Book: Shadow Country

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Shadow Country

Author: Peter Matthiessen
Publisher: Modern Library

Inspired by a near-mythic event of the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, Shadow Country reimagines the legend of the inspired Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson, who drives himself relentlessly toward his own violent end at the hands of neighbors who mostly admired him, in a killing that obsessed his favorite son.

Shadow Country traverses strange landscapes and frontier hinterlands inhabited by Americans of every provenance and color, including the black and Indian inheritors of the archaic racism that, as Watson’s wife observed, “still casts its shadow over the nation.”

Peter Matthiessen’s lyrical and illuminating work in the Watson narrative has been praised highly by such contemporaries as Saul Bellow, William Styron, and W. S. Merwin. Joseph Heller said “I read it in great gulps, up each night later than I wanted to be, in my hungry impatience to find out more and more.”

Peter Matthiessen’s great American epic—Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone—was conceived as one vast mysterious novel, but because of its length it was originally broken up into three books. In this bold new rendering, Matthiessen has cut nearly a third of the overall text and collapsed the time frame while deepening the insights and motivations of his characters with brilliant rewriting throughout. In Shadow Country, he has marvelously distilled a monumental work, realizing his original vision.


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The Transcendentalists were right about one thing: Nature, as we commonly think of it, does not exist outside the human realm, but within us. “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves,” Thoreau wrote in his journal, sounding, as ever, like he were talking himself out of leaving home. “It is the bog in our brains and bowels…that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import to it.”

Humans have been busy in that import business ever since we began painting and telling stories—stuffing the natural world with myths that have our fingerprints all over them. In his landmark survey, Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama showed how the Arcadian dream—of living in harmony with a pastoral natural landscape—has been one of our pervasive ideals. It stretches across cultures and time, appearing throughout visual art. We see it domesticated on suburban lawns and in national parks.

That fantasy had a darker counterpoint, however: it was a landscape of density and death. A place that doesn’t redeem but dissolves toward entropy and the baser needs of fetid reproduction. The jungles of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness were one such place. So are the gator-filled mangrove swamps and humid sawgrass of the Florida Everglades in Peter Matthiessen’s astonishing Watson Trilogy, which, as it turns out, were never intended to be three novels, but one.

Matthiessen spent five or six years returning to that project to its original vision. It has now been republished by Modern Library as one long novel, Shadow Country, an appropriate title for an epic meditation on a landscape defined by rape, rupture, and the intermingling of races that were enlisted—forcibly, or by the equally cruel leverage of their destitution—to clear, tame, and make landscapes from Oklahoma to the Deep South worth something; or if that failed, to leave.

At 900 pages, Shadow Country is an imposing piece of reading, but the Novel—the capital N feels appropriate here—never lacks for momentum, let alone a grand character. E. J. Watson, its blond, brutal, hardworking, hubristic hero, is a close cousin to Thomas Sutpen, the volcanic center of William Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom! Absalom! Like Sutpen, Watson comes to a land that is not his own, haunted by his past—in this case it’s a murder—and tries to impose a grand design that the land and the racial politics required to maintain it resist. Like Sutpen, Watson also spawns sons who try and fail to deal with their father’s complicated, poisonous legacy. The only difference is that Watson is based on a real person whose life and death are confirmed by Florida history.

Edgar J. Watson was the son of a well-known South Carolina family who reportedly married five women and fathered ten children. Watson is shot down in cold blood in the book’s opening scene by a posse of his neighbors, shortly after pulling his boat ashore one night. It’s a riveting scene that ends with a horrendous image of a woman crawling under her house, “dragging her brood into the chicken slime and darkness.”

The novel then cycles back to tell Watson’s story in the voices of a dozen men and women who knew him (and watched him—or helped him—get shot) in riffs that feel as natural as if they were told across a porch as darkness falls. It’s a bravura performance of serial impersonations that instantly keys us in to the racial tensions that simmered in that part of the world around the turn of the 20th century.

We hear from Richard Hardin, an Indian who looks white; a mulatto named Henry Short and another man named Bill House, both of whom worked for a Frenchman who turned up in those parts in search of rare birds.

Together, with others, they tell how Watson appeared one day, clearly an outlaw of some sort. Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands were full of people on the lam in those days—“knife-mouthed piney-woods crackers,” as one man describes them, “hollow-eyed under wool hats and them bony-cheeked tall women with lank black hair like horse mane.” Watson possessed their toughness but also had grander ambitions than most—and, crucially, had a way of getting people to do what he wanted. He bought up a piece of land no one had successfully farmed and began growing cane on it in 1894; he later brought his family along, only to flee when one too many murders occurred on his plantation.

The chorus of voices who relay this history to us sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Here is a place distrustful of outsiders, where people solved disagreements and even greetings with a gun and the instinct to steal and take from the land—to deplete it, or import the outside world into it—was looked down upon, vanquished with a tough-minded irony. One character remembers how, in the 1880s, travelers going down the rivers would see the Mikasuki Indians peering through the sawgrass: “Give you a funny feeling,” the man says, “Made you think the Earth was watching, too.” A preacher brought “the Lord to Everglade back in 1888 and took Him away again when he departed.” Yachts begin coming down and mooring nearby and the people pull out the depth stakes. Watson, who is farming a piece of land said to be haunted, is expelled not once but twice.

The metaphors that Matthiessen’s characters use reflect people living within the orienting sphere of nature—people for whom the mere notion of an idea of an abstract Nature would be a Yankee joke. A woman is “small and flirty as a bird”; listening to you, a man says, Watson would “blink just once, real slow, like an old chewing turtle”; on the night Watson is shot, a nervous man is “buzzing with green flies in the heat.” As the book progresses and outsiders begin entering the picture and try to parse Watson’s legend—like his son Lucius, a Ph.D. doing research on the South—the novel’s language evolves away from this natural ecology toward crisper, denatured cadences. It is surveying language; it is academic language; it is an outsider’s language.

Stitching the three novels back together must have been nearly as mammoth a task as writing them to begin with. Matthiessen has bridged the gap as best as one can imagine, sawing a significant amount of historical information out of the section originally published as “Lost Man’s River,” a decision that draws his characters’ voices to the fore and unfortunately reveals the adjectival paucity of Watson’s first-person narration, which kicks in during Book Three and carries Shadow Country toward its climax. We all live in the gap between how we are perceived and the way we see ourselves. Somehow, though, Watson’s voice doesn’t sound right. The events leading up to this point prepare you for a man who would cuss language into a sprung poetry, like Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly. Instead Watson sounds disappointingly like a businessman.

In the end, there is a sad truth to this planing down toward the literal in Shadow Country. Florida was becoming a business. As Matthiessen reminds the reader, Napoleon Broward was the new governor, “and his plan to conquer the Everglades for the future of Florida agriculture” got under way in 1906. What Watson was doing to the landscape, and to the people who worked for him, was about to happen on a much larger scale. It’s something even he regrets. Late in the novel, Watson recalls seeing some Yankee men and their Indian guides dragging a 2,000-pound manatee in a dugout down the Shark River in a pine box. “What they wanted with that huge dismal creature and what became of it I never learned,” he says. The image says volumes. The wildness of that world was about to be tamed—or perhaps invented, as if that were possible—and no one knew the violence that would likely require quite like E. J. Watson. —John Freeman

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