streaked across the windows, the nuances of the world showed through.
As I watched the wetlands pass by, I got a text message from Chris Mackowski: “Tony Horwitz died yesterday.”
Tony Horwitz was the kind of storyteller that showed you these very nuances I’d been pondering, and he did so seemingly effortlessly. His words painted the differences between moss green and spring green—the subtleties that define our communication and culture.
To bring your readers on every journey—trekking through history, weaving past and present together in enlightening, humorous and thought-provoking narratives—is a remarkable talent. That talent won Mr. Horwitz awards, including his 1995 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Equally as important, it won him fans and lifelong readers.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Horwitz about his best-selling book Confederates in the Attic for a forthcoming collection of essays from ECW entitled Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song. He was doing research at the time, traveling along the border of Texas and Mexico, presumably doing research for his latest release Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. He had spotty cell service, but he happily answered all my questions via email.
What came back was an honest commentary about the culture of the United States—now and then—and the responsibility that we all hold to be educated about our history and ask hard questions.
Mr. Horwitz was a master of asking hard questions—of his subjects and of himself. Though he described his research as decidedly unstructured, he left no stone unturned.
“I set off with the general idea of exploring the contemporary landscape of the Civil War and then pretty much went where my encounters led me,” Mr. Horwitz told me. “I tried to hit certain historic landmarks, like Fort Sumter and Richmond and Vicksburg, but wasn’t rigid about this and spent a considerable amount of time in small communities I’d never heard of.”
Maybe his lessons lay in his practice with those small communities: challenging and asking hard questions, but simultaneously seeking to understand, putting yourself into the other’s perspective, always digging deeper. If you do that, there’s no room left for surface-level interpretation—and you’ll begin to see all the shades of color the world has to offer.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Horwitz. Thank you.