[Marxism] Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 6 09:26:04 MDT 2014

By an eerie coincidence, Matthiessen died the very week a profile would 
appear on him in the Sunday NY Times Magazine 
Matthiessen was a CIA agent in his early 20s but afterwards became a 
passionate supporter of indigenous rights, environmentalism, and a 
critic of social injustice in general. An article I wrote on the battle 
of Wounded Knee was largely drawn from his book "In the Spirit of Crazy 
Horse" and Dee Brown's "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee": 

NY Times, Apr. 6 2014
Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86

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 on Saturday at his 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 on 
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 Central Intelligence Agency in Paris. Only years later did 
Mr. 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 even 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 Mr. Matthiessen “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. Mattheissen’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.

“Perhaps the power of Matthiessen’s writing in part derives from his 
ability to tap into his dark side, his Jungian shadow,” a biographer, 
William Dowie, wrote. “If so, it would explain at least one similarity 
between him and the writers to whom he is sometimes compared in his 
major fiction: Melville, Conrad and Dostoyevsky.”

Indeed, Mr. Matthiessen’s Watson carries an echo of Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, 
the corrupted jungle lord in “Heart of Darkness.”

“Even a quarter-mile away, out in the channel, the figure at the helm 
looked too familiar, the strong bulk of him, and the broad hat,” Mr. 
Matthiessen writes in the voice of a character named Mamie Smallwood. 
“When he saw the crowd, he tipped that hat and bowed a little, and the 
sun fired that dark red hair — color of dead blood, Grandma Ida used to 
say, only she never thunk that up till some years later, when the ones 
who never knew him called him Bloody Watson.”

She goes on: “But it was that little bow he made that told us straight 
off who it was, and my heart jumped like a mullet, and it weren’t the 
only one. A hush and stillness fell on Chokoloskee, like our poor little 
community had caught its breath, like we was waiting for a storm to 
break from high dark thunderheads over the Glades in summer, just before 
the first cold wind and rain.”

New York to the C.I.A.

Peter Matthiessen was born on May 22, 1927, in Manhattan, a descendant 
of Scandinavian whale hunters and the second of three children of Erard 
A. 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 Mr. Plimpton), and in 
country homes on Fishers Island, N.Y., and in Connecticut.

He attended St. Bernard’s School in Manhattan (with Mr. Plimpton) and, 
in Connecticut, Greenwich Country Day School and 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 C.I.A. and traveled 
to Paris, where he crossed paths with young expatriate American writers 
like 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 C.I.A. 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 C.I.A. connection had been 
discussed in “Doc,” a documentary film about Mr. Humes by his daughter 
Immy Humes. “But the C.I.A. 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 own archives, it suggested that 
there were C.I.A. 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. Mattheissen had by then married Patsy 
Southgate, whom he had met at the Sorbonne when she was a Smith College 

“Race Rock” was published in 1954, after Mr. 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.

His first assignment was a journey up the Amazon into Peru and south to 
Tierra del Fuego. It became the basis of “The Cloud Forest.” More 
explorations followed, leading to books that were often serialized in 
The New Yorker.

A sample of his titles convey his geographic reach: “Under the Mountain 
Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons of Stone Age New Guinea” (1962); 
“Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea” 
(1967); “The Shorebirds of North America” (1967, revised as “The Wind 
Birds” in 1973); “Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark” 
(1971); “The Tree Where Man Was Born” (1972), a contemplative account of 
East Africa; and “Sand Rivers” (1981), about a safari in the Selous Game 
Preserve in Tanzania.

It was after his divorce, in 1958, that Mr. Matthiessen bought his 
oceanfront house, on six 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 

Zen Buddhism

His wife had already embraced Zen Buddhism in the late 1960s when 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 rebelliously had his name 
dropped from the Social Register.)

Travels with Cesar Chavez, the champion of farm workers, 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 
Mr. 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation 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 F.B.I. 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 and daughter Rue from his marriage to Deborah Love, Mr. Matthiessen 
is also survived by his son Luke and a daughter, Sara Carey, from his 
first marriage to Patsy Southgate; 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.”

William McDonald and Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

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