Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend

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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. 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.

I'll just say right here that the book took my sleeve and like the ancient mariner would not let go. Matthiessen has made his three-part saga into a new thing Finally now we have these books welded like a bell, and with Watson's song the last sound, all the elements fuse and resonate He] deserves credit for decades of meticulous research and obsessive details and soaring prose that converted the Watson legend into critically acclaimed literature Anyone wanting an explanation for what happened to Florida can now find it in a single novel, a great American novel.

Watson's story is essentially the story of the American frontier, of the conquering of wild lands and people, and of what such empires cost Even among a body of work as magnificent as Matthiessen's, this is his great book. Petersburg Times " ""Shadow Country" is a magnum opus. Matthiessen is meticulous in creating characters, lyrical in describing landscapes, and resolute in dissecting the values and costs that accompanied the development of this nation.

All rights reserved. Peter Matthiessen revisits his fictionalized account of the brutal plantation owner Edgar J. IN , year-old Edgar J. Watson became a living legend when a book credited him with shooting the outlaw queen Belle Starr nine years earlier. The descendant of a prominent South Carolina family, the legal or common-law husband of five women, the father of possibly 10 children, a leading pioneer on the southwest coast of Florida and a man killed by a large group of his neighbors in , the historical Watson has obsessed Peter Matthiessen for three decades.

Between and , the novels that grew out of that obsession - "Killing Mister Watson," "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone" - were first published. In his author's note to "Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend," Matthiessen says his initial manuscript ran to more than 1, pages, which he was persuaded to trim and split into three books. Book I begins with a third-person description of Watson's death and proceeds to the testimony of 12 first-person narrators, many of whom return several times.

Except for Watson's daughter Carrie, who writes a diary, they seem to be reciting their colloquial, digressive and sometimes unreliable memories for an oral historian.


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Most of these highly engaging tale-tellers are friends, employees, neighbors and relatives who knew Watson from the year - - when he first came to the region of Florida called the Ten Thousand Islands. They admire his gentlemanly manners and good looks, his hard and innovative work raising a sugar plantation from land that was little more than a mound of shells. They are also taken with his wit.

He "looked and acted," declares a woman named Mamie Smallwood, "like our idea of a hero. Not long after Watson brings his wife and children to their new home at Chatham Bend, the community hears the Belle Starr story.

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Watson enjoys employing his reputation as a "desperado" to intimidate anyone he considers a competitor, but when a young couple squatting on his land are murdered, Watson's history or legend works against him. The only suspect, he must flee his plantation, returning just for quick visits until, seven years later, he shows up with a new wife and children. Once again his past shadows him: while away from the Everglades, he beat a murder charge through the intervention of powerful friends. Now some relatives and friends shun him.

Neighbors move away. Then three of his employees, one a woman, are found dead. Watson can't prove his innocence, and when he aims his shotgun on his accusers they put 33 slugs into the man some call "bloody Watson.


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Add the Harden family and Watson's relatives, along with the sheriff supposedly investigating him, and Matthiessen's presentation of conflicting race, class, clan and personal loyalties is masterly. With its historical and legendary uncertainties, this first book is a deeper South "Absalom, Absalom!

Like Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen, Watson is a red-haired, grandplanning outlander who creates a plantation from nothing, then carelessly destroys it and at least one of his sons. From boyhood, Watson carried around a history of ancient Greece. In Book I, the far-flung shadow of hubris is revealed by a chorus of individual voices. To the tragic dignity of Faulkner's novel, Matthiessen adds the ironic indignity of seeing Emperor Watson's body buried and his life recounted by the laboring folk that he, like Sutpen, dominated.

Matthiessen cut about a hundred pages from "Killing Mister Watson," some of them unnecessary fake news items. Lucius manages to get answers to some questions: Did Watson kill those two squatters? Did he murder black cane cutters he couldn't pay? Was Watson shot first and appropriately by the mulatto Henry Short?

When Matthiessen occasionally allows Lucius to "record" the old folks, Book II has the down-home authority and vernacular appeal of Book I. But too often this third-person narrative of the educated Lucius' search for his father reads like the educated author's research for his book. But Matthiessen does not.

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In Book III he burrows farther back by imagining Watson's own account of his whole life, which runs about the same number of pages as "Bone by Bone. Since his "autobiography" isn't a deposition - or any other kind of document - that Watson could use to deceive an audience, we can presumably trust his account of the facts, if not his interpretations and rationalizations. We learn that Watson was severely beaten as a boy and thinks he suffered brain damage because he has, you see, this split personality: Edgar, the family man, and Jack, the raging killer.

It's hard to know if it's Watson or Matthiessen who makes Watson into a case study of pathology, a victim of child abuse. Either way, it's a diminishment.

For readers who want all the earlier dots connected, the chronological back story offered by Book III - with its Reconstruction youth, Western adventures and North Florida misadventures - will be a welcome resolution. But as in Book II, Matthiessen often includes history lessons, presumably from research, that neither Watson the man nor Watson the fictional character would have needed to provide. And Matthiessen's dead man talking sounds, unfortunately, like the sententious and oblivious Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner knew better than to let Sutpen tell almost half of "Absalom, Absalom!

Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend (MP3 CD)

By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows.

Tom LeClair has just finished the third novel in a trilogy. The first two are "Passing Off" and "Passing On. Skip to: Content. Log In. My Account. Remember to clear the cache and close the browser window. Search For:. Advanced Search. Shadow country : a new rendering of the Watson legend. Matthiessen, Peter. Publication Information:. Physical Description:. Personal Subject:. Watson, Edgar J. Subject Term:. Frontier and pioneer life -- Fiction.

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Murderers -- Fiction. Geographic Term:. Everglades Fla. Biographical fiction. Historical fiction. Staff View.