Killing Mister Watson Analysis
by Peter Matthiessen

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Killing Mister Watson

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

KILLING MISTER WATSON, Peter Matthiessen’s first novel since FAR TORTUGA, is a powerful re-creation of the hostile environment that was Florida in the early twentieth century. Matthiessen is helped in this portrait by his background as a naturalist and explorer. He writes eloquently about the natural world and the individuals who must struggle to survive the elements. The focal point of the novel is Edgar J. Watson, a real historical figure who--legend says--killed the female outlaw Belle Starr. KILLING MISTER WATSON is told by the people who knew Watson. Rumor seems to rule the day. Some folks know Watson as a hard worker and a solid family man, while others believe him to be a cold-blooded murderer.

The Florida Everglades of the early 1900’s was a lawless wilderness. Outlaws and fishermen lived side-by-side; law-abiding individuals had to keep one eye peeled for desperadoes who would not think twice before killing them. Each chapter of KILLING MISTER WATSON is narrated by someone who knows Watson. In the first chapter, Watson is confronted by the sheriff with some of his neighbors and in a wild fury of gunfire Watson is killed, riddled with bullets. Each of the individuals who narrate the succeeding chapters has his or her own version of who Watson was. Newspaper clippings and diary entries are interspersed throughout the narrative.

Matthiessen has created an historical novel that reads like a documentary. KILLING MISTER WATSON is definitely a work of fiction though. The author knows how to weave in factual material and has created a wonderful sense of place. The novel is all the more poignant because it is more than mere imagination. It is an authentic American portrait. The characters speak in their natural dialect. Matthiessen does not soften how hard life was at that time or how the white population mistreated Native Americans and African Americans. The sum of its parts makes KILLING MISTER WATSON add up to a rousing success and therefore a marvelous addition to the canon of one of America’s leading novelists.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, April 15, 1990, p.1585.

Chicago Tribune. June 24, 1990, XIV, p.1.

Harper’s Bazaar. CXXIII, July, 1990, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 8, 1990, p.1.

The New Republic. CCIII, November 5, 1990, p.43.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, June 24, 1990, p.7.

The New Yorker. LXVI, September 17, 1990, p.108.

Newsweek. CXV, June 11, 1990, p.63.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, April 27, 1990, p.52.

Time. CXXXVI, July 16, 1990, p.82.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 31, 1990, p.916.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, June 24, 1990 p.5.

Killing Mister Watson

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Peter Matthiessen’s sixth novel is partly the history of a violent man, Edgar J. Watson, a historical figure about whom there continue to be many rumors but few facts. It is also partly a record of the way in which the prolific wildlife of southern Florida, west of the Everglades, was destroyed in a few short years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the sparse remaining records, Matthiessen has constructed a story that, as he says in an author’s note, contains “nothing that could not have happened.”

The story is told through the imaginary reminiscences of nine of the people who lived in the area and knew Watson during the years between his arrival in 1892 and his death in 1910, as well as through fictitious historical accounts and newspaper reports. Among the narrators are Watson’s friend and employee, Henry Thompson; Bill House, a solid citizen who has worked for the French plume hunter and misanthrope, Jean Chevelier, and who is a reluctant but important participant in the shooting of Watson; and Watson’s sentimental and conventional daughter, Carrie Watson Langford, whom her father married off for political reasons when she was fourteen years old.

The narrators provide various pictures of Watson and what his contemporaries thought of him. Soon after his arrival in the islands, he buys a land claim from a widow...

(The entire section is 3,056 words.)