Peter Matthiessen’s historical novel of Florida’s Western Everglades is at (nearly) 900 pages, still almost not big enough to contain its subject matter. Subtitled A New Rendering of the Watson Legend, Matthiessen has taken his previously separately published books (Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone – these I never read) and indeed ‘rendered’ them anew. Rendered (or perhaps distilled) are appropriate words for what Matthiessen has done. Boiled down the fat, or distilled to a drinkable pone.
In Book I’s (Prologue), one E. J. Watson is shot to death by a mob or posse. Depends on your point of view. And POV is what Book I is all about. Like a Greek Chorus, various voices tell the story from their own perspectives regarding the circumstances leading up to the fateful events of 24 October, 1910. You’d think that the long tale that follows then, would lack suspense. That would be far from the truth. Even if this were only about E. J. Watson, the suspense builds inexorably (inexorably, since we know what is to come).
And a Greek chorus is appropriate. Watson has carried around an old history of ancient Greece, since given the gift as a boy. Matthiessen uses a wonderful quote to prepare us for the structure and intent of Book I – a quote from Jacob Riis:
Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without so much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.
So from the beginning, we know the fate of the man. But this book is about so much more that one man. It’s about a particular place in America (the Western Everglades region known the Ten Thousand Islands). We have always accepted that the last frontier in America was the Wild, Wild West. But this region may be the real deal. The toughest and most emblematic American frontier of them all. It lacks nothing the West as frontier has, yet this novel is also about a particular time in America: a time when things were surely coming together more swiftly than any other. The turn of the Century was pivotal. The rapidity of frontier taming, settling, and reigning in was exponentially swifter than the Western frontier after the Civil War. As such, the place, time and its people are rendered (that word again) to reveal the American experience of frontier building (that came along with a lot of destroying). And PM is as interested in the destroying as he is in the building. Sometimes they’re indistinguishable – as are the heroes and villains, no? In America, they are sometimes one. They all have the same face. The same purpose. Displacement-Settlement. What kind of men and women did it take? We hear from a broad cross-section of them here. The greed, the racism and lust for respectability. This is the ‘land of opportunity’, after all. Rarely do we get such a raw glimpse of the true face of ‘opportunity’ – and the difference between those who take it and those who are somehow constrained not to – either by moral code or lack of will. PM shows us where we come from and it’s not always pretty. But it’s a peek into what we’re made of – a necessary peak. The Chorus, then:
There’s Erskine Thompson, who works for Watson. Thompson relays some of the Watson ‘legend’ as gospel (Watson’s version (ostensibly) of the Belle Starr killing in the West, as well as the Bass killing in Arcadia FL, for instance.
There’s Richard Harden who is part Native American and a friend to Chevalier, an old French archaeologist/naturist.
And his son Owen Harden, along with his wife Sarah Harden, an early confidante of Watson’s..
There’s Bill House, one of the more wonderful colloquial voices, who gives his version of the murders of Wally and Bet Tucker – attributed like many other to E. J. Watson.
Richard Harden always claimed that Watson could not help himself, being formed by accursed fate. In later years that gave Sarah her excuse for forgiving him a little for what he done here. Ain’t doomed the same as fate? I ain’t sure what Daddy Richard meant, unless God put a curse on E. J. Watson. But if God done that, then who was we to blame for them dreadful murders?
House also relates some early environmental history:
By the turn of the century the last east coast birds was gone and the west coast birds was going and the white plumes was bringing twice their weight in gold. Men would fight over egrets and shoot to kill…Them Audibones was agitating harder ‘n ever, and in 1901, plume hunting was forbidden: our native state of Florida had passed a law against our good old native way of living.
After Watson has been shot dead, it’s Bill House again who captures the somewhat torn feelings about what has occurred. Tolerated for many years, now that EJ is gone, people have stronger opinions about his true nature. Opinions are easier to have – or at least to express – after someone is no longer around. As for the revisionists, House will have none of it:
We wasn’t bootlickers, not by any means. We was just ordinary fellers that never knew how to handle this wild hombre till we had him laying face down in the dirt. If ever a man brought perdition on himself, it was Ed Watson, but some way we was blamed for doing exactly what those blamers wanted done. Now that we had him good and dead, some that took part was growing nervous about wiping out a neighbor. Trouble was he never fit their idea of a outlaw – shifty, dirty, knife scars or pocked skin, maybe an eye patch or a missing ear. Ed Watson never looked much like a criminal. Men might speak of them ice-blue eyes in their dark ring that could fix a feller in his tracks, but them blue eyes was part of his good looks, the women said. Them ones that was suddenly upset by how he died, they got to saying that all the trouble come from rumor and misunderstanding…
Still more voices:
Henry Short, a light-skinned black man and friend of Erskine. Henry was brought up with the House clan. Innterestingly, Henry is one of the characters newly rendered here. Short had no ‘voice’ in the earlier works.
Mamie (House) Smallwood is Bill House’s sister, and wife to Postmaster Ted Smallwood [see picture above]
Tant Jenkins, whom Watson always seemed to tolerate and have a soft spot for: Either because he was brother to Josie (one of Watson’s many common-law wives) or because he was an inveterate drinker (like himself)
Hoad Storter was a boyhood friend of EJ’s son, Lucius Watson. It’s Hoad that tells the second-hand story of the discovery of another group of bodies at Watson’s place: those of of Hannah Smith, her boyfriend and Dutchy Melville.
The voice of one of Watson’s daughters Carrie Watson (later Carrie Langford) is the sole exception to the first person account. Her words are through her diary.
Nell Dyer, unrequited love of Lucius, befriended Carrie after Watson’s killing. Her father had been a foreman at Chatham for Watson.
Sheriff Frank B Tippins remembers Carrie Watson from when the Watsons came to Ft Myers from the Everglades. Here, Tippins describes Jim Cole and Walter Langford at the time of the depositions taken after the murder. These are some of the builders of South Florida. Some pioneers adapt as a way to their own personal transformation. Others remain true to themselves, and pay the price.
The new President of the Florida First National had a stiff collar and cravat to go with his new million-dollar smile, served up these days with everything he said. Ol’ Walt had the jowls of a drinker and banker both; the days were gone when those honest cowboy bones showed through the lard. His honey hair was slick and tight as a wild duck’s wing and his nails were pink and he reeked like a barbershop, but all that lotion couldn’t cover up the whiskey.
These are the voices then. We hear from many of them several times. The Greek Chorus. This is nowhere near the limit of characters in Book I (and this is only Book I). There are several others referred to, not heard from directly. There is a wonderful map at the front of the book, and a short lineage of the Watson clan itself. You’d be best served though, to make your own character notes, if you want to keep the players straight. A nearly impossible task. Get yer programs he-yah!
Watson was one of those ‘celebrities’ who manipulates his own legend. But this is like alligator wrasslin’: You gotta keep those jaws locked open or you’ll lose something significant. Legends tend to get away from the reality right quick. Legend becomes myth and that’s all she wrote. Each chorus member brings their own notions to this myth-making thing. Some like it one way. Some like it another. When legends become myth, they’re in the public domain. Everyone has a tale to tell (and an axe to grind) and tell it and chop away they will. There’s just no getting’ around it.
Here’s the thing about frontiers. Part of the taming is a destroying and preserving arc that takes place simultaneously. It’s a curious phenomena. When we first moved to North Miami in 1945, the house was still being built. Now there’s thousands of them just like it – but not exactly. There’s a sameness, but they’re not really all the same.
I didn’t really discover the Everglades until well into my teens. Before that, even though the Tamiami Trail was just a right at the end of Miami Beach, my parents would take us kids north to something called Africa USA. Imagine that. There, down the road apiece was what was still at the time a fairly wild and untamed place. But north we’d go to see the place where ‘Wild Animals Roam Free’. You know. Indigenous fauna like Lions, Heffalumps, giraffes, and the odd Masai warrior or two. Or three. Seems to me they were the most unfriendly Masai I ever met. At least in Miami. But maybe Masai are just like that. It was open country getting there back then though. Most of the 40 miles or so up to Boca was grassland with not much else around. These days it’s most likely bumper to bumper. She said: ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
The story that unfolds across these three books are like the roots of the mangrove tree. Intertwined in such a way that you don’t know where they start and you don’t know where they stop.
As we hear the story unfold in its many manifestations – and ‘hear’ is just what we do, as Matthiessen gives us some fine dialect writing – we realize a mystery is being built here, not solved. It will be up to Book II to attempt that particular task.
And so PM introduces one of E. J. Watson’s sons late in Book I, as a segue into Book II. Lucius will take up the tale from a more narrow perspective.