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.
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.
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.”
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.
May 15, 2008