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Dead men do tell tales

Peter Matthiessen's lifetime of curiosity about a real vigilante murder in the Everglades resulted in Killing Mister Watson and two other novels.

By MARGO HAMMOND, Times Book Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 31, 2002


SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Author Peter Matthiessen first heard the name Edgar Watson when he was a teenager on a boat trip down the west coast of Florida. He was with his father, a wealthy architect with whom he had a stormy relationship. As they skirted the shallow waters of the Ten Thousand Islands, his father showed him a marine chart, pointing to where the Chatham River spills into the gulf.

"You know something," the senior Matthiessen told his son, "there's a house up there, about 4 miles or so, the only house in Everglades." The white frame house, sitting on Chatham Bend, belonged to a man named Edgar Watson, who was killed by his neighbors, his father told him.

"That's all he knew about the whole story," says Matthiessen, leaning back on a chair at the Dockside, an open-air restaurant in Sag Harbor where we are talking over fresh oysters and nonalcoholic beer. Matthiessen lives on a woodsy plot in nearby Sagaponick.

That fragment of a tale impressed the young Matthiessen. "I could understand a guy being killed by his neighbors in Brooklyn, but a guy killed by his neighbors out in the middle of nowhere? I kind of wanted to know about that," he says, smiling at the memory.

Years went by before Matthiessen found the time to track down the rest of Watson's story. First, he left home ("My father kicked me out when I was 17"), graduated from Yale, published his first short story in Atlantic Monthly, moved to Paris and founded the Paris Review, worked as a commercial fisherman and ran a charter boat, dropped acid, marched with Cesar Chavez, became a Buddhist priest and married three times.

During those decades, he solidly established himself as a writer concerned about the environment and indigenous people, penning a half-dozen novels and more than a dozen works of nonfiction on subjects from cranes to Crazy Horse. The Snow Leopard, a lyrical account of his trek in search of the elusive cat, won him a National Book Award in 1978. His novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord was made into a movie starring Kathy Bates.

When he finally turned his attention to the story of that vigilante murder in the Everglades, the mysterious Mister Watson became an obsession.

"I was doing a wholly different kind of novel about Florida," Matthiessen says. "I was working with the Miccosukee and doing a lot of environmental Florida pieces for Audobon magazine. I was going to do an Indian- and environment-based novel, and I thought of that old Watson story and thought that would make an interesting strand in the narrative. The strand became like a strangling plant and squashed out the rest."

In 1990, Matthiessen published Killing Mister Watson, in which he told the fictionalized story of E.J. Watson through the voices of 10 narrators. It was to be the first in a trilogy on the Watson saga. In Lost Man's River (1997), he told the story through the voice of Watson's son. In Bone by Bone (1999), Watson himself narrates.

The stories were originally written as a single work. Now Matthiessen is working on recombining the 1,400 word-trilogy into one volume, to be published by the Modern Library.

The story of Watson, a shady entrepreneur in the Everglades at the turn of the last century, is really the story of our country's unbridled pursuit of wealth -- and the inevitable criminality that accompanies it. The story is about greed, racism, exploitation and the accumulation of great fortunes on the backs of poor people, a theme hardly new for Matthiessen: It underlies most of his nonfiction.

But these are works of fiction, and the Watson story posed a particularly compelling problem: how to make a man who had been demonized over the years into an empathetic character. "That was my challenge," Matthiessen says. He took as his model Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, the story of a former British consul who goes to Mexico to drink himself to death. "Lowry did something I admire so much: He made the consul very sympathetic, even though he was a drunken mess, a loser with a capital L," Matthiessen says.

Watson also was an unsavory sort. His reputation as a ruthless killer was well-established when he arrived in the Ten Thousand Islands at the beginning of the 20th century, and he found it useful -- at least at first -- to capitalize on the fear it engendered. Over the years, rumors abounded about seditious workers being murdered on his plantation (not an unknown practice in those days, Matthiessen says) and drunken brawls ending in violence (also hardly uncommon in 20th century America). "I think, though, in the end it came back to haunt him. He knew he could never get clean again," Matthiessen says.

However, the trilogy does not settle the matter of how many people Watson actually killed. "There's no doubt that he was capable of killing, but he was supposed to have killed 55 people, and that's absurd," Matthiessen says, "although it's very hard to separate him from seven of them."

Many readers have told Matthiessen they were sorry when Watson was killed. He takes that as a compliment. His view of Watson, whose steely presence could make even the most self-confident man start to blubber, is unsentimental: "I give him two things which are important: He's funny, he has a good sense of humor, although very black. And he's also dignified, even at the end."

Not everyone has dealt so fairly with Mister Watson, and I'm not talking just about those neighbors who took it upon themselves to gun him down. Dime adventure books and local legends circulating before and after Watson's death contributed to the myth of a one-dimensional monster. One book published during Watson's lifetime, Hell on the Border, implied strongly that Watson had killed a woman named Belle Starr, known as the "Queen of the Outlaws," a claim that was never proven (Watson was accused of the crime but was released for lack of evidence). Another book, published long after Watson's death, was penned by a woman also named Matthiessen. "The author's daughter contacted me," Peter Matthiessen says. "Her mother was not a Matthiessen but married to one. The daughter called herself Maria von Matthiessen." When he asked his father about the family connection, his father told him, "If we ever had a "von,' we dropped it." That book cast Watson as a bloody killer, and it seemed to fix Watson's legend forever.

And then came Killing Mister Watson.

Watson's descendants say they are grateful that another Matthiessen has come along to offer a more nuanced portrait of E.J. Watson. "My grandmother never talked about my grandfather," says Watson's granddaughter Barbara Brice, whose two daughters, Mary Katherine and Anna Elizabeth, are named for Watson's wife (their great-grandmother) and his youngest daughter, Anna Metz. "When I asked her how Grandpa died, she told me, "His heart stopped."'

Before the publication of Killing Mister Watson, Anna Metz, Watson's only surviving child, refused to talk about her father (she appears in Killing Mister Watson as Amy May, a babe in the arms of her mother when Watson is shot to death by his neighbors.) Teased mercilessly in school as the daughter of a murderer because of that first Matthiessen's potboiler, she had refused to be interviewed when Peter Matthiessen was researching the Watson saga.

When Killing Mister Watson came out, however, Watson's youngest daughter wrote Peter Matthiessen a touching letter, thanking him. "You gave me back my father," wrote Metz, who is now 92 and in good health. "You made him a human being."

At a glance

Peter Matthiessen will appear from 1:15-2:15 in Fox Hall.

Discussing 'Mister Watson'

Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson, the first book of his trilogy on E.J. Watson, was chosen this fall for One Book, One Bay, a communitywide effort to get everyone reading and discussing the same book. Discussions of the novel took place throughout October at libraries in Pinellas, Hernando and Hillsborough counties. The initiative culminates with the appearance of Matthiessen at the festival, where he will talk about the Watson saga as well as discuss his latest work of nonfiction, The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes.

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