The death of Tony Horwitz earlier this year was a tragic loss to the literary community and his last book, Spying on the South (Penguin Press, $30), is an exceptional example of the kind of intrepid spirit that he was. Following the wanderings of Frederick Law Olmsted through the South on the eve of the Civil War, Horwitz’s own travels read as an homage to the restless curiosity that drove Olmsted to roam and the empathy for humanity that inspired him to create Central Park, aka the “people’s park.” Rather than attempting to explain the South here, Horwitz—as Olmsted did—opts for offering observations over analysis. He lets us hear the voices of the people he meets, and as we listen to them tell their own tales, the book offers an implicit hope that we as readers will be able to find common ground among the diversity of experiences. Conversational and often humorous, Horwitz’s journalistic style is ultimately more poignant that comic; his openness and genuine interest in dialogue feels as uncommon and incredibly important in our political climate as it did to Olmsted two centuries ago.
In two previous books, Lose Your Mother and Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman pioneered “critical fabulation,” an approach combining archival research, critical theory, and fictional narrative to explore the afterlife of slavery and the effects of racism and exile on African-American identity. In her new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (W.W. Norton, $28.95), she uses a similar methodology to examine a generation of young Black women who rebelled against traditional social and cultural constraints. Focusing on the urban experience of Black women in the early twentieth century, Hartman, a Guggenheim Fellow and professor at Columbia, uses history and literary imagination to trace the lives of women who rejected both degrading conditions of work and normative gender roles in personal relationships, showing how these experiments in work, sex, and marriage constituted a radical transformation of Black intimate and social life.
Elliott Maraniss was a talented newspaperman when, in 1952, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his communist affi liations. He lost his job and was blacklisted for five years, yet retained his faith in the United States and went on eventually to a successful career in journalism. In A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father (Simon & Schuster, $28), David Maraniss tells his dad’s story along with the stories of others who were in the Committee hearing room—members of the Committee, his dad’s lawyer, and the FBI informant who named him. Through these individual histories, Maraniss explores what it means to be an American. On one level, the book is a touching family tale about a son’s search for his father’s past, but on a larger level it’s a resonant story with enduring universal significance, a tale of courage, conviction, betrayal, political opportunism, reckoning, and ultimately American identity.