Annette Gordon-Reed, and Barbara Kingsolver are writers grounded in history, science, and Tony Horowitz was a writer steeped in evidence, yet reading On Juneteenth, Unsheltered, and Spying on the South together, felt like a mystical retreat with three mediums, channeling the 19th century to answer 21stcentury questions.
Kingsolver and Horwitz wrote during the 2016 election and early period of the Trump administration. Gordon-Reed wrote during the summer of 2020 with the early pandemic and uprising against police brutality in her backdrop. Kingsolver was reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and took a trip to Cuba while writing.
In Unsheltered, chapters alternate between 2015 and the 1870s, grounded in one place: a crumbling home in Vineland, New Jersey.. The themes of science denial, political corruption, unregulated capitalism, and wealth divides, tie the two eras. Real 19th century figures: the scientist Mary Treat (a colleague of Darwin) and the Trump-like businessman turned politician Charles Landis ground this fictional story
Horwitz rediscovered a college text, the odyssey The Cotton Kingdom written by the 19th century New York Urban planner Fredrick Olmsted about his travels into the US south in the 1850s. He retraces Olmsted’s trip.
Annette Gordon-Reed also begins her personal/ historical journey alternating between the mid- 19th century and today, exploring the meaning of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when her ancestors in East Texas learned they were free. Unlike Kingsolver and Horwitz, she does not leap in time to the present but winds her way back and forth into the 18th century and through the 20th, through Jim Crow segregation and lynching, Black liberation struggles, that lead to advances and white backlashes. Her own life tells much of this history. At six, she integrated the local white elementary school with her body. Today she is public history in her hometown, her visage gracing a mural, and her bust is on exhibit.
Kingsolver and Horowitz draw parallels between two Gilded Ages. Horowitz traces a journey across the southwest, still gun obsessed, Confederate in outlook, but now dotted with freeways, fast-food joints, and Mud truck wrestlers. Kingsolver connects to eras of science denial, but our contemporary one shows the scars of 160 years of earth abuse. Perhaps the hopeful note is that we have been here before and we survived.
Both Gordon-Reed and Horowitz explore the history and current politics of Texas. They explore communitarian societies created by African Americans (G-R) and German Immigrants (H). The desert allowed these societies to thrive for a time, but the Confederate/Border war/Indigenous Conquest aspects of the Texas culture, nearly wiped out the vestiges of these liberating experiments. Horowitz struggles with how to feel about people he meets who treat him so well, and express racist views. Gordon-Reed explores the question, why do we love a place that doesn’t love us back? What makes a place home, she concludes, is not just good memories, but roots, even scarred ones.
After Horowitz ends his voyage across Texas, he concludes with a chapter on Manhattan’s Central Park that Olmsted built — a vast and expertly designed green commons that is still providing respite for urban folks. This final chapter reminds readers that we too will leave a legacy and we can choose to leave one that sustains coming generations.
Of the three authors, Gordon-Reed is the one who looks at centuries of struggle and sees clear progress: not linear, but significant and hard fought.
Today it feels like time is moving quickly – events thrusting us into un-chartered waters. Yet we are also stuck in the 19th century. Bandying about the phrase “critical race theory, ” we debate how to teach our children about slavery and Indigenous conquest—and how to eradicate their vestiges. We disagree over which 19th century person deserves a monument. We are still as divided over the role science should play in public policy, as our ancestors were 160 years ago. It can feel like we are at a crossroads. The Supreme Court decisions of Summer 2022, are on the New Gilded Age road, The Poor People’s Campaign engaged in a New Reconstruction, is on the other. Both roads got us circling back to the 1860s and 70s.
Reading these three books together, I am left with the feeling that the 19th century is over my shoulder, still visible, still haunting, speaking to us, still providing lessons. These books remind us time moves in many directions, and what we do today will alter the trajectory of the next 160 years.