August 13, 2009 by Reader's Connection
Folks ask, “Would you have worked for Watson if you knowed about him what you know today?” Well, hell, I don’t know what I know today and they don’t neither. With so many stories growed up around that feller, who is to say which ones was true? What I seen were a able-bodied man, mostly quiet, easy in his ways, who acted according to our ideas of a gentleman. And that was all we had, ideas, cause we had never seen one in this section, unless you would count Preacher Gatewood, who brought the Lord to Everglade back in 1888 and took Him away again when he departed, the men said. Some kind of a joke, wouldn’t surprise me.
The speaker is Erskine Thompson. Following the murderous prologue, Erskine’s voice is the first to be heard in Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend, a book I´ve been reading for ten years.
Just after the Great Hurricane of 1910, sugar-cane planter Edgar Watson was shot to death by a gang of his neighbors in Southwest Florida. Naturalist-novelist Matthiessen became obsessed with this real-life incident–why did they kill him?– and made it the subject of a novel so lengthy that his publisher couldn’t deal with it until Matthiessen had split it into three parts:
Killing Mr. Watson (no longer in the IMCPL collection) chronicles the period (early 1894 to October 1910) that Edgar Watson spent off and on in the Ten Thousand Islands, a chain of islands and islets west of the Everglades. There are a dozen or so voices telling the story. One of them is lifted from the diaries of Watson’s daughter, Carrie; another belongs to Sheriff Frank Tippens and the rest, like Erskine Thompson’s, to residents of the islands. Newspaper clippings and other documents, some of which probe more deeply into Watson’s past, are interwoven with the voices.
Lost Man’s River picks up the story in (I’m pretty sure) the early 1960’s. Watson’s son Lucius–youngest child of Watson’s second wife–is in his early seventies. A drinker and sometime scholar, he travels around Florida, seeking the truth about his father’s life and death. There is a third-person narrator, most of the time, though other voices are allowed to offer their testimonies.
Bone by Bone is narrated by Edgar Watson himself. His story begins during the Civil War, and concludes with his death in 1910.
When I say that I’ve been reading the book for ten years, I mean that I read Killing Mister Watson and Lost Man’s River ten years ago. I wanted to know more about Watson’s life (or Matthiessen’s vision of Watson’s life), and I bought a hard-bound copy of the third book, but had apparently become a lost man, myself, while journeying through the second one.
Lucius Watson’s quest, as described in Lost Man’s River, was rough on my soul’s gas budget. I was moved by his predicament, and by much of what transpired in the book, especially by what I learned about his brother, Rob–a figure even more haunted than Lucius. But when I tried to begin reading Bone by Bone, which meant relocating myself to South Carolina during the Civil War, I found that my pickup had broken down in Gator Hook, Florida, a hundred years later.
Peter Matthiessen, a truly heroic author, heard me wailin’ in the Glades, and rewrote the novels in order to save me, though he puts it differently in his note at the beginning of Shadow Country:
Although the three books were generously received, the “trilogy” solution never fulfilled my original idea of this book’s true nature. While the first book and the third stood on their own, the middle section, which had served originally as a kind of connecting tissue, yet contained much of the heart and brain of the whole organism, lacked its own armature or bony skeleton; cut away from the others it became amorphous, reminding me not agreeably of the long belly of a dachshund, slung woefully between its upright sturdy legs. In short, the work felt unfinished . . . The only acceptable solution was to break it apart and re-create it . . .
He recombined the three parts, rewriting vigorously, collapsing the story’s timespan so that Lucius goes on his quest while in his early thirties rather than his early seventies, and fashioning a novel nearly 400 pages shorter than the trilogy. There are probably trilogy-readers who regret some of the losses–the interspersed documents in Killing Mister Watson, which were quite effective, have disappeared from Book I of Shadow Country, leaving only the storytelling voices–but while Shadow Country at 892 pages has not become an easy read, I am boundlessly grateful to Matthiesen for his editing.
So what do we get from this book? First of all, we get Florida. I’ve been to that state a couple of times, but I’ve spent most of my time in Orlando; so to say that I’ve experienced Florida would be like saying that you had experienced Indiana by standing knee-deep in the wave pool at Santa Claus.
In his classic Wildlife in America, Matthiessen had lovingly quoted passages from early naturalists like John James Audubon. In Shadow Country, he provides a mesmerizing picture of wild Florida around the turn of the twentieth century, and of its destruction by plume-hunters and gator-skinners and clam-diggers and all manner of “developers.”
While I may deplore what these folks are doing to Florida as I read, I’m spell-bound by their vitality, their improvisations, their lives lived on the edge of danger. I’m reading not only about plants and animals I may never encounter, but also about ways of life I’ll never know. Sugar-cane farming itself may be much the same in our day as it was in 1900, but planter Watson’s descriptions open my eyes.
Sugarcane is a giant grass and any fool can grow a grass: the difference lies in the timing of the burn. In south Florida, the cane begins to ripen with the first drop in night temperature in September. In October, an experienced hand who knows the wind goes out with a firepot and burns it over. Without the big leaves that clog the mill, the stalks are much lighter and more easily handled, and good strong stalks lose very little sugar to fast-moving flames. Also, the burning clears the field of snakes and scorpions and chases out wild game: a good shot ranging along the field edge during the burn can generally bring down more than enough to feed the crew.
Dry cane ignites all in a rush with a heavy roaring as in a storm: if the burning is timed right, the fire produces a black smoke so thick and oily that it has a kind of muscled look as it rolls skyward, leaving the earth in deep sepia shadow and strange light.
Along with this account of how people got along with the land, we have the story of how they got along with each other, and it’s not a happy one. In Matthiessen’s telling, Edgar Watson was a shrewd, aggressive entrepreneur who would stop at nothing to achieve his ends; and as I read about him– about the sources of his dangerous temper, about the crimes he committed and the many of which he was wrongly accused, about the reactions of those around him to his frightening reputation and about the damage he did to his numerous families–even I, a wimp who didn’t made it through the trilogy, am always eager to learn more from this new rendering.
Historical novels are a popular genre, but I’ve never read one that left me with such confused feelings about the human beings on whose lives it was based. When I look at the bottom of a Genealogy Trails web page and read the birth and death dates of Lucius and Carrie and other Watson kin, I feel a strange pull, despite Matthiessen’s having made it clear that the Watsons in his story are fictionalized characters.
I’ll spare you my reactions to this picture of Henry Short–in 1910 the only African-American resident of Chokoloskee Island, where Watson was shot.
The complicated relationship between Henry Short and the white family with whom he lives during his early years, and at whose side he stands on the day Watson is murdered, is a part of Shadow Country‘s meditation on racism.
Snippets of praise from celebrated authors living and dead appear on the covers of the trilogy volumes and Shadow Country. Joyce Carol Oates said of one of the books that it was certain to linger in the memory like an experience we have lived through but cannot, for all our effort at analysis, comprehend. I’m with her.
My thanks to Florida enthusiast Alvin Lederer. who sent me the pictures of Edgar Watson and Henry Short. Alvin can be reached at email@example.com. The picture of Watson’s gravestone in Fort Myers, Florida, is from Find a Grave, where it was placed by Craig Nowack, whom I wasn’t able to contact. The Florida map and flag are from Wikipedia.