Author Tony Horwitz  (1958 - 2019)

While watching the PBS NewsHour last night, I was saddened to learn of the sudden passing of author Tony Horwitz.  OK, I admit that a few months ago I’d never heard of Horwitz.  But this spring I read a few of his books and he quickly shot towards the top of my “Favorite Authors” list.  Sadly, the story of his passing didn't cause even a blip on the national news scene, given all the political craziness going on in Washington, and I probably wouldn't have heard about his death if I didn't watch the NewsHour.  But I'd like to tell you about him.

Horwitz, who lived in Virginia, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent and the author of several books.  The news of his death especially stunned me because I’m currently reading his fascinating book, “Confederates in the Attic,” in which he describes contemporary attitudes about the Civil War in the American South.  If you're familiar with Horwitz and have read my websites, including this one and DelsJourney.com, you’ll realize that Tony and I both enjoy writing about history, geography, and travel (and hopefully with a dash of humor), and that we each enjoy following in the footsteps of notable people and historic events.  The similarities end there, however, because he was a much better writer than I’ll ever be.  These past few months, as I was reading his terrific books, I kept thinking to myself, “This is the kind of author I hope to be someday.”

Let me back up.  I’ve always been a voracious reader and enjoy reading every night before I go to bed.  I bought a Kindle reader in 2016 and love it, and since getting my Kindle, I’ve read something (usually related to history) almost every night no matter where I’ve been:  while camping in the Florida Keys, in a tent on the Oregon coast, or now, at my house in Portland.  Although I read at a glacial pace, I’m very persistent and over the past three years, I’ve devoured several large tomes about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and other episodes of American and world history. 

... 
 
Above:  The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Tony Horwitz

A few months ago, I was nearing the end of "Nothing Like it in the World," Stephen Ambrose's book about the construction of America's first transcontinental railroad in 1869, so I began perusing Amazon’s collection looking for something new to read.  I wanted to read something about world exploration and ran across a book called “Blue Latitudes” by an author, unknown to me, named Tony Horwitz.  According to the Amazon blurb, the book was a contemporary look at the voyages of the eighteenth-century British explorer, Captain James Cook, so it piqued my interest.

I’ve been fascinated with Captain Cook ever since I was a college sophomore when I accidentally stumbled across Cook’s journals in the UC Irvine library.  Cook’s story, which I read when I probably should’ve been studying for my Computer Science exams, fascinated me.  As I learned, Cook was a humble explorer from very modest beginnings who rose to the rank of Captain, then led three expeditions around the Pacific in the 1700s while filling in more of the world’s map than perhaps any other explorer, including Columbus and Marco Polo.  Cook was the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands (in 1778), only to be killed there by Hawaiians the next year.  Ever since I first read Cook’s journals in college, I’ve idolized him more than any other explorer – except for my Dad, of course. 

So this Amazon best-selling book called “Blue Latitudes" (with the amusing subtitle, "Boldly Going where Captain Cook has Gone Before" with its allusion to Star Trek) by an author unknown to me named Tony Horwitz intrigued me.  I bought the book, spent a couple months reading it, and was captivated.  The author wrote the book in 2002 about his travels around the world as he retraced Cook’s footsteps.  Horwitz visited Cook’s birthplace in England as well as many of the places that Cook had traveled and “discovered” in the 1700s, including Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, and finally, Hawaii, and wrote about his encounters with the people he met in each location, while asking them what they thought of Captain Cook.  Given Horwitz’s fluid writing style and personable demeanor, the pages flew by, even for this snail's-pace reader.

From reading Horwitz’s book, however, I was disappointed to learn how poorly Captain Cook is viewed today in several areas of the Pacific, with some locals blaming him for their current problems, just as certain Native Americans apparently blame Columbus for their issues.  In what I learned is his typical style, Horwitz never took sides in the book, being instead a neutral observer.  But by the end, and from reading between the lines, you could tell that he greatly admired Captain Cook.

... 
 
Above:  Tony's 2002 Cook Book.

Cook was the first European to sail around New Zealand, in 1769, which Horwitz wrote about in his book.  Horwitz described in detail his visit to the coastal city of Gisborne, the first place in New Zealand where Cook landed.  I've also visited Gisborne, during my two-month trip to New Zealand in 2001-02, and while reading Horwitz's book, I realized that he'd visited Gisborne just a few months before me.  In fact, one of my few sad memories of my visit to New Zealand was seeing a newly-erected monument to Captain Cook in Gisborne defaced by the locals (see my story here).  In “Blue Latitudes,” Horwitz described watching a construction crew place that same monument, apparently just a few months before my visit.

I was impressed with “Blue Latitudes,” especially Horwitz’s approach of talking to locals about historic events in that area (something I enjoy doing during my travels) and then conveying that discussion in insightful and humorous prose (something I try to do in my websites, though with limited success).

After I finished reading “Blue Latitudes” a month ago, I looked on Amazon for other books written by Horwitz and found what is apparently his most acclaimed book, called “Confederates in the Attic.”  According to the Amazon summary, it’s a contemporary look at the Civil War in the South, and how the war still resonates with many southerners.  My great-great-grandfather, a fellow named Ransom Myers, lost an arm during the Civil War while fighting with the Union Army in the Tenth Michigan infantry, so I’ve long been fascinated with the war and have read countless books about it since my childhood. 

Given my weariness with the growing rancor of today’s political climate, however, a book titled “Confederates in the Attic” probably wouldn't be high on my reading list.  And not surprisingly, given the book's hot-button topic of racism and slavery, it seemed to be criticized equally by both the extreme left and the far right.  But the book generated mostly glowing reviews and comments.  I was especially intrigued by Tony's approach of talking to people on both sides of the issue while trying to understand everyone's point of view – a good idea in 1998 when he wrote the book, and even more important today given America's increasingly toxic, segmented and polarized political environment. 

So I bought "Confederates in the Attic" a few weeks ago and began reading it.  As I was reading the book, I thought about my 2001 visit to the Civil War battlefield in Shiloh, Tennessee where I got a wonderful tour from a local southerner and Confederate historian, whose great-grandfather may well have fought there against my Union Army great-grandfather in 1862.  Horwitz, as he described, had a similar experience during his visit to Shiloh just a few years earlier.  When I closed my Kindle on Monday night, I was up to page 120 and told myself, "I want to find out more about this guy.  What a terrific writer."  

The next evening, after work and dinner, I was watching the PBS NewsHour and at the top of the show, anchor Judy Woodruff summed up the evening news stories.  She concluded her summary by saying “… and finally, a brief discussion with the late author, Tony Horwitz.” 

I was stunned, not only that Judy mentioned the author I'm currently reading, but by her comment about the "late” author.  As I learned later in the show, Horwitz had died suddenly of a heart attack the day before, on Monday.  As a tribute to Horwitz, the NewsHour aired a five-minute interview with him done in 2018.  It was the first time I’d seen him or heard him speak, and he was just as I’d imagined:  energetic, interesting, articulate and intellectually curious. 

I was very saddened to learn of Tony’s passing.  As I’ve discovered these past few months, during our respective searches to better understand local cultures and history, Tony and I had visited many of the same places around the world – from Antietam to Australia, from Shiloh to Gisborne – and we both enjoyed writing about our experiences and sharing our insights and perspectives with others.  He and I were about the same age, we both had a similar view of the world, we shared a deep passion for history and geography, and we both enjoyed following in the footsteps of others to learn more about them.    

If you enjoy history, be sure to read “Blue Latitudes” and “Confederates in the Attic.”  I never met Tony Horwitz but I feel a strong kinship with him, and I’ll surely miss him.

 

 "I was midway to Gettysburg with a live chicken slung over one shoulder when I realized my Civil War odyssey had come to an end."                     

– The humorous first line of the last chapter in "Confederates in the Attic."

 

 
 
 
 

 

Home          About          Contact Me          Privacy