Peter Matthiessen, (born May 22, 1927, New York, New York, U.S.—died April 5, 2014, Sagaponack), American novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer whose work dealt with the destructive effects of encroaching technology on preindustrial cultures and the natural environment. Both his fiction and nonfiction works combined remote settings, lyrical description, and passionate advocacy for the preservation of the natural world.
After serving in the U.S. Navy (1945–47), Matthiessen attended the Sorbonne and Yale University (B.A., 1950). He moved to Paris, where he associated with other expatriate American writers such as William Styron, James Baldwin, and Irwin Shaw. While there he helped found and edit the literary journalThe Paris Review with childhood friend George Plimpton in 1953. Matthiessen later admitted that he had formed the magazine at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency, having been recruited following his college graduation. The agency had felt that he needed more cover for his spying activities, which included reporting on communist developments. He severed his relationship with the agency shortly after the foundation of the magazine.
A dedicated naturalist, Matthiessen embarked on a tour of every wildlife refuge in the United States during the mid-1950s. He wrote more than 15 books of nonfiction, including Wildlife in America (1959), a history of the destruction of wildlife in North America; The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961); and Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962), about his experiences as a member of a scientific expedition to New Guinea. Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971) sheds light on a predator about which little is known. The Snow Leopard (1978), set in remote regions of Nepal, won both the National Book Award for nonfiction and the American Book Award.
Matthiessen continued to range far and wide, producing African Silences (1991), Indian Country (1992), and Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia (1992). His book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), about the conflict between federal agents and the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, was the subject of a prolonged libel suit that blocked all but an initial printing and was not settled until 1990; in 1991 the book was republished. Matthiessen again made impassioned calls for the protection of wildlife in The Birds of Heaven (2001), which details a journey across multiple continents in search of cranes, and Tigers in the Snow (2002), which chronicles the plight of the Siberian tiger. The Peter Matthiessen Reader: Nonfiction 1959–1991 was published in 2000.
Matthiessen’s first novel, Race Rock (1954), follows the exploits and moral degeneration of four young New Englanders. The acclaimed At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965; film 1991) investigates the cataclysmic convergence of the lives of missionaries, mercenaries, and an isolated tribe of Indians modeled on the Yanomami. Far Tortuga (1975) concerns the events leading up to the death of the crew of a turtle-fishing boat in the Caribbean. A trilogy, composed of Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999), fictionalizes the life of a murderous planter in the Florida Everglades at the beginning of the 20th century. Matthiessen later revised and compiled the three volumes into a single novel, Shadow Country (2008), which won the National Book Award for fiction. In Paradise (2014) details the reflections of a Holocaust scholar on a meditative retreat at Auschwitz.
Born into the US establishment, Peter Matthiessen became a passionate defender of native American rights and an environmental activist. He talks to Nicholas Wroe about LSD, Zen - and why he wishes his books on the world's wildernesses didn't overshadow his fiction
Saturday 17 August 2002
hile still a student at Yale in 1951, Peter Matthiessen had his first short story published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine. Later that year he moved to Paris where he became a joint founder and co-owner of the Paris Review. There he introduced the long interviews with writers that became the trademark of the seminal journal. Matthiessen published his first novel, Race Rock, in 1954 and has gone on to write seven more. His fiction can be intellectually tough and dauntingly technical as well as passionately engaged with characters and worlds at the margins of the western mindset such as rainforests, oceans and swamps. He is described in the American Dictionary of Literary Biography as "a shaman of literature", while Don DeLillo more straightforwardly claims him as "one of our best writers". Most recently Matthiessen completed, after 20 years, an ambitious and long-anticipated trilogy set in the Florida Everglades.
By any standards this is an impressive literary CV, and one he is proud of. But for all its achievement Matthiessen suspects that this won't be his artistic legacy. "Even though I thought of myself and still think of myself as a fiction writer," he says, "I have been pushed so far into a pigeonhole I now doubt I will ever get out." He is referring to his reputation as a writer about the natural world; a reputation launched with the 1959 publication of his ground-breaking environmental state of the nation book, Wildlife in America, and sealed with his 1978 bestseller and National Book Award winner, The Snow Leopard.
"Being pigeonholed in that way does hurt him," says Paris Review editor George Plimpton, who has known Matthiessen since they were eight-year-old classmates in Connecticut. "He has worked for years on his most recent trilogy, yet he feels that that part of his work has been overshadowed by his non-fiction material. He thinks he can just bash those things off whereas something like his Everglades trilogy has taken so much time and effort."
Whatever Matthiessen's assessment of the value of his non-fiction, it is undeniable that his writing on the natural world has been extraordinarily influential in literary terms as well as in terms of practical impact. It is difficult now to imagine the low level of interest in the environment in late 1950s America. Environmental activity had been in decline since the 1880s when a surge of interest saw the founding of the American national parks and the saving of the bison. Matthiessen's book of natural history as reportage came closely after Rachel Carson's influential investigations into the effects of pesticides on the food chain and led to a renewed national interest in environmentalism and the birth of the modern American conservation movement.
The late palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called Matthiessen "our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition". By the time he published The Snow Leopard - his meditation on the wildlife and landscape of the Himalayas as well as on his own life and Buddhism - Matthiessen had written about wildlife in east Africa, stone-age tribesmen of New Guinea, South America, the north American Arctic, Asia and Australia. In all he has written 18 works of non-fiction and the anthropologist Hugh Brody, talking about the attractions of this work, says, "What is remarkable about Peter is the combination of astonishing energy with a very strong engagement with the people he spends time with. He's unusual in that many people who have a huge energy for travel tend to write about the travel and not the people. In that sense he has a real anthropological acuity."
Matthiessen's most recent book, The Birds of Heaven, sees him again travelling the world, this time in search of the 15 remaining species of crane. His journeys through Mongolia, Siberia, Australia and Europe culminate with the extraordinary work undertaken by the American "craniac" community to re-establish migratory routes from Wisconsin to Florida using microlights to lead the birds south.
Matthiessen says he had a dual purpose in writing about cranes. "They are beautiful and heraldic and people are moved by them. But they are also, like tigers, an umbrella species. If you protect them you protect many other creatures as well and the wetlands and clean air and so on." The book ends in cautious optimism. "Whether we are doing enough or doing it fast enough is another matter," he explains, "but the Doctor Doom approach doesn't really work. People get disheartened and think there is nothing that can be done. In fact there is always something that can be done."
Dr George Archibald, a world authority on cranes, calls Matthiessen "a philosophical guru for people who care about the environment. He can put into words what the rest of us are feeling but can't quite express. And he is as concerned with the exploitation of people as with the exploitation of the environment."
Matthiessen, now 75, describes himself as "an activist by nature". In the 1960s he became an ally of the migrant farm workers' leader César Chávez; he has championed the embattled Long Island striped bass fishermen and the rights of native Americans and is today an unrepentant supporter of Ralph Nader, the consumer champion who was a presidential candidate in the 2000 US election. "A lot of my friends are still very pissed off at me for that. They say I helped elect George W Bush but I didn't. I tried to get some kind of Green party going in America. And if Gore couldn't win New York state, where I live, he couldn't win anywhere."
Most notably Matthiessen has been involved in the protracted, and so far unsuccessful, struggle to establish the innocence of Leonard Peltier, a native American activist convicted of the murder of two FBI agents in South Dakota in 1975. In 1983 Matthiessen published a book about the case, and the history of the radical American Indian movement, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, reviewing the book, acknowledged Matthiessen's achievement in making it "impossible for any sensitive reader ever again to enjoy Mount Rushmore guiltlessly or to forget the dark side of the saga of the American west." However, he argued that "Mr Matthiessen is at his worst when he becomes a polemicist for his journalistic clients. He is utterly unconvincing - indeed embarrassingly sophomoric - when he pleads the legal innocence of individual Indian criminals."
Looking at Matthiessen today - an artist, a Buddhist, an environmental activist and a defender of native American rights - it is perhaps surprising to learn that his roots are in the heart of the American establishment. He was born and brought up as part of the east coast aristocracy in south-west Connecticut. His father was a wealthy architect who was later awarded the OBE by the British government for developing a defence system for commercial shipping during the second world war. The family were in the Social Register (the high-society year book) and Matthiessen's sister - he also has one brother who became a marine biologist - was a college room mate of George Bush senior's sister Nancy.
"My family knew their family and Nancy Bush was a very nice woman," Matthiessen explains. "But my father used to turn a photograph of my sister and her husband in the Oval Office with George and Barbara Bush to the wall when my sister wasn't there. He used to say 'there is something profoundly mediocre about that whole Bush clan.' I've never heard it put better. They never had an interesting thought and are cultural ignoramuses."
As an adolescent, Matthiessen began to rebel against the privileged world around him and aged 15 he had his name removed from the Social Register. His brother, with whom he secretly kept a collection of poisonous copperhead snakes in homemade glass cages, later followed suit. "I was so fortunate to grow up before television," Matthiessen says. "My brother and I spent most of our time outside overturning rocks, listening to birds and catching snakes. When our mother found out about the copperheads she told us to kill them but in fact we just let them go."
He says that from the age of 10 he became "obsessed" with birds, and he took ornithology, zoology and marine biology courses at college alongside his work as an English major. Although he argued bitterly with his father as a teenager, in fact Peter and his brother inspired their father to take an interest in nature and in later life he became an executive of the Audubon Society, the conservation organisation named after the 19th-century painter and naturalist John James Audubon. In his 90s he was still leading school parties to observe the wildlife at a bird refuge in Florida.
There was something of a literary tradition in the Matthiessen family - his father's cousin, FO Matthiessen, was a famous critic and authority on Henry James - and Peter began to write when he was about 15. After serving in the navy from 1944-46 he went to Yale and when the Atlantic Monthly published his story, "Sadie", he acquired an agent. By the time he went to study in Paris in 1951 he was already writing his first novel.
At the Sorbonne Matthiessen met Patsy Southgate, a student from Smith College. They married and had two children, Luke who is now 49, and runs a clinic for drug and alcohol addiction, and Sarah, 46, who is now a nurse having worked in television. Matthiessen recalls that he and his friend, the writer Terry Southern, were "broke together" in Paris and entered an Observer writing competition that was won by Muriel Spark. Tired of flogging their work round "awful literary magazines" Matthiessen suggested starting a new one, "that would publish fiction by young writers like ourselves." Working with the writer Harold Humes and the editor they brought in, George Plimpton, they produced the first issue of the Paris Review in the summer of 1953. It featured fiction from Southern and Matthiessen, poems by Robert Bly and George Steiner, a letter from William Styron and a remarkable interview with EM Forster. The magazine went on to publish early fiction by Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth and Samuel Beckett.
Plimpton confesses that as editor he later turned down one of Matthiessen's stories, something he has regretted ever since. "Don DeLillo later picked it up and called it one of the great American short stories and it won an O Henry award," he says. "But in that first edition Peter contributed a story as well as an article about the French novelist and playwright Henry de Montherlant but used the pen-name Pierre Conrad because he didn't want it to look like he'd written the whole thing. His real ambition was to be a novelist and I don't think he wanted very much to be a magazine editor. He was working very hard on Race Rock and he left pretty soon to go back to New York."
Matthiessen returned to New York in 1954 and Race Rock, about a native American, was published the same year. His second novel, Partisans, followed in 1955. Matthiessen and Patsy separated soon after, by which time he was working as a commercial fisherman on Long Island, chartering his boat to tourists in the summer and writing in the winter when the weather made going to sea impossible. He had turned to fishing because, even though his novels had been well received, he couldn't make a living from fiction.
"And as I had picked up a very wide, if not very deep, knowledge of the natural world, when I then failed as a fisherman I realised that I could write about nature." He travelled across America looking for indigenous, and often threatened, natural habitats. The genesis of Wildlife in America came via a commission for three articles on the subject from Sports Illustrated magazine. "So I looked for a book I could loot but I couldn't find it because there wasn't one. In the end I had so much research I thought it might as well be put to use so I wrote the book."
Matthiessen's third novel, Raditzer, about the son of a wealthy family going to sea to find himself, was published in 1960, by which time he had caught the attention of William Shawn, legendary editor of the New Yorker. "Mr Shawn had liked my work and he said I had covered America and so many other people had written about Europe, but I should go to the many other wildernesses in the world." Matthiessen chronicled his journeys down the Amazon in The Cloud Forest (1961) and to New Guinea the following year with Under the Mountain Wall.
His South American travels for the New Yorker in the late 1950s proved important. "I just got hooked on the feeling down there, the sense of menace in the jungle," he says. The Cloud Forest was serialised in the New Yorker but I knew that I would also do a novel." At Play in the Fields of the Lord, set in the Brazilian rainforest among missionaries and tribesmen and hallucinogenic compounds, was published in 1965. Like much of his work it is concerned with traditional peoples and the result of their interaction with modernity. Its publication proved to be the culmination of a period of dramatic personal political and cultural development for Matthiessen.
In 1963 he married Deborah Love, a poet and writer who went on to write an account of their time together on the remote Irish island of Annaghkeen. They had one son, Alex, who is an environmentalist and currently the river keeper for the Hudson river, and an adopted daughter, Rue, who is a writer.
"I had been a WASP kid who knew nothing," he says. "But the late 50s into the 60s really turned me round. My politics went off the scale and I was an early pioneer of LSD. The first guy I worked with was a renegade shrink and he used my wife and I as kind of guinea pigs. He said he could treat 40 people more effectively than he could work with one person in conventional analysis." Does he still think LSD is of value? "I think so, but you need to know what you are getting. I know from my kids and other kids telling me their experiences on acid that whatever they were describing it was not acid. It was some dangerous, combustible mix. As long as it was controlled by the pharmaceutical company in Switzerland who were the only people making it at the time, you knew what you were getting. Virtually anyone who was not seriously disturbed, and even then if under medical supervision, could benefit from LSD. It could clear away neurosis so much better than conventional therapy."
He blames Timothy Leary for ensuring the drug remains illegal. "He almost single-handedly wrecked it. They used to say Timothy Leary was the only LSD patient whose ego was not soluble in LSD. He brought it into disrepute with his whole 'tune-in, drop-out' thing. He wasn't a bad man but he was silly. Although, that said, he also did say that the drug scene in In The Fields was the best he had ever read," Matthiessen adds with a smile.
As the 60s progressed Matthiessen became active in the movement against the Vietnam war and began to work closely with César Chávez after writing a profile of him for the New Yorker . His first campaign was against crop growers' indiscriminate use of insecticide. "These guys would play rough but we got on immediately and I think César is the greatest man I ever met because he was willing to put so much on the line."
His work with Chávez led to an interest in native American life and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse . The paperback edition was halted after an FBI agent and the governor of South Dakota launched libel suits. The cases were eventually dismissed, but Leonard Peltier's most recent bid for parole was turned down only last month and Matthiessen remains bitter about the continuing role played by the FBI. "It is a dreadful organisation. J Edgar Hoover made it like that and it has got worse."
He was also very disappointed that the hoped-for last-minute pardon for Peltier from outgoing President Clinton never came. "A friend sort of smuggled me into the White House and I gave him the book in front of all his staff," he says. "While there is a lot to be said against Clinton, he is a very intelligent guy and a compulsive reader so he did know about the case." In the end the book was published. But, Matthiessen says, "they won because Leonard is still in jail and no one has written a book like this doing that kind of investigative journalism since. That is victory for them."
Denis Moynihan, coordinator of the Leonard Peltier defence committee, says that while "the book was very important, Peter has also been a strong personal contact for Leonard. It's easy to think about Leonard as a symbol of the ongoing genocide against indigenous people here in the US and we can forget that he is a human being who is locked up day in, day out. Peter has been a good friend as well as a supporter."
In parallel to his political awakening Matthiessen embarked on a journey of spiritual discovery. He says his Buddhism evolved "fairly naturally after my drug experiences. What I wanted was that way of seeing but without the chemicals. " He was led by his wife Deborah, "who suffered from very bad drug trips from LSD and finally she was so scared she stopped taking it. In 1969 she told me about Buddhism and I got interested."
Deborah died of cancer in 1972. Eight years later Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart, who had been a model before working as a personal assistant to the chief executive of the American cosmetics company Clinique. He became a monk in 1981 and a Zen teacher in 1990. He is now a Zen master, a Roshi.
"Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake," he says. "We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past and there is no reality apart from the here and now."
He says he was aware that in The Snow Leopard he was pulling together all the strands of his life. "I knew if I couldn't write a good book out of this experience I may as well pack it in. I went into that journey in 1973 on the wings of many years of Zen training and in the wake of the death of my wife. That trip was a memorial to her but I'm still dealing with its success and with the expectations it has placed upon me."
Throughout this time he was still writing fiction. His 1975 novel, the experimental Far Tortuga about Caribbean turtle fishermen, was begun in 1967. "I wanted to get away from symbolism and metaphor and wanted no irony or 'he said' or 'she said'. Some of the critics were very vitriolic, recommending that it should be read backwards and things like that. But I think nine out of 10 writers saw that it was a valid experiment whether it worked or not and it is still my favourite book." Indeed Thomas Pynchon says, "I've enjoyed everything I've ever read by Matthiessen, and this novel is Matthiessen at his best - a masterfully spun yarn, a little otherworldly, a dreamlike momentum."
Matthiessen remains entranced by the possibilities of fiction. "It allows you to go deeper into the truth. You are not constrained by the facts, you can put anything down and you can take chances and try and find ways of articulating what people know to be true but present it in a fresh way." His current project is turning the 1,400 pages of his Everglades trilogy - Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1998), Bone by Bone (1999) - into a single book. The critic Sven Birketts calls the trilogy "a work of genuine dignity" and says "together these novels make a dense digest of the life of a community over a period of decades."
William Styron, who used Matthiessen's former ivy-clad Montparnasse apartment as a model for locations in his own novels, says Matthiessen's interests in art and in the natural world have been mutually sustaining. "He is extraordinarily rich in culture and the world of nature. You'd say of someone from Peter's background that it would have led him to Wall Street rather than to the extraordinarily varied career he has had. It has been a remarkable journey." Hugh Brody agrees. "I think he finds engagement with political and social issues very painful and he told me that he finds relief in writing about the natural world; about birds and animals. But for all his radicalism, he is distinctively American and he represents that part of America that is so easily forgotten. It is often characterised as this homogenous, imperialistic power but within it there is a strata of very effective, aggressive and imaginative critics who are committed to making America better."
Looking at the United States today, Matthiessen says the task of making it better is a difficult one. "I think we are now in the hands of retrograde people who have enlarged the gap between rich and poor, because literally everything they do is for big business. Bush is just a mouthpiece, but the people behind him are not stupid. Bush came to office having received $200m in campaign contributions from corporations. He owes them, and they will get it back."
Then Matthiessen sits back and smiles. "If I was president for a day I would send for every single religious and other fundamentalist on earth. And anyone who thinks that they alone have the answer, it would be off with their heads. Anyway," he finally laughs, "so speaks a Zen master on the subject."
Family: Married Patricia Southgate 1951, (one son, one daughter), divorced; married Deborah Love 1963, (one son, one adopted daughter), died 1972; married Maria Eckhart 1980.
Fiction: Race Rock 1954; Partisans 1955; Raditzer 1960; At Play in the Fields of the Lord 1965; Far Tortuga 1975; On the River Styx and Other Stories 1989; Killing Mr Watson 1990; Last Man's River 1997; Bone By Bone 1999.
Some non-fiction: Wildlife in America 1959; The Cloud Forest 1961; Under the Mountain Wall 1962; The Shorebirds of North America 1967; Sal Si Puedes: César Chávez and the New American Revolution 1969; Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark 1971; The Tree Where Man Was Born 1972; The Snow Leopard 1978; In the Spirit of Crazy Horse 1983; Nine-Headed Dragon River 1986; Men's Lives: The Surfman and Baymen of the South Fork 1986; African Silences 1991; Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia 1992; Birds of Heaven 2002.