Writer, naturalist, Zen priest Peter Matthiessen dies
Peter Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another including William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow.
The New York Times
Peter Matthiessen, a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prizewinning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them, died Saturday at home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.
His son Alex said the cause was leukemia, which was diagnosed more than a year ago. “He continued to fight gallantly to the end and was surrounded by his family,” Alex said. “He was terrifically brave.”
Mr. Matthiessen’s final novel, “In Paradise,” is to be published Tuesday by Riverhead Books.
Mr. Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island’s East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow.
In the early 1950s, he shared a sojourn in Paris with fellow literary expatriates and helped found The Paris Review, a magazine devoted largely to new fiction and poetry. His childhood friend George Plimpton became its editor.
A rugged, weather-beaten figure who was reared and educated in privilege — an advantage that left him uneasy, he said — Mr. Matthiessen was a man of many parts: littérateur, journalist, environmentalist, explorer, Zen Buddhist, professional fisherman and, in the early 1950s, undercover agent for the CIA in Paris. Only years later did Plimpton discover, to his anger and dismay, that Mr. Matthiessen had helped found The Review as a cover for his spying on Americans in France.
A passion for fiction
Mr. Matthiessen’s travels took him to the wilds of Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, the Florida swamps and beneath the ocean. They led to articles in The New Yorker and other magazines and a raft of nonfiction books, among them “The Snow Leopard“ (1978), about a grief-stricken spiritual journey to the Himalayas, and “Men’s Lives“ (1986), about Long Island fishermen and their vanishing way of life. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called him “our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition.”
Of his more than 30 books, nonfiction works far outnumbered the novels and short-story collections, but he considered fiction his first and highest calling.
“Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet,” he told The Paris Review in 1999. “It can never be sculpture. It can be elegant and very beautiful, but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts — or predetermined forms — it cannot fly.”
He holds the distinction of being the only writer to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. And his fiction and nonfiction often arose from the same experience.
His fourth novel, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (1965), grew out of his reporting for “The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness“ (1961). The novel, set in the Brazilian rain forest, depicts the interaction between missionaries and tribesmen — at one point Mr. Matthiessen, an early user of LSD, has his protagonist drink a native hallucinogenic brew — and Western civilization’s damaging impact on primitive peoples. A film adaptation directed by Hector Babenco was released in 1991.
Mr. Matthiessen’s fifth novel, “Far Tortuga“ (1975), was inspired by a New Yorker assignment in which he reported on the vanishing Caribbean tradition of turtle hunting. Highly experimental — it drew on recordings of sometimes cryptic Caribbean dialogue — the novel drew mixed reviews.
He delved into another isolated world for his late-career “Watson” trilogy — “Killing Mister Watson” (1990), “Lost Man’s River” (1997) and “Bone by Bone” (1999) — parts of which he compressed into one long opus, “Shadow Country” (2008). It won a National Book Award, though many critics thought a reworked version of previously published fiction did not deserve the honor.
The trilogy uses the life and death of a fearsome historical figure, Edgar J. Watson, to address issues of race, environment and power in America. Watson, a mysterious cane planter in the Ten Thousand Islands region of southwest Florida, was suspected in dozens of murders, including that of the outlaw Belle Starr. Watson himself was killed in 1910 by residents of Chokoloskee, an island settlement where he was suspected in a string of deaths.
New York to the CIA
Peter Matthiessen was born on May 22, 1927, in New York, a descendant of Scandinavian whale hunters and the second of three children of Erard Matthiessen, an architect and conservationist, and the former Elizabeth Carey. He grew up with his brother and sister on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park (in the same building as Plimpton), and in country homes on Fishers Island, N.Y., and in Connecticut.
He attended St. Bernard’s School in Manhattan and, in Connecticut, Greenwich Country Day School and (with Plimpton) Hotchkiss, where he graduated in 1945. He served in the Navy at Pearl Harbor and afterward attended Yale, where he majored in English but also studied biology, ornithology and zoology. He spent his junior year in Paris at the Sorbonne. He graduated from Yale in 1950 and stayed on for another term to teach creative writing.
Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel. “I waited by the post office for praise to roll in, calls from Hollywood, everything,” he told The Missouri Review in 1989.
“Finally my agent sent me a letter that said, ‘Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better. Yours, Bernice.’ I probably needed that; it was very healthy.”
It was around this time that he was recruited by the CIA and traveled to Paris, where he crossed paths with young expatriate American writers such as Styron, Jones, James Baldwin and Irwin Shaw. In the postwar years the agency covertly financed magazines and cultural programs to counter the spread of Communism. In interviews years later, Mr. Matthiessen said that in those days working for the CIA was seen by many of his peers as honorable government service and that it had offered him “a free trip to Paris to write my novel.”
The novel was “Race Rock,” a tale of wealth and troubled young lives set in a New England fishing village. While working on it in Paris, he met another aspiring novelist, Harold L. Humes, known as Doc, and the two, along with others seeking an outlet for the work of emerging writers, founded The Paris Review in 1953.
“I used The Paris Review as a cover, there’s no question of that,” he told The New York Times in 2008 after his CIA connection had been discussed in “Doc,” a documentary film about Humes by his daughter Immy Humes. “But the CIA had nothing to do with Paris Review.”
That assertion was challenged in 2012 by an article in the online magazine Salon; drawing on The Review’s archives, it suggested there were CIA ties that had bypassed Mr. Matthiessen or had outlived his two-year relationship with the agency.
“I was getting information on people,” Mr. Matthiessen told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2008. “I was a greenhorn.” He described the episode as “youthful folly.” Mr. Matthiessen had by then married Patsy Southgate, whom he had met at the Sorbonne when she was a Smith College student.
“Race Rock” was published in 1954, after Matthiessen had returned to the United States and moved to the South Fork of Long Island, where his daughter, Sara, was born. The couple had already had a son, Luke, in Paris in 1953. To put bread on the table, Mr. Matthiessen worked as a commercial fisherman and ran a deep-sea-fishing charter boat in the summer. He wrote during the winter and on days off.
A second novel, “Partisans,” about a young man in Paris in search of a political hero, was published in 1955, and a third, “Raditzer,” about the son of a wealthy family going to sea to find himself, came out in 1960.
By then he and his wife had divorced, and he had turned to nonfiction and had begun traveling widely, in one instance on assignment for Sports Illustrated to report on American endangered species. That led to the book “Wildlife in America” (1959), which gained the attention of William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. Shawn signed him up to roam the world to write about its endangered wilds.
It was after his divorce, in 1958, that Mr. Matthiessen bought his oceanfront house, on 6 acres, in Sagaponack. In 1963, he married Deborah Love, a writer and poet, and the Sagaponack house became one of many gathering spots for his literary circle of East End neighbors and visitors.
His wife had embraced Zen Buddhism in the late 1960s and Mr. Matthiessen followed suit, meditating cross-legged for hours on end and later becoming a Zen priest.
His spiritual hunger and the death of his wife from cancer in 1972 lay behind his decision to travel to Nepal in 1973. Ostensibly he went there to record a field trip with the biologist George Schaller. But the book it inspired, “The Snow Leopard,” also chronicled a spiritual journey and a pilgrimage of mourning shadowed by that rare animal, whose presence Mr. Matthiessen finally sensed even if he never actually caught sight of one. The book won the 1979 National Book Award for nonfiction.
He also reached outside himself to understand the struggles of the oppressed and neglected, an effort he traced to a lifelong “uneasiness about unearned privilege.” (At 15, he had had his name dropped from the Social Register.)
Travels with Cesar Chavez, the champion of farmworkers, led to the 1969 book “Sal Si Puedes (Escape if You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution” (referring to the barrio in San Jose, Calif., where Chavez had gotten his start as a union organizer.
Mr. Matthiessen went on to publish “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” (1983), a fulmination against the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans, centering on the prosecution and conviction of Leonard Peltier in the murder of two FBI agents in 1975 at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Mr. Matthiessen and the book’s publisher, Viking Press, were sued for libel damages in separate actions by an FBI agent and a former South Dakota governor, causing Viking to withdraw the book. Both suits were eventually dismissed, but at a cost to the defendants of more than $2 million in legal fees.
In 1980 Mr. Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart, a former media buyer for an advertising firm in London who was born in Tanzania. Besides his son Alex, from his marriage to Deborah Love, Mr. Matthiessen is survived by his son Lukas and a daughter, Sara Carey, from his first marriage to Patsy Southgage; a daughter, Rue, from his second marriage to Deborah Love; two stepdaughters, Antonia and Sarah Koenig; and six grandchildren.
He continued to write books and articles into his later years in his roomy art-filled home at Sagaponack.
His last novel, “In Paradise,” tells the story of a group that comes together for a meditative retreat at the site of a former Nazi death camp. Such retreats were familiar to him. He regularly welcomed Zen students to a zendo, a place of meditation, on his grounds.
“Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2002. “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.”