Author Tony Horwitz's death Monday at age 60 was truly shocking.
Horwitz had just published his latest book, "Spying on the South," and was on a book tour. He died while walking in Chevy Chase, Md., on the same day that he was to appear at the famed Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.
After surviving Mideast battlefields, hazardous factories, Civil War re-enactments, Pacific voyages, Australian hikes and Southern dive bars, Horwitz succumbed to a heart attack while on a routine Memorial Day walk, according to his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks.
Following the example of George Plimpton in the 1960s, Horwitz believed in participatory journalism, as his Washington Post obituary emphasized.
He was one of the lucky few who rise through the newspaper reporting ranks to establish careers as independent authors of books.
With a home on Martha's Vineyard, he could have enjoyed life as a public intellectual appearing on television talk shows and going to writers' conferences. Instead, he was a restless journalist driven to carry out difficult reporting in the field, as his friend, author Michael Lewis, said.
After stints at smaller newspapers, Horwitz won a Pulitzer at the Wall Street Journal for his on-site investigation of hazardous work at Southern chicken plants. He and Brooks also covered the first Gulf War and other Mideast turmoil for the Journal.
Wall Street Journal colleagues recalled that Horwitz possessed special talent for reporting and writing. Newspaper reporters traditionally excelled at one or the other, although that musty division fell away with the advent of college-educated journalists.
After working at the New Yorker, Horwitz broke free from the bonds of newspaper and magazine writing with "Confederates in the Attic," an examination of the culture of Civil War battle re-enactors.
The book was hailed as a modern journalistic classic, assigned in college and high school courses. A new generation of neo-Confederate sympathizers condemned the book, harassing Horwitz at readings.
"Confederates in the Attic" found that political and social divisions that split the country in the 19th century persisted in late 20th century America. The book's themes look even more prescient as conflict deepens.
Continuing a tradition established by de Tocqueville, Horwitz in his latest book toured the South to talk to its disgruntled working-class residents.
While de Tocqueville traveled across the then young United States, Horwitz was the latest Northern or European writer to view the South as an exotic land. Such attempts to interpret the South also have deep roots; Horwitz followed paths traced by Frederick Law Olmsted before the Civil War.
Donald Trump's support among Southern conservatives has made such sociological probes common. Whether they present an accurate picture is debatable.
The South's complexities are difficult to fathom, even for an astute reporter and writer like Horwitz. These journeys to the Southern heart of darkness make Southerners roll their eyes, and hasten to replay Randy Newman's "Good Ole Boys."
It sounds as if Horwitz in "Spying on the South" made as good an effort at understanding the region as any, but what an alienating title. With the rise of Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and other cities in the 1960s, the South lost its strangeness and appeared like the rest of the nation. Or perhaps not.
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida remain primitive, while their metro areas hurtle through the 21st century. Texas and Virginia look like vanguards until they don't. There is no Mind of the South, but many.
After an exhaustive journey across the region, Horwitz died young in the city known as the crossroads of the North and South, where the country's violent divisions roil beneath marble monuments.