Social Concerns / Themes
Matthiessen's persistent concern with a primitive landscape bearing the incursion of white "civilization" is represented in Killing Mister Watson. However, instead of displacing this fundamental conflict to South America or the Caribbean, Matthiessen sets it in America, on the west coast of the Florida Everglades. It is here, among the "dark mangrove walls closing out the world, with the empty Everglades to eastward where the sun rose, and that empty Gulf out to the west where the sun set, the silence and miskeeters and the loneliness," that Matthiessen locates his chronicle of the life and death of Edgar J. Watson — farmer, businessman, and outlaw gunman.
Matthiessen has at times been criticized for his tendency to posit the superiority of the primitive over the civilized, but in Killing Mister Watson there is no "primitive" who receives unalloyed praise. These "frontiersmen" of the Everglades are themselves hanging on tenuously to the American continent, and are thus already infused with the values of American civilization, for better or worse. Indeed, a recurrent subject of meditation for the narrators is the question of how much white blood someone has, and in what mixture with what other strains. Even though Sarah Hamilton, one of the narrators, remarks that "this whole darn foolishness of blood will be the ruin of this country," she too proceeds to catalogue her forebears and their nationality. It is as though Matthiessen acknowledges here America's inability to escape this essential concern with racial purity, regardless of its impertinence. The enemy, finally, is shown to be as much within us as without: The Everglades and its wildlife are threatened both by the plume hunting of the settlers, which destroys vast heron rookeries, and by half-baked ideas to dredge the swamps or build a road across the Florida peninsula.
Matthiessen has remarked in a television interview that Watson, the shifting center of this novel, can be seen as "a metaphor for the violence of the frontier." If so, that "frontier" is simultaneously the geographical edge of the continent, the intersection of civilization and its opposite, and a frontier of morality in both the individual and community. While the reader sees Watson recede from the foreground,...
(The entire section is 559 words.)