The 3d and and final Book (and longest at almost half the novel) of Matthiessen’s massive effort, begins with Edgar as young boy in South Carolina as his father goes off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Thus commences the history of the Watson clan itself, from the middle of the 18th Century, as told in the first person by EJ himself.
The Watson voice is sometimes a little florid, but at least would be consistent with a self-educated man, a man who studied and studied his gift of a Greek reader. The self-taught man.
Edgar beats his father, tired of the abuse, and leaves the house for good. The early pages are especially worthy for the continued descriptions of the still (mostly) pristine glades of Florida. This is where PM excels. Because it’s a subject he deeply cares about, as a cursory glance at his bibliography will show. The Snow Leopard (1996) is the only other Matthiessen I have read up to this epic and I still remember the wonderful nature writing of that book. Here, PM is equally impressive in the scope and significance of his writing on the environment. This book is certainly valuable and worthy for that alone.
Matthiesson uses the character of EJ Watson as a constant reminder of the possibility of regeneration, of reinvention – even if that possibility seems constantly thwarted by forces beyond one’s control. And the opportunity is always represented by the frontier, the virgin and “untamed” wilderness. Here, the dichotomy of man vs nature, sustainer and enemy is always present. The sky’s the limit.
…the prospect of so much virgin coast awaiting man’s dominion filled me with excitement, even hope. I was still a fugitive, ever further from my family, but for the first time in my life, I had the capital to establish my own enterprise on my own land, which was here for the claiming. I would find good soil, get a first crop under way while I built a cabin, bring in pigs and chickens, send for Mandy and the children – that was all the plan I needed for a year or two, but all the while, I would look around for opportunity. This Everglades frontier was a huge wilderness to be tamed and harnessed. I had the strength and an ambition made more fierce by so much failure. It was up to me.
Dominion. That’s what we do, isn’t it? We don’t necessarily want to destroy nature, we just want to tame it. Perhaps get it out of the way. Box it up. Deal with it on our own terms. We want to visit it at arms length. We don’t want to be in it. We want it to be before us, and available. School kids in those days had a few stand-bys that they went to over and over again. Besides the Seaquarium, there was Dr. Haast’s Serpentarium.
“Milking” rattler’s was the Doc’s thing. He’d been bit so may times, he was virtually immune. Of course, some tame Seminoles doing their gator wrasslin’ gig was always a standby as well. We’d get in our bus, drive out on the “field trip”, have our bologna sandwich lunvh, get back on the bus, and drive away, leaving “nature” behind.
You can positively smell the glades:
That professor at last year’s World Fair in Chicago who told the country it had no more frontiers had sure as hell never heard about the Everglades: in all south Florida, there was no road nor even a rough track, only faint Injun water trails across the swamps to the far hammocks. This southwest coast, called the Ten Thousand Islands, was like a giant jigsaw puzzle pulled apart, the pieces separated by wild rivers, lonesome bays and estuaries where lost creeks and alligator sloughs, tobacco-colored from the tannin, continued westward through the mangrove islands to the Gulf as brackish tidal rivers swollen with rain and mud, carving broad channels.
The prescient Watson can see where this is all headed:
Strolling around the growing town, I was astonished by the changes in Fort Myers. The oil and gas lamps, the horse-drawn buggies of the nineties were all but gone, replaced by backfiring and very smelly autos, and the railroad whose new river bridge had connected our frontier cattle town to the outside world. One day soon, I predicted, winter visitors would come here in the aeroplane, which had had its first flight in North Carolina just three years before.
It’s the oddest experience, growing up in a tourist town. I grew up hanging around the beach and New York ‘girls on vacation. I even affected a New York accent for awhile. Miniature golf a the 79th street Fun Fair, and burgers at Scotty’s …even a Lowenbrau and a chili dog (fake id) just got old after awhile. My friends and I just wanted to get out of there. Everyone else seemed to want to come. We took to driving down to Opa-Locka where an old air force base had been turned into a semi-official drag strip. Weekends we’d as like head on over to the Tamiami Trail to a truck stop somewhere half way to the West coast, called Jo-Mo Louie’s. Coulda been long-lost relatives of the Watson clan right there at the bar, for all I know.
Watson on God, lust and sin. The world according to EJ:
…we are God’s handiwork, created in His image, lust, piss, shit, and all. Without that magnificent Almighty lust that we mere mortals dare to call a sin, there wouldn’t be any mere morals, and God.s grand design for the human race, if He exists and if He ever had one, would turn to dust, and dust unto dust, forever and amen. Other creatures would step up and take over, realizing that man was too weak and foolish to properly reproduce himself. I nominate hogs to inherit the Earth, because hogs love to eat any old damn thing God sets in front of them, and they’re ever so grateful for God’s green earth even when it’s all rain and mud, and they just plain adore to feed and fuck and frolic and fulfill God’s holy plan. For all we know, it’s hogs which are created inn God’s image, who’s to say?
In jail in the summer of 1908, EJ Watson has time to reflect on his past misdeeds:
Some would say that Edgar Watson is a bad man by nature. Ed Watson is the man I was created. If I was created evil, somebody better hustle off to church, take it up with God. I don’t believe a man is born with a bad nature. I enjoy folks, most of ’em. But it’s true I drink too much in my black moods, see only threats and enmity on every side. And in that darkness I strike too fast, and by the time I come clear, trouble has caught up with me again.
I drifted, drifted, drifted, but not in a bad direction. I began to read voraciously, Since there were no decent bookstores around, and there was no Amazon yet, I’d hike out to the airport for my books. I got into college with the prediction that I’d fail out right quick. Probably the best thing anyone ever said to me. I meant to prove ’em wrong. My buddy, the dragster with the ’57 Chevy, went the other way. Bought himself a boat and took to running grass from Bimini. Last I heard, Cecil (Freckie, we called him, because of all his freckles, and because his name was, well…Cecil) was in jail doing some serious. Well, it’s all in who you are and what you think the possibilities are. Sure, the playing field ain’t always level, but no sense in moanin’. Taking short cuts. Life ain’t fair, and maybe never was. But you sure don’t need to make it easy for ’em.
Near the end, EJ considers the raps he’s taken. Considers that it’s not necessarily what you do, so much as the combination of what you do and what it is that they expect you’ll do. Some people can get away with the same shit with nary a whisper of trouble. Your reputation precedes you and leads you. If your name is EJ Watson and every loose body can be traced back to you in the popular imagination, that’s one thing.But if your name is Nap Broward say, or Henry Flagler, then that’s a whole ‘nuther.
…it enraged me that a small cane planter on a remote frontier river should be reviled for “Watson Payday” while more powerful men supported by the government were writing off human life as overhead as an everyday matter.
In the end, EJW’s story is part confession and part magnificent justification. Rationalization. There is much about Watson’s life that hints at pre-destination. And Watson is not averse to playing that card., no matter how uncomfortable with the thought he might be. He is what he is. There’s no sense in bemoaning his fate.
“Whenever someone threatens to tell tales on me, get me into trouble, a taste of iron comes into my mouth and my hand hardens in a rage that spins up from the oldest corner of my brain,” – like that big old bull gator that lives across the creek.
This is a big book. An ambitious book. A book with more than an agenda. It’s a book of style with substance. And a damned fine way to spend a week. Or three.