Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson

I once lived in South Florida (Naples) for two years. I loved that area, and sometimes I wish I had never left it. I remember the lush vegetation, an almost indescribable beauty, the fantastic hunting and fishing, and  my first taste of snook–which has to be the best tasting fish I’ve ever eaten. My life mingled with new friends, with migrants and Cubans and Seminoles, and the overwhelming presence of the Everglades.

Last January, Jed Marum and I toured with our music and stories to Okeechobee, Florida for the Second Seminole War event/reenactment there. On the way back at the Tallahassee state museum, I picked up a CD of songs and interviews on the Everglades. One track was an interview with Peter Matthiessen about his book, Killing Mister Watson. I was intrigued, so of course I ordered the book, read it, and now want to give you a few of my thoughts on that reading.

In the novel’s dedication to the pioneer families of Southwest Florida,  Matthiessen says his research took six years. He tells the story of Edgar J. Watson, one of those early pioneers in that wild and lawless region. It is a harsh, hard world those early pioneers lived in and Matthiessen causes the reader to experience it.  This is an enriching study of human nature, a study of nature itself, and a historical study of the Florida coast. I found myself constantly looking up the plants, animals, and people alluded to. But it all centers on the Mister Watson. Was he the monster some said murdered up to fifty people? Or is the myth and legend of this mysterious and at times charismatic man total exaggeration? Was he also a victim?  Whatever we conclude, we must admit that his influence was pervasive and troubling. Here’s a quote that illustrates:

“It wasn’t Mister Watson’s manners won me over, though Lord Knows manners was scarce in this rough section It was the way he carried himself, kept a little apart. What that man understood so well–he explained this to me–you had to keep a sharp eye on your life. One careless mistake and a life unraveled, Mister Watson said, and there weren’t no way in hell–Forgive me ma’am!–to mend it back” (217).

There’s a good deal of this “unraveling” of people’s lives in the novel and in the end, it’s Watson himself who learns the hard truth of his own statement.  Matthiessen writes, as Time Magazine said, a novel with a “moral anguish” that the reader cannot escape. The next time I’m in South Florida, I intend to find Watson’s grave and Chokoloskee Island. Here’s the Works Cited entry for this novel:

Matthiessen, Peter. Killing Mister Watson. New York: Vintage, 1991.