On Matthiessen’s Shadow Country


When I was younger, the small group of friends I had always used to argue about who was the best guitarist of all time. We would submit names and even reasons for why those we liked should have been considered “the best.” I cannot recall, but I’m almost certain that we never came to a consensus as to who was the best.

Society is obsessed with lists. Each year a multitude of best of lists come out on almost every aspect of culture. I recently read an article that included the 100 books every one should read. I had read about half, and at least ten were ones that I had never heard of. These “best of” lists can never be anything but subjective and products of their own time and space. Although I don’t put much stock in such lists, I do take the cultural context from which they emerge seriously.

All of which leads me to my subject.

I recently made the claim that Peter Matthiessen’s novel Shadow Country was the best novel I had ever read. For the past three years I have devoted my May and June to reading the three parts of this magnificent work. This year I am deep in the middle of the third and final part. Briefly, Shadow Country is a “new rendering of the Watson Legend.” Originally, Matthiessen published three novels examining the events leading up to the assassination of Edgar J. Watson on the Florida frontier. Those novels, Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone, sold reasonably well. However, Matthiessen intended the story to be one massive novel. Shadow Country is that novel. It is an American epic in every sense of the word. The story is told from different points of view, all of which give corroborating and contradictory information about Mr. Watson. The writing is beautiful, and the themes are violent. The title “Shadow Country” alludes to our nation’s violent history of land grabbing and murder. Absent is the glorious nature of our nation’s history that one finds in the museums and history books. Yet, Watson is as seminal a figure in American history as any, perhaps more so.

But what about it being the “best novel I have ever read?” At the time I said it I truly believed it to be the truth. It’s almost absurd when we think of all the other novels that have been published over the last 300 years. Can Shadow Country really compete with, say, Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn when it comes to great American literature. Can it compete with One Hundred Years of Solitude or Don Quixote? Yes, I believe that Shadow Country can hold its own in the company of those novels. Consider the following lines about Watson as told by Erskine Thompson, a protagonist from Part I:

“In the early days, Mister Ed Watson was touchy about people tellin slander, but he always enjoyed the attention he got for knowing famous outlaws in the Territories and he made the most of them bad stories about himself. Didn’t encourage ‘em so much as not quite deny ‘em, cause his reputation as a fast gun and willing to use it kept other men from staking claims anywhere near him.” (122)

Not only do these lines tell us a lot about Mister Watson, they also get to the heart of the origins of the American experiment: namely, that all who came here were fundamentally tied to the land in ways that their European kin were not. In fact, our obsession with owning property is as strong today as it has ever been. The subtext of the novel is land ownership, of staking a claim in order to put down roots and forge a future out of the wilderness. Matthiessen’s Watson is very much like Faulkner’s Sutpen who seeks to fashion the wilderness into something unnatural and begin a dynasty in Jefferson, Mississippi. Rosa Coldfield’s recounting of Sutpen’s story to a young Quentin Compson (who will die by his own hand in Faulkner’s slipstream narrative) is full of awe and fear, and more than a little bit of hate. The thread that ties the two characters together, indeed all of the major characters in American fiction, is the unerring determination to make something out of nothing, to tame the wilderness and rework it into an abomination. What unites them in the reader’s imagination is that they are the stuff of legends, of story. The narrator of Absalom, Absalom! States: “The two of them, creating between them, out of rag-tag, bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere, who, shadows, were shadows not of flesh and blood which had lived and died but shadows in turn of what were (to one of them at least, to Shreve) shades too) quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporizing breath” (243). This is a story being told by Quentin to Shreve in a cold and distant New England. The point is that something living emerges from the stories we tell ourselves.

The great novels of our lives come and go and change as we change. I strongly believe that we have favorite novels for different times in our lives. To choose one is like choosing a favorite child. The great books of our lives are determined by the time and space from which we emerge, only to be tossed about by a cruel and unceasing wind, first to end up here, then over there, and on and on. Everything we read and experience becomes an echo that never dies. As I write these words, Shadow Country has become a part of my life in the way that any other experience becomes part of life. I have met and traveled with Edgar J. Watson. I have witnessed his life and death, and I have not come away unmoved. The characters and places and times we read about in novels assume a ghostly permanence that haunts the reader’s life (imagination is too narrow a concept here) from that moment on. So when I make statements about what is the best of something I’ve experienced, you have to take it as truth, because at the time it is the truth.

In fact, it’s the only truth I know.


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