Remembering Tony Horwitz

One night last week, as I neared the end of Congressman John Lewis’s graphic novel trilogy, March, I began to ponder my next read. I had a pretty long list of “up nexts,” but somehow I had a sudden urge to read A Voyage Long and Strange, a book I hadn’t thought about since I picked it up in Jamestown about a year ago. When I woke up the next morning, I learned that its author had died the previous day, leaving behind a hole in the memory studies canon that cannot be filled.

Tony Horwitz, while serving as the president of the Society of American Historians, was about as far from the average historian as one can get. His words spoke with a vibrancy and exuberance that mirrored the always present and never dead past he wrote about. Whereas most historians simply bring the past to the public, Horwitz seemed to bring the public to the past, reversing the flow of dialogue in a manner that demanded reflection. His travelogue style brought new meaning to the power of place, bringing the reader to historically-potent spots in the past-informed (or, in many cases, past-misinformed) present.

When I first started writing for a public audience, I subconsciously channeled Horwitz’s style if not also a bit of his subject matter. I saw myself much as Horwitz did–a traveler in the Southland, hoping to lap up every bit of interpretation and interaction in order to better process how the past has been turned into history in the public eye. I had only read a couple excerpts of his best-selling work Confederates in the Attic at the time, but they had apparently left a mark. It appeared as though I, too, best processed the past through the present.

When I would read Confederates later, it felt oddly familiar. In many ways, it was a time-travelling experience through my youth and future, hopping from battlefield to battlefield and bumping into more than a few characters along the way. Reading Confederates somehow made those lived experiences feel more whole, and certainly added more to those encounters yet to come. After reading that book–while on a road trip myself, no less–I felt encouraged to further explore that strange feeling any Civil War buff gets when they step into Civil War land. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that feeling, but it somehow felt comforting that someone else felt it, too, and was bold enough to engage it head-on. I’m not sure anyone will ever definitively and conclusively explain that strange aura, but I do know that Tony Horwitz came the closest and did the most to advance our understanding of it.

As I read through A Voyage Long and Strange now, I cannot help but feel like a part of the experience of reading the book is missing. I’m not usually unnerved by reading the words of the dead–I’m a historian, after all–but something in the affability of the narrative just feels empty when you remember that the author is not, in fact speaking to you in real time, and that he can speak no more forever.

I do not usually feel the need to meet the authors of books that I read. Truth be told, I would much rather meet the subjects they write about. But with Tony Horwitz, they were one and the same and that made the reading experience all the more personal and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet him, but from those I know who had the opportunity, I am told he was as kind and witty in person as on the page. He will be sadly missed.

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