The Many Lives of Peter Matthiessen

Mj 618_348_the many lives of peter matthiessen
Photograph by John Midgley

“I’m trying to write a memoir in case….” Peter Matthiessen said, leaning forward in his armchair and leaving the obvious unspoken. “I don’t think I’m going to have time to do it.”

Matthiessen, who died April 6, at the age of 86, was never the sort of writer who worried about giving away an ending. A student of Zen Buddhism for nearly half his life, he focused more on the journey than the destination; his most celebrated novel, which took 30 years to complete, began with the murder of its central character. The first time we spoke, in March, his own death was approaching, and the master storyteller had been sifting through the bits and pieces of his extraordinary life, hoping to shape the epilogue of his own narrative. Though Matthiessen always preferred to be known for his fiction, he foresaw that obituaries would celebrate his achievements as an environmentalist and a chronicler of the outdoors.

Such accolades were indeed forthcoming, and they were accurate. They were also insufficient. Matthiessen may have seen a first-rate novelist staring back when he looked in the mirror, but he was also looking at America’s greatest nature writer since Thoreau.

The circumstances of our first conversation, six weeks before he died, were cordial but commercial. He had a new novel coming out, about a man wrestling with the meaning of death, and he was happy to talk about it and anything else. Matthiessen’s failing health was by then an open secret. He was deep into chemotherapy for advanced leukemia, and his publisher sent a message as I was driving toward Matthiessen’s home on Long Island, requesting that I purchase a bottle of Purell, since the writer’s low white-cell count had left his immune system severely compromised.

A late winter storm had dumped a fresh blanket of snow, so as I pulled into Matthiessen’s driveway, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what his modest-for-the-Hamptons six-acre compound had looked like when he’d purchased it for $35,000 in 1958, back when the shopping needs of local residents – mostly fishermen and potato farmers – could be met by a combination gas station and general store. The main house was flanked by two smaller buildings that reflected two facets of his complex personality. One was the cottage where he wrote more than two dozen books, including the existential travel classic The Snow Leopard and the doorstop novel Shadow Country. Matthiessen won the National Book Award for each, the only author to win in both fiction and nonfiction. The other building was his Zendo, a meditation space where Matthiessen, a roshi (senior teacher) in Zen Buddhism, gave regular instruction to several students.

We sat shoeless in his airy, sunny living room, which he had long ago refashioned out of a barn. The dashing world traveler and liberal gadfly of the 1960s and ’70s had aged gracefully into a white-haired grandpa, a wise owl dressed for comfort in a souvenir fleece from the 2006 U.S. Open. He was in a wistful mood. Matthiessen’s distinctive voice, one part old New York money and one part NFL Films narrator, had taken on a light rasp in recent years. “These are old buildings, and they weren’t very well built, though I like the atmosphere,” he said, looking up at the high ceiling he’d had reinforced with the central fireplace next to his chair.

As in any long-inhabited space, we were in the presence of ghosts. With an ink-stained finger, Matthiessen pointed to the spot where, on a winter day like today half a century ago, a girlfriend trapped inside by a snowdrift had opened the barn doors, gunned her Buick, and blasted out – poom! The striking black-and-white photos above the piano were from a long-ago expedition to Papua New Guinea; some were taken by Michael Rockefeller, the wealthy scion who mysteriously vanished during the same excursion and is believed to have been eaten by cannibals. On that trip, Matthiessen witnessed – and meticulously chronicled – the slow death of a native boy who had been speared repeatedly in an ambush from a rival tribe.

Time had softened the “ice-blue eyes” that Matthiessen admitted he once used as a weapon to ward off strangers who threatened to invade his privacy. Friends I’d asked to describe him tended to use the same words: intense, driven, loyal, curious. “He’s been my favorite American writer for almost 40 years now,” said the novelist Jim Harrison, who is himself a perennial contender for this country’s preeminent living writer. “He has tremendous range. I don’t know of anyone who comes close. I’m a little startled they haven’t given him the Nobel Prize.”

I didn’t know as I sat with Matthiessen that the memoir would never be completed – a loss for readers, since Matthiessen had managed to work for the CIA, against the FBI, and with some of the most familiar names in literature, film, and politics. It was obvious, though, that the writer who half a century ago helped ignite modern environmentalism with the words “the finality of extinction is awesome, and not unrelated to the finality of eternity” had been deeply moved by the mundane process of organizing his personal papers for posterity. The Buddha may have taught that to seek enlightenment is to learn to accept things as they are, but that didn’t mean a pilgrim wasn’t allowed the occasional glance backward to look in awe at the path he had traveled.

Or, as Matthiessen put it, his hands folded contentedly in his lap, “Man, I’ve stuffed a lot of life into those 86 years.”Long before he was a literary icon or an environmental hero, Peter Matthiessen was a rich juvenile delinquent. He was born into the Wasp aristocracy of New York City, the son of a prominent architect, and was raised in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park before moving to Connecticut. He almost immediately started to rebel against his privileged status. “I’ve been amazed since taking notes on the events of my childhood and my life for this memoir, the pattern of being resistant to authority,” he said. “I just had that . . . .” He clenched his fists and shook them, pantomiming a child’s impotent fury at the injustice of the adult world. “I’ve been angry since I was about eight,” he said. “I didn’t realize until years later that it had seeped into my entire life.”

The arc of that life was largely shaped by his aversion to being told what to do. “I got busted when I was 12 or 13, still in day school,” he said. “I had two BB guns, and a friend of mine and I were shooting at cars going by on the Merritt Parkway. We had them in a crossfire.” The school was Greenwich Country Day, then as now an educational cradle for the children of America’s elite, stretching from the first president Bush to the Winklevoss twins. Boarding school at Hotchkiss did not mellow him. “I was a bad, bad kid,” Matthiessen said, laughing. “I wouldn’t have had me in the house for anything. My parents were saints. But I didn’t think so at the time.”

Matthiessen was not a man who often shied away from a good time of any sort. He spoke enthusiastically about martinis consumed during the Truman administration and the joyous, unspoken connection he shared with the Dalai Lama when he met him for the first time. For years, he and a group of friends crashed Long Island’s private golf courses and played for free, getting caught only once. (“Poaching adds a lot of tension to the game, especially when you’re betting, which we were,” he explained.) By the time Matthiessen was 17, his tireless pursuit of happiness had left him largely estranged from his exasperated family. “I wasn’t really welcome at home,” he said. He dropped out of Hotchkiss and lied about his age to enlist in the Coast Guard near the end of World War II. His precarious status didn’t inhibit his insubordination, such as “giving a sort of half-assed Hitler salute” to a captain he felt undeserving of respect. (“He was an asshole,” Matthiessen explained, reenacting the ill-advised Fascist greeting and laughing at the memory.) When his father, who had been in England developing a top-secret weapon, returned home and learned where his son had gone, he demanded that Peter be sent back to Hotchkiss.

After a stint in the Navy, Matthiessen enrolled in his father’s alma mater, Yale, where he fell into the orbit of the charismatic literature professor Norman Holmes Pearson. Matthiessen spent his junior year abroad in Paris; there, he met his girlfriend and future first wife, Patsy Southgate, whom Matthiessen’s lifelong friend George Plimpton once described as “so beautiful that people would stop and stare at her on the street.” Photographs from the period confirm that Matthiessen may have had a similar effect on pedestrian traffic. Rose Styron, a Matthiessen friend since she and her husband (novelist William Styron) met him over the Christmas holidays in 1952, recalled him as “an extremely attractive bon vivant, hard-drinking and hard-playing. He was definitely a leader.”

Matthiessen had begun selling short stories in college and was eager to start a novel. “I needed a job after graduation, and my girlfriend was dying to go back to Paris,” he said. Yale’s Pearson offered a solution. The Cold War was intensifying; the Soviets had detonated a nuclear bomb, and U.S. forces were trying to repel a Communist invasion of South Korea. Might Matthiessen be interested in signing up for a patriotic new organization, the Central Intelligence Agency?

“They promised me Paris was a hotbed of intrigue, and it was at that time,” Matthiessen said. In return for monitoring the activities of the French Communist Party, Matthiessen received a stipend. To provide deeper cover than that of an unpublished novelist, Matthiessen conjured up the idea of starting a literary magazine. Under the editorship of his friend Plimpton, whom Matthiessen had lured from studies at Cambridge University, The Paris Review became one of the most influential publications of the 20th century. Matthiessen quickly tired of spycraft; he admired the devotion and sincerity of the French Communists he was assigned to monitor, even if he never quite understood their blindness toward the dark side of the Soviet Union.

Considering the long-standing connections between Yale and the spy agency – in the early 1950s, the New Haven campus was to CIA recruiting what Venezuela was to shortstops in the 1980s – Matthiessen might have shrugged off the tales speculating about The Paris Review’s connection to the CIA that swirled through New York’s fishbowl literary world in recent years. Instead, he took the offensive, raising the subject preemptively with interviewers, insisting that no CIA funds had ever gone to support The Paris Review, and pointing out that his brief involvement, which ended in 1953, predated the CIA’s policy of political assassinations. “I didn’t have any politics” prior to that time in Paris, he said. “The CIA made a lefty out of me.” The opportunity to tell “the true story” was one of the things that prodded him to his writing desk each day, and he said he had completed a draft of his version of the CIA episode as part of his memoir project.

Shortly before Matthiessen’s death, I asked the novelist James Salter, a friend and Hamptons neighbor of Matthiessen’s for 35 years, what he thought about his friend’s preoccupation. “He’s a bit sensitive about it; I think unduly sensitive,” Salter said. “If anybody had purposes and beliefs contrary to whatever the CIA’s happen to be, it would be Peter Matthiessen.” Rather than trying to persuade or reason with his critics, Salter said, “I think he should just say, ‘Kiss my ass.’ ”“I’d better feed those birds before they die,” said Maria Matthiessen, looking out onto the snow-covered garden. Tanzania-born and Swahili-speaking, the third Mrs. Matthiessen is delightfully blunt and supremely organized; Peter made clear that we could continue talking only until the moment Maria said lunch was ready. A few weeks later, he told me proudly that Maria had recently gained some fame of her own, as the star of a This American Life episode devoted to her ironclad list of seven topics a person should never, ever discuss: dietary preferences, menstrual status, how you slept, contents of dreams, minor maladies, money, and, above all, what she called “route talk,” or how someone got from point A to point B. Years after one egregious violation, she still hadn’t entirely forgiven Robert Redford for the time he droned on endlessly about the circuitous course he had driven to their house.

Like Maria, Peter Matthiessen did not do things halfheartedly. The first time he tried Zen meditation, he sat cross-legged for two straight days, 12 hours a day, “weeping in pure shock during the rest periods,” he later recalled. Four years ago, at age 82, wondering if he’d joined the ranks of fading American writers who didn’t realize they’d “lost a step,” he decided to float the Class V rapids of the Kitchen Sink portion of Bear Trap Canyon in Montana, a stretch where at least eight rafters have died over the past quarter-century. The ethereal clarity of his prose was achieved through obsessive pruning and rewriting. (When I asked him about the Zen koan made famous as the epigraph to J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories – “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” – Matthiessen couldn’t resist trimming excess verbiage. “It’s really the sound of one hand,” he said. “The clapping is extra.”) Unsatisfied with the published results after spending 20 years completing his fictional trilogy about a murder in the Florida Everglades, Matthiessen ignored Jim Harrison’s advice to move on, and devoted another decade to combining the three well-reviewed books into Shadow Country. Critics compared the revised novel, generally considered a masterpiece, to William Faulkner’s best work. Matthiessen’s friend and sometime editor Steve Byers recalled sitting next to him on a flight home from Banff in 2003 and watching Matthiessen pull out a hard copy of End of the Earth, his slim book about Antarctic wildlife that Byers had just published after much back and forth with the author.

“He starts going through the book with a red pencil,” Byers remembered. “And when we get off the plane, he hands it to me and says, ‘I want these changes made for the next edition.’ Any other writer who even bothered to look might have found a mistake or two. Peter must have made 200 changes, moving entire paragraphs in some cases. Of course, I went ballistic. But when I got home and looked at it, I was damned if he hadn’t made a very good book much better.”

Matthiessen brought the same level of attention to his fascination with the outdoors. He spent hours as a boy observing the activity at his mother’s bird feeder. “She got all the winter birds you would get in those days – not anymore,” he said. In Connecticut, he and his brother, who later became a marine biologist, collected so many copperheads that they opened a viewing gallery for their friends. His father taught him to shoot and, especially, to fish; Matthiessen wrote a hunting and fishing column for the Yale newspaper. After returning from Paris, he sought solitude on eastern Long Island, then popular with artists lured by cheap rents. For three summers he worked as a commercial fisherman, slowly winning over his suspicious neighbors and learning the skills of seine-hauling and scalloping. He ran his own charter boat, the Merlin, out of Montauk, writing fiction in the winters. He recalled those years as some of the most satisfying of his life. Matthiessen never stopped fishing. He made annual trips to Montana to fly-cast on the Yellowstone and Madison rivers. Weeks before he died, he was weighing the possibility of making the journey again this summer. He even maintained an old fisherman’s devotion to secrecy. “I went clamming with him once, to a particularly good spot, and he practically blindfolded me,” said Salter.

In 1956, the 29-year-old Matthiessen departed Long Island in a Ford convertible carrying little more than a sleeping bag, a shotgun, and an armload of books. His marriage to his first wife had fallen apart, professional fishing had lost its allure, and his good friend and neighbor, the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, had, in a fit of drunken rage, driven his Oldsmobile off the Springs Fireplace Road in East Hampton, killing himself and a female passenger.

Over the next several months, Matthiessen traveled around the country, stopping at state and national parks, interviewing and corresponding with rangers and naturalists. The book he wrote upon returning, 1959’s Wildlife in America, was unlike anything he had yet written, and unlike any conservation book that had appeared before: a gut-punch combination of politics, history, bird-watching, and polemic that made clear as no previous writer had that the American wilderness was shrinking and that Americans were overdrawn on our supposedly boundless natural resources.

“Peter was there very early on with Wildlife in America, before many were paying attention,” said Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature is credited with launching wide awareness of climate change. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, three years after Wildlife in America, is often cited as the foundational text of the modern environmental movement. “Right when the rest of America was full steam ahead with ‘progress,’ Peter was sounding an early warning on the cost,” McKibben said. “Imagine the prescience that takes.”

Over the next two decades, Matthiessen wrote two classic novels: At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a thriller that pits a Christian missionary who wishes to convert a tribe of jungle natives against a mercenary who wants to kill them, was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie that almost captured the book’s slow-building sense of inescapable ruination. The incantatory Far Tortuga, which reads like a cross between Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and James Joyce’s Ulysses, took him 12 years to finish. The book is written largely as unattributed dialogue in an island patois that Matthiessen absorbed over numerous visits to the Caribbean. He also wrote several deeply reported nonfiction books. These would cement his reputation as a nature writer, taking him across the vast but shrinking Amazon jungle in The Cloud Forest and through much of Africa in The Tree Where Man Was Born, widely considered among his finest works.

Matthiessen always felt obliged to write about what he called “social justice,” such as the plight of migrant workers and Native Americans. Nowhere was this more evident than in his investigative report In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which examines the killing of two FBI agents in a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Upon its release in 1983, Matthiessen and his publishers were sued for libel by South Dakota’s governor and an FBI agent. Matthiessen eventually won, after seven years and $3 million in legal fees for his publisher. “He’s still in the slammer,” Matthiessen said when asked about alleged killer Leonard Peltier. “They keep moving him around.” Matthiessen’s book made Peltier a controversial hero of the far left. Until the end, Matthiessen continued to fight to get Peltier out of prison, attending his parole hearings in Pennsylvania and writing frequently about his situation.

Matthiessen’s books, while widely divergent in their subject matter, tend to explore the same themes repeatedly: the exploitation of the poor by the rich and humanity’s tragic stewardship of the natural world. An undercurrent of eulogy runs through his body of work. The son of Manhattan almost never wrote about urban environments, preferring to paint endangered landscapes so deftly that they became characters in his stories. In his last book, In Paradise, the protagonist foresees the day when even the pastures surrounding a concentration camp become more valuable as real estate than as reminders of humanity’s capacity for evil.

“What can I say – I tend to write dark,” Matthiessen said with a shrug.

I asked him how he felt about the current state of the environment. “It’s the old cliché: You win the skirmishes and you lose the war,” he said. “We may win a water battle here and an air battle there. All those things are wonderful.” And the war? “There are too many of us. We’re not talking about population anymore; have you noticed that? It’s too intractable. We’re not going to stop overpopulating. We’re just a crazed species destroying our habitat.” He recalled a day years ago when his neighbor Kurt Vonnegut slapped a sticker on his truck: “A typical Vonnegut-ism, it said, your planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of you. Absolutely on the button.”

To the end, Matthiessen saw his urge to speak for the powerless as a necessary counterbalance to the sort of privilege he’d enjoyed as a child. In his hospital room not long before he went home to die, Matthiessen, who hadn’t spoken for days, noticed a nurse busily performing her duties in the corner. In a quiet but clear voice, he suddenly said, “Look at this poor woman, how hard she’s working.”Matthiessen’s path to Zen Buddhism began with “a yearning for the lost paradise you have as a child,” he said, the innocence that “gets crusted over with emotions or opinions or greed.” The long road to enlightenment wound through a grand tour of mind-altering substances. The absurdist writer Terry Southern turned him on to hash in Paris. While reporting The Cloud Forest in Peru, Matthiessen experimented with the herbal psychedelic ayahuasca. (“That was a powerful one,” he said.) He purchased what he believed was opium from a Cambodian peasant, only to discover back at his hotel near Angkor Wat that he had actually ingested a sizable dose of crude heroin. In 1962, an architect friend put him in contact with a “sort of renegade psychiatrist” known as Dr. John the Night Tripper, who had access to pharmaceutical LSD manufactured by Sandoz in Switzerland. “He gave me acid for the first time out in Palo Alto,” Matthiessen said. “I’ll never forget really hearing Bob Dylan for the first time on that trip. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ did some capers that day.”

He dabbled further in hallucinogens throughout the Sixties, with his then wife, Deborah Love, often coming along for the ride, “adrift on the same instinctive search,” as he later described it. When trips she took on mescaline and acid went badly – “She had a horrible time,” Matthiessen said – she began to seek answers through Zen Buddhism. The day he returned home unannounced from a seven-month-long trip to Africa, Matthiessen said, “there were three Zen masters in my driveway,” teachers from whom his wife was taking instruction. Soon he was as well. One Saturday, after an all-day meditation session in New York, he returned to their accommodations and Love opened the door. “Perhaps because I had been in meditation since daybreak and my mind was clear,” he wrote in The Snow Leopard, “I saw at once that she was dying.”

Matthiessen had mixed feelings about The Snow Leopard, his account of a 250-mile trek he made through the Himalayas of Nepal. More than anything else he wrote, it cemented his reputation as primarily a nonfiction writer. “I think it’s a good book, but it really put me in a pigeonhole I’ve never been able to get out of,” he said. “Because it made me a travel writer–cum-explorer-cum-adventurer, and I wasn’t any of those three things.”

Actually, because The Snow Leopard demonstrated that he was all those things, it is the book that Matthiessen is most likely to be remembered for a hundred years from now. The narrative also deftly intertwines two fascinating quests, to visit the mysterious Crystal Monastery and, along with the wildlife biologist George Schaller, to glimpse the elusive cat of the title. For a writer whose nonfiction is steeped in the chilly precision of observed detail, it is also far and away Matthiessen’s most personal book. He struggles with the death of his wife and his shortcomings as the sort of absentee father who leaves behind a grieving eight-year-old son for two months to embark on a Zen pilgrimage.

That son, Alex Matthiessen, now the president of his own eco-political consulting firm in Manhattan, says he enjoyed reading The Snow Leopard much more as an adult than he had as a teenager. “I appreciated the nuances of what he was grappling with, spiritually and mentally and physically,” he told me shortly before his father died. “My dad and I have a very close relationship, and we’ve had many candid conversations about parenting and family life and so on. There’s no question, and my dad is the first to admit it, that as a writer, as an artist, his work came first. But I don’t regret any of it, and on the whole, looking at a lifetime, he’s been a terrific father and a very good friend. I’m very much a chip off the old block.”Like anyone fighting cancer, Matthiessen’s final weeks were filled with good days and bad days. During our conversation next to the fireplace, he occasionally lost his train of thought and blamed “chemo fog.” A few weeks later, we talked by phone in the morning to arrange a visit, but at day’s end Matthiessen called to cancel, pleading sudden exhaustion. Over the next month, word filtered back through his wide network of friends: Peter was at the hospital for another transfusion; Peter was considering a new experimental treatment. The nervous question “How did he look when you saw him?” came up more than once.

One sunny Saturday morning when I called, Matthiessen picked up the phone in the midst of saying goodbye to his students after their session at the Zendo. “Hang on one second; I’m kicking them all out, all these beautiful people,” he said, sounding like a happy host showing out the last guests from a successful party. Matthiessen was an enthusiastic roshi in private and gladly spoke about Zen’s positive effects on his life. The anger that drove him as a young man had largely subsided. “Zen has been a big help to me,” he told me. “I haven’t been in trouble with the authorities since, well, the FBI and my big lawsuit. I’m much calmer. I’m calmer with my kids, more easygoing and reflective. I’m sure it’s helped me through this illness. I’ve been really pretty cheerful.”

Beyond that, he preferred not to talk about Zen much, “because if you’re going to talk about it, you really want to talk.” Even at a moment when mindfulness was on the cover of Time and meditation was taking its turn in the cultural spotlight, people’s attention spans were limited. “And so you cut it short and you make it shallow and superficial, and afterward you feel like you’ve dirtied yourself,” he said.

Matthiessen’s new novel, In Paradise, is his most overtly Zen work of fiction, an ambitious attempt to explore the limits of human understanding when confronted with unspeakable horror and suffering. The book began as a nonfiction chronicle of three retreats to Auschwitz organized by Zen Peacemakers, a group dedicated to adding social engagement to Buddhism’s traditional practice of meditation. The Peacemakers’ leader is Matthiessen’s own roshi, Bernie Glassman. (Matthiessen was Glassman’s dharma successor, meaning he had attained the same level of enlightenment as his teacher.) The title In Paradise comes from a variant of the famous conversation Jesus had with a thief while dying on the cross. In the alternate version, Jesus instructs his fellow crucifee that he need not beg to be taken to paradise, for they are already there. “Much more truthful from a Zen point of view” than the New Testament telling, Matthiessen told me.

After my visit with Matthiessen, I phoned Glassman to ask how a Zen Buddhist would prepare for his own impending end. Glassman explained that the Buddha’s emphasis on accepting things as they are shouldn’t be interpreted as resigning oneself to fate. Rather, the lesson is “not wasting time saying, ‘Oh, things should be different,’ but accepting things as they are and then dealing with them,” he said. “In a way, none of us knows when we’re going to die, so we should be living our lives to the fullest at every moment. You make the best meal you can with the ingredients you have.”

While Matthiessen and I were discussing his memoir-in-progress, I had wondered aloud how it was possible to balance the complete selflessness necessary for enlightenment with the ferocious self-regard needed to be a great writer – especially a great autobiographer working with such rich material. Matthiessen agreed that ego and Zen tended to collide, and we talked a little more and somehow detoured into the sort of awkward conversational pause in which it seemed possible to hear snow melting and one hand clapping. I got the sense that Matthiessen knew that the details of his extraordinary life would end up in the hands of some lucky future biographer anyway, neatly organized and annotated by their creator. He seemed at peace with it.

The man who spoke so eloquently for the world’s endangered species and shrinking forests was himself one of the last of a vanishing breed. Hemingway inspired a generation of writers who followed his example of living life to the fullest – what was called gusto before beer commercials rendered the word ridiculous – while wrestling with the Great American Novel. Norman Mailer, captain of the team, died in 2007. Jim Harrison is 76. James Salter is 88. The sort of novelist who devotes as much passion to fishing or skiing or drinking (or all three, in Hemingway’s case) as he does to writing will soon have gone the way of the dodo and the manual typewriter.

In the final chapter of his final book, the cerebral protagonist Clements Olin, whom Matthiessen readily admitted was based on himself, reflects on the futility of words: “The Zen poet Ryokan wrote of a glad willingness to exchange the most magnificent metaphor about the sea for the immediacy, the pure reality, of one splash of cold surf full in the face.”

Peter Matthiessen’s great genius was that he never saw the need to choose between the two.

The Essential Peter Matthiessen
In his six-decade career, the author wrote more than two dozen books in various genres. Here are six classics that will be read for years to come.

Shadow Country (2008)
Three decades to write, two inches thick, one incredible story of moral and natural decay. The literary equivalent of Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46.

The Snow Leopard (1978)
Matthiessen’s masterpiece, a raw, introspective autobiographical work about a man simultaneously looking for a little-seen cat while seeking the meaning of life.

Far Tortuga (1975)
A spare, experimental tale about Caribbean fishermen that resonates long after reading it, like a Zen koan. This is a novel beloved by fellow novelists.

The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972)
Only a writer with Matthiessen’s immense ambition would try to capture the essence of Africa in a single volume, and only one with his talent could succeed.

Wildlife in America (1959)
What could have been a dry catalog of vanishing American species reads instead as a prophecy about the fragility of nature and humanity’s responsibility to protect it.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)
A disturbing – and prescient – psychological tale of two outside cultures clashing in Peru over the right to end an Amazon tribe’s ancient way of life.

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