[Marxism] Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86
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
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
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
“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
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.
More information about the Marxism