Brow Beat

Tony Horwitz’s Greatest Book, Confederates in the Attic, Seems Even More Crucial Today

Tony Horwitz and the cover of Confederates in the Attic.
Tony Horwitz. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Susan Heilbron.

Author Tony Horwitz died on Monday, at age 60. Horwitz won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his writing on working conditions in low-wage jobs; he was the author of many books, including a new one—Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide—that just came out this month. But it’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished American Civil War, which Horwitz published in 1998, that’s beloved by historians, educators, and, as far as I can tell, everyone else. Confederates remains, 21 years later, smart, humane, and addictively snappy and stylish. It’s also an artifact of a much more optimistic time, when the partisan divide in this country could still furnish material for an entertaining, thought-provoking travelogue. Given Horwitz’s empathy for both the defenders of Confederate “heritage” and the black citizens of the South who live alongside those defenders, some passages of the book read now like a document from the distant past.

Confederates in the Attic, which I first encountered in an American studies undergraduate classroom a few years after it came out, is a gift to teachers of American history. It’s wryly funny but sneakily profound: Horwitz packs the book with the goofy practices of die-hard historical reenactors (“You don’t talk about Monday Night football,” one reenactor told Horwitz; “you curse Abe Lincoln or say things like, ‘I wonder how Becky’s getting on back at the farm’”), but Confederates is essentially a book-length argument for the continuing importance of history in everyday life.

Horwitz meets some people with some pretty confused ideas about history. In reporting on his visit to a meeting of a group called Children of the Confederacy, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Horwitz partially reproduces the text of the organization’s “catechism,” a pamphlet of questions and answers that the children were expected to memorize: “Q. What was the feeling of the slaves towards their masters? A. They were faithful and devoted and were always ready and willing to serve them.” I can read a rhetorical analysis of five variations of these catechisms online; the value of Horwitz’s reporting is in his careful questioning of some of the attendees of the meeting, including Beth, a “tall, intense girl of twelve with braces and a black barrette stuck crookedly in her hair.” Beth calls herself “not prejudiced” and allows: “I’m sure there were some good things about the North.” She also (like many a 12-year-old) is obsessed with Anne Frank, and with the victims of the Holocaust in general. “What gets me is the heart of the Jews,” Beth tells Horwitz. “They were underdogs, they knew they were going to die but they didn’t give up the faith. Just like the Confederates.”

Horwitz wrote Confederates at a time when a diatribe from a “defender” of the Confederate battle flag about “the ethnic cleansing of Southern whites”—“There’s even a black yellow pages in South Carolina. Can you imagine a yellow pages for whites? No way”—still might have surprised a Northern reader like myself. Horwitz’s observation that these racist, reactionary Southern whites were adopting the language of the civil rights movement—one little old lady defending a high school’s rebel mascot even said to Horwitz, “We shall overcome”—still felt novel. Now, our president has adopted this language of “white oppression,” and it’s everywhere. Reporters who want to untangle the ties between lovers of Confederate “heritage” and other conspiracy theories born on the extremist right can parse it all online, without leaving their desks. But it adds something to the story to hear Horwitz describe the way Walt, another battle-flag defender, invites him to share his dinner—tofu stir-fry, because he doesn’t trust “federally inspected meat.” Horwitz declines, though “there was a feisty iconoclasm about Walt that I couldn’t help admiring.”

In a few places in the book, Horwitz’s identity—he was a D.C. native, of Jewish heritage, an elite, educated Northerner—changes the way that people react to him. But he keeps inserting himself into all sorts of places that seem dangerous for him—including a biker bar, where he almost gets beat up. Revisiting the book once more, I keep thinking that I—a woman with a healthy amount of fear, little taste for awkward social situations, and a 2019-level discomfort with allowing racism to pass by unremarked—could never have written this book. As a reporter, Tony Horwitz knew when to hold his tongue, a lot or a little, to get the story. This can be uncomfortable to read. But that’s how we get the story, too.

Book jacket