Peter Matthiessen has written the story of Edgar Watson twice before. In Killing Mr. Watson (1990), the story was narrated by a variety of inhabitants of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, who had had more or less contact with Mr. Watson during his sojourns there. The collective voice of the community, with its commentary, questions, and speculations, served to create a myth of the man whom they finally had to murder to protect themselves. The myth and the man haunt Lucius Watson, youngest son of Edgar Watson’s second marriage, and he sets out to find the truth about his father, and himself, in Lost Man’s River(1997). Bone by Bone is Edgar Watson’s own account of his life.
Edgar Watson grew up in the post-bellum South, the son of an impoverished Southern belle and the black sheep renegade of a prominent plantation family. His father, “Ring-Eye” Lige Watson, served dishonorably in the Confederate forces during the Civil War, while his mother, Ellen Addison Watson, languished in genteel poverty at home. When “Ring-Eye” returned home from the war, the veteran became a member of a marauding gang set on lynching black men and harassing anyone of a more tolerant persuasion, including Ellen’s cousin, Selden Tilghman. Ring- Eye Lige’s drunken rages, provoked in part by his exasperated and righteous wife, were inevitably exercised upon his young son, Edgar, whose pain and anger retreated into an alter ego dubbed “Jack” Watson. Inevitably, the son had to defend himself from the predatory violence of his father. His mother and sister Minnie fled to a relative in Ichetucknee, Florida. Unable to escape the taint of his father’s violence and establish himself within the plantation community, Edgar joined his mother and sister. The conflicted product of his upbringing, the young man values hard work, family honor and loyalty, and respect bred from fear, position, and racial superiority. He is charismatic, ambitious, and bold, and very dangerous to anyone or anything that he deems a threat to his survival or honor.
Matthiessen’s fictional universe in the Watson trilogy is, at once, deterministic, naturalistic, and existentialist. His characters cannot escape from being born into the social and economic society that they inhabit; they are creatures of the natural environment that surrounds them, and, yet, they are ultimately responsible for the actions that determine their lives. None is more so than Edgar Watson—he is a creature formed by his ancestral Scots-Irish tribalism, by Southern pride and racism, by American individualism and capitalist ambition, and by a desperate need for love and respect—or perhaps, more significantly, for respect and love.
Edgar is softened and undone by first love. Ann Mary “Charlie my Darling” Collins teases and pleases Edgar. She introduces him to the beauties of nature, a nature that he depended upon for his survival, but which he had never regarded aesthetically. As only young lovers can, they discover the wonders of their own sexuality. At sixteen, less than a year after Charlie and Edgar married, she died in childbirth. Had Charlie lived, would Edgar have become a civilized, respectable family man? Edgar wants to believe so—“Charlie my Darling had taken with her my last hope of Heaven.” Edgar instead retreats into drunken despair and violence, leaving his unnamed “Son Born” to be cared for by Charlie’s parents.
According to Edgar’s account of the next eight years, he caroused and whored himself into a notorious reprobate, often taken over by the violent Jack side of his personality. Yet by the time he was thirty, he had remarried—a minister’s daughter, Jane “Mandy” Dyal—and fathered two more children. At Mandy’s urging, Edgar had even reclaimed his eldest son and renamed him Robert after an illustrious ancestor. Although he labors as a successful farmer to support his new family, Edgar cannot avoid situations that draw him into trouble. His pride is too easily wounded and his honor too often challenged. Eventually he is implicated in a murder and evicted from his farm, and the family heads out to the Indian Territories to start over.
The man who wanted to become a gentleman farmer becomes an...
(The entire section is 1728 words.)