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An Epic of the Everglades

1.

What becomes a legend most? Shadow Country—a nine-hundred-page recension of Peter Matthiessen’s linked novels Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999)—is quietly subtitled “A New Rendering of the Watson Legend.” That last word is carefully chosen, for Edgar J. Watson (1855–1910) is, like Davy Crockett or Jesse James, one of those larger-than-life figures in American history, as much myth as man. While one Web site lists the sugar-cane planter among the twenty-five most important people in the history of Florida, his contemporaries dubbed him “Bloody” Watson, “Emperor” Watson, the desperado Watson. Though born in South Carolina, he left his indelible mark on the Gulf side of South Florida, in the region called the Ten Thousand Islands, a frontier world long attractive to outlaws and outcasts. Marjory Stoneman Douglas summarizes his story—or at least the received wisdom—in her 1947 classic The Everglades: River of Grass:

Halfway up the empty Chatham River a circumspect man named Watson had built a respectable two-story frame house high on an old sand-and-shell Indian mound that commands a great sweep of river east and west. There was nothing to be seen but the fish jumping and the birds flying. It had a porch and high bare rooms, a rainwater cistern, a plank dock for his boats. He set out a cane patch, horse bananas, and the usual vegetables. He planted palm trees along the river, and two royal poinciana trees flamed against the gray house and dazzling blue sky….

Nobody seems to know when Watson first came to Chatham River. Nobody over there even now seems to want to say much about him. But of all the men who lived silently along those coasts with the air of strange deeds behind them, Watson’s is the figure about which multiplying legends seem most to cluster.

He was a Scotsman with red hair and fair skin and mild blue eyes. He was quiet spoken and pleasant to people. But people noticed one thing. When he stopped to talk on a Fort Myers street, he never turned his back on anybody.

It was said freely that he had killed people before he came to Florida, that he killed Belle Starr and two people in northwest Florida. That was nobody’s business here, from Fort Myers to Shark River. From time to time he went up to Fort Myers or Marco in his boat and took down to work at that lonely place of his on Chatham River people variously described as a boy, a rawboned woman, two white men, a Negro, a Russian, a Negro woman, an old woman. No one seems to know how many. No one seemed to notice for a while that none of these people came back.

He was, of course, a plume hunter and alligator skinner, and he shared many feuds with the quick-shooting men of the wilderness….

In 1910 a man and his son sailing up the Chatham River saw something queer floating by the bank. It was the body of an old woman, gutted, but not gutted enough to sink. The man said, “Let’s get along to Watson’s and tell him about it.”

The son said, “Let’s get back to Chokoloskee and talk to Old Man McKinney.” At Chokoloskee they found several men talking to a Negro in McKinney’s store. The story the Negro told was that he’d worked for Watson a long time and seen him shoot a couple of men. The Negro said he’d buried a lot of people on his place, or knocked them overboard when they asked him for their money.

Watson was away, the Negro said. His overseer, named Cox, killed another man and the old woman and forced the Negro to help him cut them open and throw them in the river. He said he would kill him last, but when the Negro got down on his knees and begged to be spared Cox said he would if he’d promise to go down to Key West and get out of the country. The Negro came up to Chokoloskee instead and told everything.

A posse went down to Watson’s place and found plenty of bones and skulls. The overseer got away and has never been seen there since.

The next day Watson came back in his boat from Marco and stopped at McKinney’s store in Chokoloskee. He came walking along the plank, quiet and pleasant, carrying his gun. And here were all the men of Chokoloskee standing quietly around with their guns.

Mr. McKinney walked up to Watson slowly and said, “Watson, give me your gun.”

Watson said, “I give my gun to no man,” and fired point-blank at McKinney, wounding him slightly. As if it was the same shot, every man standing there in that posse fired. Watson fell dead. Every man claimed he killed him, and nobody ever knew because there were so many bullets in him.

Most other accounts of the killing of Watson place it near the store of Ted Smallwood (not McKinney). A man named D.D. House led the group and no one in the “posse” was wounded. Smallwood’s own reminiscences—included in Charlton W. Tebeau’s The Story of the Chokoloskee Bay Country (a reference acknowledged by Matthiessen)—add a few more details about Watson’s dubious character and various “feuds.” For example:

The first trouble he got into after he moved to Chatham Bend was with Adolphus Santini that lived here on Chokoloskee Island. They met in Key West at George Bartlum’s auction room. They had some words and Watson cut Santini’s throat. Like to got him. They got Watson’s knife away from him and got it quieted down. I think that scrape cost Watson nine hundred dollars. Then Watson bought a claim on Lostman’s Key from Winky Atwell and a man named Tucker got on it and would not get off. I heard Watson wrote him, and he writes back a sassy letter saying he would not get off, so in a few days Tucker and his nephew was killed and they laid it on Watson.

Many other crimes were “laid on” Watson, including the bushwhacking of two Tolen brothers up in North Carolina, though nothing was ever proved. While clearly a tough, hard-driving businessman, could the crony of a bank president and a Florida governor really be a cold-blooded killer as well? Or was he just a convenient scapegoat for his neighbors’ fears, anxieties, and envy?

From this spotty and sometimes contradictory historical record enhanced by contemporary rumors and the recollections of old-timers, Peter Matthiessen has fashioned a novel of Faulknerian power and darkness, one that embraces the American experience from the time of the Civil War to the first years of the Depression. Its themes are those that brand us as Americans to this day: the belief in self-transformation and renewal, the hunger for property and respectability, perfervid patriotism and xenophobia, the legacy of the Civil War, ongoing racial fears and anxieties, rampant greed, the rape of our wild places, psychological and physical violence in the family, the cowboy cult of manliness and swagger. And, not least, of course, our need for self-exculpation. The end justifies the means. It was him or me. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

More than thirty-three bullets were found in E.J. Watson’s dead body. Once they’d filled up a coffee can, people stopped counting.

2.

Shadow Country originally appeared as three separate novels, each examining the life of E.J. Watson from three different angles. Matthiessen has trimmed four hundred pages, recast certain scenes, and even renamed some of the characters, but these changes have only made more telling his kaleidoscopic, Rashomon-like approach. In Book I he again opens with a preamble describing Watson’s death, then sets out the testimonies of a dozen of the man’s neighbors and employees, some merely reminiscing about the dead planter, a few speaking up for his generosity and kindness, others justifying their hatred or fear of him.

To capture the distinctive qualities of such a sea of voices would be a challenge for any writer, but Matthiessen long ago proved his ventriloquial skills in the much-admired Far Tortuga (1975), a novel largely told with a Caribbean accent. Here he gives us the Florida cracker sound of the “half-breed” Harden clan of hunters and fishermen; the black voice of the lonely roustabout Henry Short, “the only nigger on Chokoloskee Island”; the somewhat prissy, formal language of Watson’s daughter Carrie; and the franglais of treasure-hunter and amateur naturalist “Msyoo” Chevelier.

Listen to the sensitive but uneducated Bill House—who may have been the first to fire on Watson—talking about what it was like to shoot egrets for their feathers. Hunters, he tells us, always shot early in the breeding season when the plumes were coming out “real good,” and a man with a Flobert rifle could stand in a big rookery and pick off birds as fast as he could reload:

A broke-up rookery, that ain’t a picture you want to think about too much. The pile of carcasses left behind when you strip the plumes and move on to the next place is just pitiful, and it’s a piss-poor way to harvest, cause there ain’t no adults left to feed them young and protect ‘em from the sun and rain, let alone the crows and buzzards that come sailing and flopping in, tear ‘em to pieces….

It’s the dead silence after all the shooting that comes back today, though I never stuck around to hear it; I kind of remember it when I am dreaming. Them ghosty trees on dead white guano ground, the sun and silence and dry stink, the squawking and flopping of their wings, and varmints hurrying in without no sound, coons, rats, and possums, biting and biting, and the ants flowing up all them white trees in their dark ribbons to eat at them raw scrawny things that’s backed up to the edge of the nest, gullets pulsing and mouths open wide for the food and water that ain’t never going to come. Luckiest ones will perish before something finds ‘em, cause they’s so many young that the carrion birds just can’t keep up. Damn vultures set hunched up on them dead limbs so stuffed they can’t hardly fly.

Such a description, quite early in the book, sets the stage for the often senseless and violent deaths to follow, while also registering for our twenty-first-century ears the horror surrounding this steady destruction of a species:

A real big rookery like that one the Frenchman worked up Tampa Bay had four-five hundred acres of black mangrove, maybe ten nests to a tree. Might take you three-four years to clean it out but after that them birds are gone for good.

Heart-rending, yet notice this: no matter what Matthiessen describes or in what voice he speaks anywhere in his novel, the prose is always beautiful.

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