Killing Mister Watson Summary
by Peter Matthiessen

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Killing Mister Watson Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The central characters of Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson are based on Edgar J. Watson, who lived between 1855 and 1910 and farmed in the Florida Everglades, and the “Queen of the Outlaws,” Belle Starr. Watson liked to brag about his having killed fifty-seven men; however, he was only accused of one such crime: the 1889 death of Belle Starr in Fort Smith, Arkansas, who was found dead after a disagreement with Watson over some land.

In the novel, Watson and others recount their versions of events that involve Watson, forming a collage of opinion and versions of what Watson may or may not have done. However, even though Watson was never brought to trial for Starr’s murder, he left Arkansas for the remote regions of the Everglades, where he raised pigs and otherwise supported himself off the land. Despite the cloud of doubt in Arkansas, Watson seemed to fit in as a welcome member of the Everglades, and he settled in to begin farming in Chatham Bend. Watson remains to the end of the novel a paradox: a man who boasted of a violent past, yet in his new “incarnation” as a Florida farmer, a devoted family man and a man generally regarded by his neighbors as a pillar of his community. Thus it is startling when, some thirty years after arriving in Florida, more than twenty of his neighbors—upstanding men of the nearby town of Chokoloske—meet him at that town’s boat landing on October 24, 1910, gunning him down in a barrage of bullets.

Matthiessen has woven the novel from a combination of the historical record and the myths and rumors that have come to surround Watson’s life and death. The narrative structure that Matthiessen employs underscores the disparities: events are narrated in different voices, and no two narrators agree as to who exactly Edgar J. Watson was or whether he got what he deserved. Yet the mystery is why so many men would join together to murder him in such a public fashion. It seems that Watson was a better businessman than many people had known: He apparently has been systematically murdering his field hands rather than paying them the wages that they earned. The main character is revealed through the accounts of twelve narrators to be a vicious, brutal owner who victimized those who could not defend themselves and for whom no real legal...

(The entire section is 598 words.)