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An Epic of the Everglades

While Shadow Country gradually conveys what is known about Watson from records and reminiscences, Matthiessen imagines conversations and the background for certain characters and encounters, even as he deepens the ambiguities of his increasingly tantalizing story. Did Watson really shoot the so-called “Queen of the Outlaws” Belle Starr in Oklahoma? Was he guilty of various murders back in South Carolina and elsewhere in Florida? What actually happened to the young Tucker couple, who were squatting on Watson’s newly purchased property? Did the planter really kill off his workers on “Watson payday”?

All his charm and geniality notwithstanding, nearly everything about Edgar J. Watson feels distinctly unsettling, starting with his ruddy complexion and hair the color of “dried blood.” He calls to mind one of those coldly courteous bounty hunters in a spaghetti western, or even Robert Mitchum’s preacher in The Night of the Hunter, smiling and sinister, with hooded eyes that miss nothing. No matter where he is, Watson never lets his guard down. As the guide and waterman Erskine Thompson says:

Mister Watson usually wore a striped shirt with no collar that Henrietta sewed him from rough mattress ticking. Never took his shirt off, not even when it stuck to them broad shoulders, but no ticking weren’t thick enough to hide the shoulder holster that showed through when he got sweated. Even out there in the cane, he had that gun where he could lay his hand on it. Never hid it from the niggers, neither; they hoed harder. “Keeping your shirt on in the field is just good manners,” he said. “You never know when you might have a visitor.”

In Book II Matthiessen relates the consequences of the Watson murder, especially its effects on the planter’s acknowledged and unacknowledged sons. (This section periodically calls to mind Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and its story of four very different sons and a mysteriously murdered father.) Here Lucius, the youngest legitimate Watson, gives up his own life to discover the truth about “Papa.” Is there, he asks, any hard evidence that the man ever murdered anyone at all? Like his siblings, Lucius leads a stunted existence, scouring archives for clues about what really happened and why, doggedly compiling a list of those who pulled the triggers. At times his investigations read like a detective story, as the young man digs into the past, knocking on door after door to talk with his father’s associates and assassins. Along the way, he encounters the venal lawyer Watson Dyer (who may well be a bastard half-brother), Lucius’s lost love Nell Dyer, several childhood friends and enemies, a low-life drunk with a mysterious past, and the elusive Henry Short.

Matthiessen recounts most of this part of his story—the action takes place mainly around 1930—in relatively standard, straightforward English. But he still commands the entire register of American speech, from stiff-necked legal double-talk to slack-jawed, red-necked vulgarity. At one point Lucius, who has earned a Ph.D., formally proposes to write a biography of his father:

This bold energetic man of rare intelligence and enterprise must also be understood as a man undone by his own deep flaws. He was known to drink to grievous excess, for example, which often turned him volatile and violent. On the other hand, his evil repute has been wildly exaggerated by careless journalists and their local informants, who seek to embellish their limited acquaintance with a “desperado”; with the result that the real man has been virtually entombed by tale and legend which since his death has petrified as myth.

Near the end of this letter Lucius quotes his mother, the former Jane Susan Dyal of Deland, Florida: “Your father frightens them not because he is a monster but because he is a man.” He then concludes that “to honor her wisdom and redeem my subject’s essential humanity is the task before me.”

Yet like the private eye Lew Archer probing into a troubled family’s secrets, Lucius discovers that the truth is extremely elusive. Speck Daniels, another suspected Watson by-blow, possesses his father’s meanness as well as his shrewd sense of the world. Lucius talks to him in jail:

Man wants the truth about Ed Watson,” Daniels jeered. “Where you aim to find it? Smallwoods’ll tell you their truth, Hardens’ll tell you theirs. Fat-ass guard out there, he’ll tell you his and I’ll give you another. Which one you aim to settle for and make your peace with?”

In one of this brutal and dazzling novel’s most disturbing scenes, three of Ed Watson’s sons meet for dinner in a restaurant where a black man is carving beef and keeping up a stream of patter:

Oh yeah! Yes suh! Tha’s it! Tha’s right! How you folks this evenin? Y’all havin a good visit to Fo’t Myers? Doin okay? Tha’s jus’ fine, my frien’! Bes’ have some o’ this fine roast! Oh yeah! Yes suh! Tha’s it! Tha’s right!

One of the brothers is drunk and before long starts to bait the other diners:

I just purely love to see all us good Christians fixin to set right down to a big ol’ plate of fatty beef that’ll half kill us, with a heapin helpin of our Christian fellowshippin on the side! We’ll realize maybe for the first time in our whole lives how much we like these durned ol’ negros that’s waitin on us hand and foot, and what a grand country we have here in the good ol’ U.S. and A where coloreds can talk to white folks just so nice and friendly you’d almost think they was human beins same as us!

It’s worth observing how Matthiessen has meticulously altered this passage from the original version in Lost Man’s River:

Yes sirree, we’ll set right down to a big plate of beef that’ll half-kill us! And not only that but a heapin helping of fine interracial fellowshippin on the side! We’ll realize maybe for the first time in our whole lives how much we love these durn ol Negros, and why in the heck can’t our durn kids see the Negro Problem the same way we do, and what a great country we have here in the good ol U.S. and A, where black folks can talk to white folks just so nice and friendly you’d almost think they was real people after all!

Throughout, the revised passage is subtly punchier, more provocative, and that flat phrase about the Negro Problem has been discarded entirely. Matthiessen’s polishing and sharpening of his original text can be seen in even the smallest of details. In Lost Man’s River the truly horrific, one-armed Crockett Junior has the words “BAD COUNTRY” scrawled in red lettering on the side of his truck. In Shadow Country this has become “BAD CUNTRY.”

3.

By the beginning of Book III the reader knows the answers to many of the questions Lucius had wanted answered about his father. In particular, the facts about Wally and Bet Tucker’s deaths turn out to be even more horrible and psychologically devastating than imagined. Yet riddles remain about the enigmatic E.J. Watson’s past and character. In a daring move by Matthiessen, Book III offers Watson’s own first-person account of his life. From the beginning these pages present a harrowing story reminiscent of more than one ancient Greek tragedy, being full of ritualistic suffering and horror, patricidal impulses, miscegenation, incest, bloody retribution, unsuspected family connections, and what seems the inescapability of fate. Virtually all the most nightmarish events that take place at Chatham Bend are unobtrusively prefigured, sometimes even partially enacted, in the early life of E.J. Watson and his family.

That said, while Book I draws on the down-home voices of the islanders and Book II uses the prose of a good reporter, Book III is written in a rather formal, old-fashioned style, suitable for the scion of proud, if now indigent, Southern aristocrats. (In a general way, the three sections of Shadow Country use what classical rhetoric calls the plain, middle, and grand styles.) We already know that as an adult Watson regularly studied Greek mythology, could sing hymns and trade learned quips, and kept a secret journal. Here we listen to someone who seems almost improbably well educated. The still adolescent Edgar is accompanying his mother and sister on his first journey south; they are floating down the Suwannee River:

The bargeman said that in Spanish times, when a road was opened from St. Augustine on the Atlantic Coast to Pensacola on the Gulf, there were still buffalo in these savannas, and also the great jaguar, called tigre, and panthers, bears, and red wolves were still common. Sometimes, at night, shrill screams scared Mama and poor Ninny half to death—not white females being violated by naked savages as they imagined but panthers mating, the bargeman assured Mama, who recoiled from this man’s vulgar liberty. Bull gators coughed and roared back in the swamps, and once there came a lonely howl that he identified as the red wolf.

Flocks of huge black fowl in the glades were bronze-backed turkeys, and everywhere, wild ducks jumped from the bulrushes and reeds, shedding bright water. I shot big drakes and gobblers for provisions and pin-hooked all the fresh fish we could eat. Pairs of great woodpeckers larger than crows, with flashing white bills and crimson crests afire in the sun, crossed the river in deep bounding flight, and hurtling flocks of small long-tailed parrots, bright green as new leaves in the morning light. The wild things were shining with spring colors and new sap and finally I was, too. I would sink my teeth into this morning land like a fresh peach.

At this point in his story Matthiessen runs the danger of revisiting twice-told material. He avoids this, for the most part, by first concentrating on Edgar’s upbringing with his cowardly and violent father (who received “battlefield demotions”) and a mother who delighted in repeatedly belittling her husband and did nothing when he took out his anger on their son. As Watson’s story progresses, we gradually learn more about the man’s wives and concubines, his life in Oklahoma, the deaths of the Tolen brothers up in North Florida, and eventually the massacre at Chatham Bend. That which was mysterious in Book I and that which was horrifying in Book II are shown to be logical and even inevitable in Book III. Shadow Country finally ends, where it began, near the landing of Ted Smallwood’s store, as E.J. Watson raises his shotgun against twenty or more armed men. In a moment his blood will be on the shell-strewn and pebbly sand.

If they won’t believe the truth,” thinks Watson at one point, “they will damn well believe blood.” Blood courses through this entire novel—pools of fresh blood, stains of dried blood, the bad blood of mulattos and Indians and “nigras.” Those closest to even the young, pre-Florida Edgar regularly come to violent ends. The boy views a dead runaway slave, as much a mentor as a servant, who has been left in the woods, unburied. The refined cousin Selden Tilghman drives his palms onto the spikes of a fence to protest mankind’s inhumanity and especially the murdering ways of the night-riding, Klan-like Regulators. The terrifying Owl-Man runs to meet the bullet that destroys him. A prostitute has her throat cut. A black man is lynched. Nearly all of them are related to Edgar J. Watson, related, as they say, by blood.

For this is, after all, “Shadow Country.” To have a touch of shadow in the skin or blood or to be a “shadow” sister or brother means that one’s true heredity is suspect, probably because of illegitimacy, often because one parent wasn’t white. The Watson family is full of such offspring. Sometimes shadows serve as symbolic doubles: a certain pale-skinned “nigra” resembles the white Edgar like a twin. After his father knocks him into a coma, Edgar not only recovers but also discovers that he has developed a calculating, violent, and amoral second self, which he names…Jack. It’s worth remembering, too, that Jung called those aspects of ourselves that we try to repress our Shadow. For people to mature, to become fully themselves, they must acknowledge their darkest impulses, they must embrace their Shadow—and not allow it to conquer them.

Matthiessen’s novel suggests all these implications of shadow, most of which imply denial, the refusal to acknowledge some unacceptable truth. The South couldn’t have lost the War of Northern Aggression—the Confederacy was betrayed. If “niggers” were really human, then God-fearing Christians might feel kind of bad about slavery, let alone about murdering darkies in cold blood. Same for those bloodthirsty and shiftless “Indins.” Everyone knows there will always be plenty of egrets, no matter how many we kill. And it doesn’t matter much at all if we fill up and pave over those troublesome Everglades, does it?

Peter Matthiessen, now in his eighties, has spent most of his life as a journalist and travel writer, reporting on the vanishing wildlife of the world, the anger of the poor and disenfranchised, the depredations inflicted by callous governments or indifferent corporations on real people and wild places. No one writes more lyrically about animals or describes more movingly the spiritual experience of mountaintops, savannas, and the sea. To some degree, Matthiessen’s deserved success as a reporter and essayist has probably led to his fiction being slightly undervalued or even overlooked.

Yet Shadow Country is altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told, not just a tour de force in its stylistic range, but a great American novel, as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature. This magnificent, sad masterpiece about race, history, and defeated dreams can easily stand comparison with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Little wonder, too, that parts of the story of E.J. Watson call up comparisons with Dostoevsky, Conrad, and, inevitably, Faulkner. In every way, Shadow Country is a bravura performance, at once history, fiction, and myth—as well as the capstone to the career of one of the most admired and admirable writers of our time.

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