Presenter of the National Book Awards

2008 National Book Award Winner,
Fiction

Peter Matthiessen

Shadow Country

Modern Library

Peter Matthiessen's 2008 National Book Awards Acceptance Speech from National Book Foundation on Vimeo.

 

Shadow Country

Modern Library

Photos © Jesse Close.

CITATION

Shadow Country is an epic of American rise and descent—poetic, mythic, devastating. From his Everglades trilogy Peter Matthiessen has coaxed a masterpiece, a wrenching story of familial, racial and environmental degradation stretching from the Civil War to the Great Depression. His E.J. Watson emerges through a dazzling array of voices as a singular figure in our national literature, the looming personification of manifest destiny within the dark reaches of our history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Matthiessen was born in New York City in 1927 and had already begun his writing career by the time he graduated from Yale University in 1950. The following year, he was a founder of The Paris Review. He is the author of widely acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction including The Snow Leopard, which was awarded The National Book Award, and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which was a National Book Award nominee. His parallel career as a naturalist and environmental activist has produced numerous acclaimed works of nonfiction, most of them serialized in The New Yorker. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974.

ABOUT THE BOOK (from the publisher)

Inspired by a near-mythic event of the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, Shadow Country reimagines the legend of the inspired Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson, who drives himself relentlessly toward his own violent end at the hands of neighbors who mostly admired him, in a killing that obsessed his favorite son.

Shadow Country traverses strange landscapes and frontier hinterlands inhabited by Americans of every provenance and color, including the black and Indian inheritors of the archaic racism that, as Watson’s wife observed, "still casts its shadow over the nation."

EXCERPT

HENRY SHORT

Black feller from Mist’ Watson’s showed up Saturday evening with the story. He had escaped, he was near starved, he talked too much out of his fear. Not wanting to pay for his mistakes, I eased away into the dusk and Mist’ Hoad follered me. Said I best sleep aboard Captain Williams’s ship in case there was trouble. That black man was brought on board right after me, they locked the two coloreds in the same cabin for safekeeping. One man said to Mist’ Hoad, “That’s all right, ain’t it? Both bein niggers?” Mist’ Hoad looked across at me, see how I took that. Him and me and Mist’ Claude Storter been ?shing partners for some years, he knew me pretty good. I shrugged to show I understood. There weren’t nothing to be done about it.

When the white men were gone, this feller said, “What they ?xin to do with me?” I said, “All I know is, you best calm down and get your story straight.” He jeered real ugly, “Who you, boy, the pet nigger around here? That cause you so white?”

“This ain’t no time to go picking ?ghts,” I warned him.

“Nosir, Mr. Nigger, it sure ain’t,” he said, his voice gone quiet. He lay down on the ?oor, turning his back to me.

Raised up and living all my life in a frontier settlement where black folks were not tolerated, I have only talked to few but I can say I never met a black man hard as this one. Course a lot of his anger likely come from nerves. He was scared, all right—he’d be a crazy man not to be scared—but he weren’t panicky.

I couldn’t sleep and I knew this man weren’t sleeping so when he rolled over next, I asked his name. He said that “Ed”—he used that name!— always called him Little Joe, which worked as good as any. From this I knew he was a wanted man same as them others. Said he’d knew Ed for some years but could not recall where they ?rst met. This was a lie and he never tried to hide that: this feller knew plenty about Mist’ Watson and his foreman, too. He shrugged me off, saying this fool conversation weren’t none of his idea and anyway it weren’t my business so leave him alone. But in a while he muttered, “Name ain’t Joe. It’s Frank, okay?” He rolled back toward me. “Mights well get my real name just in case they got a nigger guestbook down in Hell showin who passed through.”

With no way to know what might be coming down on him in the next hours, he must have needed somebody to hear him out, even if only just another nigger, cause when I didn’t ask him no more questions, he started talking on his own—not to me, not to nobody in particular, he just wanted to get it off his chest once and for all. Talked along in a dead voice about the awful deeds done at the Watson place and why he reckoned he weren’t slaughtered like them others. All the while he spoke, he kept his face hid and his voice low like this was a secret God Himself should never hear.

***

Next morning when they let me out, I turned in the cabin doorway to tell him something but I found no words. He come forward and said quietly, “I didn’t kill nobody, Henry. You believe that?” When I nodded, he nodded, too. Said, “Tell them white people my story, then. Remind ’em how this nigger come here on his own and never had no reason to tell lies.”

“I’ll do my best,” I promised.

He said calmly, “Nothing you can tell ’em gone to save my black hide, I understand that good as you do, Henry. But knowin that the real truth has been heard, that makes it better. Not okay, just better.”

He stuck his hand out, cracked a little grin. “So long, nigger,” he said. I could not ?nd a smile to give him back. I said, “Good luck, then, Frank,” and went away very sad and angry. Might have been wanted, like I say, but he weren’t all bad and he weren’t sorry for himself. It was me was sorry. Sorry a brave man had to die so bitter.

Excerpted from Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen Copyright © 2008 by Peter Matthiessen. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.