Thursday, May 24, 2018
Books

For writer Peter Matthiessen, Florida was an enduring subject

Writer Peter Matthiessen's books took him, and his readers, all over the globe. But he found the subject of his greatest work of fiction in Florida.

Mr. Matthiessen died of leukemia Saturday at age 86. Over 60 years, he published more than 30 books; his final novel, In Paradise, will be published Tuesday. He was the only writer ever to win National Book Awards for both nonfiction and fiction.

Born into a wealthy family and educated at Yale, Mr. Matthiessen was a passionate activist for social justice and the environment. He was also a Zen Buddhist teacher, a prodigious researcher and a lifelong adventurer; his books were set everywhere from South American rain forests to African savannas, from ocean depths to Himalayan heights, from Long Island, N.Y. (his longtime home base), to a South Dakota tribal reservation.

Florida, however, might have held his attention the longest. "I remember around 1965 hearing about this ruin of a house down in the Ten Thousand Islands, that it had belonged to a man who was shot to death by his neighbors," Mr. Matthiessen told me during a 2008 interview at his brother's home in Sanibel. "I thought, why?"

His family had spent time in southwest Florida since he was a boy, so he knew the state well. The tale that gripped him was the true story of Edgar Watson, a wealthy sugar planter with a mysterious past who was killed by a posse at Chokoloskee in 1910, amid rumors that he had murdered several people.

Mr. Matthiessen spent an enormous amount of time researching the book, including, he said, talking to "everybody over 95 in southwest Florida."

Author Randy Wayne White writes thrillers set in and around Sanibel about Doc Ford and Hannah Smith. (She is named for a character in Mr. Matthiessen's Florida books.) White wrote in an email on Sunday, "Peter was the closest of friends and confidants for more than 30 years, and he was a lifelong friend and champion of Florida. Every year for many years we ran my small boat from Sanibel to the Ten Thousand Islands and camped for a week or more while PM researched what would become his Killing Mr. Watson trilogy. ... That he was a brilliant man of letters is widely known. Lesser known is this: Peter Matthiessen was the rarest of friends if he was your friend, ever loyal, always supportive and funny as hell especially when times got tough."

Mr. Matthiessen's first fictional version of the Watson story was a 1,500-page manuscript that he said "terrified" his publisher, Random House. He broke it down into Killing Mr. Watson (published in 1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999). Telling Watson's story from many different points of view and rich with Florida history and settings, the three novels were critically acclaimed.

But Mr. Matthiessen decided to put the pieces back together. Seven years later, he finished Shadow Country. The 892-page novel won him the National Book Award for fiction in 2008. Compared by critics to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Shadow Country is an American epic and the greatest work of historical fiction about Florida.

Its protagonist, Watson, is endlessly complex, hugely ambitious and hard-working, volcanically violent, yet sensitive to natural beauty: "I forded the Santa Fe below Fort White and headed south across the Alachua Prairie where the early Indians and Spaniards ran their cattle. To the east that early morning, strange dashes of red color shone through the blowing tops of prairie sedges where the sun touched the crowns of sandhill cranes. Their wild horn and hollow rattle drifted back on a fresh wind as the big birds drifted over the savanna. That blood-red glint of life in the brown grasslands, that long calling — why should such fleeting moments pierce the heart?"

One of the reasons he found Watson's story so irresistible, Mr. Matthiessen told me, was that it was "a metaphor for the Florida frontier. It's all there, the racism, the corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, the isolation of the Indian peoples." In the hands of a such a great writer, that picture of Florida's past resonates into the present and future.

 
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