DIY MFA Reading List: “Shadow Country” by Peter Matthiessen

Edgar J. Watson, the larger-than-life badman inhabiting the pages of Peter Matthiessen’s murderous trilogy Shadow Country, was an actual, living, breathing person: a Florida plantation owner of ill repute who in the late 1800s was rumored to have been involved in the assassination of the legendary frontier outlaw Belle Starr. Watson was gunned down by a mob of his neighbors in 1910, and the story so captivated Matthiessen that he spent thirty years writing, researching, and rewriting a trilogy of novels about the man: Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone. Originally conceived as one epic (and incredibly dark) novel, Matthiessen eventually edited the three books down into a single volume, paring over 400 pages and publishing the result as Shadow Country in 2008 (which still weighs in as a doorstop at over 900 pages in length).

Matthiessen establishes the tone which will pervade the blood-soaked pages in the prologue: the blasted western Florida coast “lies broken, stunned” after the great hurricane of October, 1910. A tense mob of islanders gathers in horror as the sound of a motorboat echoes along through the mangroves, steered by the much-feared “Bloody Watson”. As Watson’s boat runs aground he leaps ashore, wielding a double barrel shotgun. After a brief argument with the assembling mob Watson is gunned down, falling dead into the tides, more than thirty bullets riddling his bones. Watson’s young wife crawls beneath a stilted house to escape the scene, hiding with her children among the muck and grime, the dead chickens and storm-washed minnows and the stench of death.

“Oh Lord God,” she cries. “They are killing Mister Watson!”

Matthiessen might have titled each of the three books within Shadow Country as The Father, The Son, and The Unholy Ghost. In Book One, we come to know Watson, the father of ten children with his various wives and mistresses, through a kind of oral history told by his neighbors (and eventual killers). In Book Two, Watson’s son Lucius recreates his father’s life through court documents, newspaper clippings, and interviews with the extended Watson family; Lucius retraces E. J. Watson’s early childhood in South Carolina, his dubious dealings in Indian Territory, and his obsessive pursuit of property in Florida … eventually coming to the realization that he can never know the man behind the myth. Finally, in Book Three, Edgar J. Watson himself gets the chance to testify, a kind of unholy ghost … pleading for our understanding; this conclusion puts much of the speculation around specific events to rest, while simultaneously complicating the reader’s feelings about the tragic character.

Initially, Shadow Country enlists the reader as a kind of judge, asking you to examine the second-hand accounts of Watson’s misdeeds and pass judgment on the fairness of his fate. Did this fearsome force of nature deserve to die in a hail of bullets? Were his neighbors justified in their actions? But Matthiessen doesn’t make this job easy for us: the truth is an elusive beast in Shadow Country, as quixotic as the tides.

During Book One, the reader watches in horror as Watson moves ever closer to his inevitable appointment with the mob. As his friends and neighbors testify in colloquial, first-person oral histories for or against the deceased, differing perspectives make our job as judge and jury quite difficult. Was Watson guilty of murdering his sharecroppers during “Watson Payday” to avoid paying them … or is this a folk tale built up by jealous neighbors and competitors? Did Watson gun down Belle Starr … or did he fuel those suspicions to intimidate others? Did Watson and his son Rob murder a young couple on their island … or were they framed by a murderous competitor looking to steal Watson’s land? These are a few of the more heinous crimes of which “Bloody Watson” is directly or indirectly accused. Lesser indiscretions flesh out our initial impression of Watson as a violent, scary criminal who might just have deserved his execution: rape, misogyny, racism, alcoholism, vanity, and greed are peppered across nearly every page.

In Book Two, Matthiessen shifts perspectives, dropping the third person and reverting to a more objective and authorial account of Watson’s son Lucius, fumbling through life, failing at everything he tries. Lucius decides to author an objective biography of his father’s life, but as he retraces E. J. Watson’s steps through the swamps of southwest Florida, we come to understand that Watson’s legend has evolved from flat folk history to the living, breathing organism of actual legend: Lucius can never understand the “real” truth about his dad, because the man’s story has become so enmeshed in the community and landscape around him. Watson has been appropriated by the landscape, and Book Two ends with Lucius burning his manuscript: “In silence they watched the top page brown a little bit at one corner as the fire took hold. A moment before bursting into flame, it lifted on an updraft, danced, planed down again among the gator scraps.”

Matthiessen has said that Lucius’s story represents “the heart and brain of the whole organism”, and this section contains the most poignant insights into the social dynamics which resulted in Watson’s death. This is a story about America, in all of its fierce beauty, ambition, and terror. Addicted to the drunken days of inexpensive slave labor, but now reeling from the hangover of unresolved tensions still lingering from a bloody Civil War, Florida’s panhandle during the Jim Crow era was a hellish place to call home. Violence is so pervasive it becomes a de facto currency between characters and families, a fiery kind of intimacy they can at least agree did, in fact, actually occur. And the violence these characters enact against one another reflects a deeper self-hatred: guessing that their uncurious, rampant racism is probably “wrong” on some level, characters will lash out against the weak or the righteous rather than see themselves reflected in more even-tempered eyes.

Describing the punishment of a Watson ancestor who had dared speak out against the Confederate cause, Matthiessen writes:

I asked him if he knew what had become of Selden Tilghman. He considered the hands clasped on his knee before muttering what he had heard, that “ruffians without civil authority” had given Colonel Tilghman one hundred strokes of the lash, then tarred and feathered him. In a hoary medieval clamor of tin pots, cat-calls, and chaotic drumming, he’d been ridden backwards on a pole in an old-fashioned “rogue’s march,” after which he’d been dumped into a hog wallow at Hamburg, the despised Republican settlement on the Savannah River across from Augusta, Georgia. Tilghman had regained consciousness before hogs found him and had crawled away – all that was rumor. Nothing had been heard about him since.

“He is dead, then?”

“I pray that he is dead.” Even if the man survived, he would be hunted down and killed should he return to Edgefield District, not because his punishment had been insufficient but because of the bad conscience of his neighbors, to whom he remained a specter of reproach.

In Book Three, Matthiessen switches back to a first-person account of Watson’s life, as told by Edgar “A” Watson himself. Watson’s own father, “Ring-Eye Lige”, doles out drunken beatings, eventually sending the young Watson into a sort of coma. Soon young Edgar is overtaken by black spells. He suffers dizzying headaches, inhabited afterward by a dark persona he names “Jack”. Jack gives Watson the courage to stand up to his own father and fight back against abuse, but the alter ego’s lack of emotion frightens Watson’s mother and sister. Later, fleeing from the law after his indiscretions in Indian Territory, Edgar changes his middle name to “Jack” and begins calling himself E. J. Watson. The cold-eyed “Jack” slowly consumes Watson’s personality, until he can no longer distinguish between the youthful boy he remembers and the shadow personality he created to survive his traumatic childhood.

For a time in Book Three, it seems that Watson might escape his fate: he falls in love with the land and a young girl simultaneously, hoping for a “landed” future where he owns some property and can spend his days working the fields. But his first wife dies giving birth to a son, Rob, who Watson calls “Sonborn” and who will play an integral part in Watson’s later downfall. Watson descends into a drunken dudgeon, whoring and fighting, plotting and killing, finally settling in Florida where we know his days will be numbered. As the novel barrels towards its inevitable conclusion, Watson finds himself trapped on his plantation by the beasts he has created in his single-minded pursuit of property: murderers and criminals who have scared his family and friends away, all of them with short fuses. It’s only a matter of time before these men explode, setting in motion a brutal series of killings for which Watson will be held accountable.

As Watson prepares to meet his death on the storm-scattered beach, he first sets fire to his plantation, the only thing he has cared about for years. He reflects upon the fate that awaits him after the death he can already see coming:

Monday, October twenty-fourth. Kate’s birthday. At dawn, I committed my fate to Chokoloskee. Hadn’t I promised my wife I would be with her and given my word to my neighbors that I would return? I would offer Cox’s weapons and his hat as evidence that the murderer was dead. Could they doubt the word of a man returning of his own free will when he could have fled? In Key West, large ships weighed anchor every day, I would exclaim. The east coast railroad had already reached Long Key. With these alternatives, only an honest man would put himself at a crowd’s mercy.

They would not believe the truth. As for the lie, that bullet-holed hat would never be enough.

In that last noon, I torched my fields, running like a madman down the wind. The cane ignited quickly with a low thunderous booming, creating a column of thick oily smoke. I did this only for my own sense of completion. There was no crew to harvest the blackened stalks.

Flames still leapt and darted, rekindled by the wind, when in late afternoon I left the Bend and went away downriver. In this way, in the light of fire, I forsook my white house in the wilderness and the voices of those generous spirits who had lived here with me, all those souls so sadly bruised by my headlong passage on this earth, every life changed and not one for the better.

In the final analysis, Matthiessen relieves us from our duty as judge and jury: he places the determination of Watson’s guilt or innocence squarely on Watson’s own shoulders: “on Judgment Day, when the true worth and meaning of one’s life is weighed, the judge I feared most would be Edgar Watson.” By those standards, the man’s bloody execution ended a painful, wasted existence – more a mercy killing than a death sentence.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.