Peter Matthiessen, 86, died on April 5, 2014 at his home in Sagaponack, New York, after a year-long struggle with leukemia.
Raised in Manhattan, in the same building as another later famous author, George Plimpton, who was two months older, Matthiessen served in the U.S. Navy as World War II was ending, attended Yale, spent a year in Paris at the Sorbonne, and taught creative writing at Yale for a year before accepting a job with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that he later said he saw as offering him “a free trip to Paris to write my novel.” With Plimpton and others, Matthiessen in 1953 cofounded The Paris Review, but Mathiessen returned to the U.S. before the 1954 publication of his first novel, Race Rock.
“To put bread on the table,” summarized New York Times obituarist Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “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.”
Matthiessen published a second novel, Partisans, in 1955, but enjoyed his first major success as an author with Wildlife In America (1959), a landmark exposé of vanishing wildlife and critique of wildlife conservation policy. Growing out of an assignment for the magazine Sports Illustrated, Wildlife In America largely endorsed the hunter/conservationist philosophy espoused by Theodore Roosevelt and National Wildlife Federation founder Jay “Ding” Darling, yet observed that hunting-centered wildlife management tended to leave non-“game” species in unprotected and mostly unmonitored jeopardy.
“The book became a part of the permanent library of The White House and, like Rachel Carson’s classic The Silent Spring, written a few years later, it helped provide the foundation from which the conservation movement in this country in the 1960s was launched,” assessed collectors’ bookseller Ken Lopez in 1993.
Wildlife In America ripped into the quasi-beatification of John James Audubon by the National Audubon Society, then still transitioning from the bird-shooting club it was originally to the conservation-focused organization it is today.
“In 1785, the second year of a new America,” wrote Matthiessen, “there was born in Haiti a bastard child called Jean Rabin. Rabin became, successively, Jean Jacques Fougere, Jean Jacques Laforest Audubon, and John James Audubon.”
Dodging creditors from the Caribbean to the western frontier, Audubon noted the increasing rarity of many of the birds he shot and painted, but also boasted of killing seven whooping cranes with one shotgun blast.
Scarcely a scientist, Audubon jeered at the theory of evolution, as presciently outlined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz some 26 years before Charles Darwin published the essay which a year later became the book The Origin Of Species.
“A consequence of a flourishing public interest in private bird collections and oology (the study of eggs), inspired in great measure by Audubon, was the quest of birds nests by schoolboys,” Matthiessen noted. “Often as not, the oology of the latter was devoted to the simple destruction of eggs, and where circumstances permitted, the adult birds into the bargain.”
In hindsight, Wildlife In America appeared at almost the tipping point when after 400 years of depletion, wildlife began to recover. The low point may have come when Ohio cancelled the 1961 deer hunting season because of a scarcity of deer. Just over half a century later, deer, black bears, pumas, raccoons, beavers, and many other species that were in decline when Matthiessen wrote have returned to pre-Columbian abundance. Bison, wolves, and prairie dogs are no longer in jeopardy. Hundreds of less familiar species remain at risk, but the principle of protecting wildlife and critical habitat had become enshrined in law by the Endangered Species Act (1969) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) while the first edition of Wildlife In America remained in print.
Matthiessen followed Wildlife In America with another novel, Raditzer (1961), and then two more works of nonfiction natural history that grew out of article assignments from New Yorker editor William Shawn: 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).
Matthiessen’s research for The Cloud Forest doubled as research for his first major literary success, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), examining the effect of missionary evangelism on remote Amazon tribespeople.
Wrote Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert of the 1991 film version of At Play in the Fields of the Lord, directed by Hector Babenco:
“Watching it, we are looking at a morality play about a world in which sincere people create unwitting mischief so that evil people can have their way. The movie essentially argues that all peoples have a right to worship their own gods without interference, but it goes further to observe that if your god lives in the land and the trees, then if we destroy your land, we kill your god. These messages are buried in the very fabric of the film, in the way it was shot, in its use of locations, and we are not told them, we absorb them.”
This summary could describe the themes and approach that Matthiessen pursued throughout his career.
For most of the rest of his life Mathiessen maintained a pattern of producing several works of nonfiction, mostly natural history, and then a novel. Mid-career nonfiction titles included Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea (1967); The Shorebirds of North America (1967), updated and republished as The Wind Birds in 1973); Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971); The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972); and Sand Rivers (1981).
In between came Far Tortuga (1975), a novel about Caribbean sea turtle hunters. Like much of the late 20th century environmental movement, Matthiessen embraced the notion that indigenous subsistence hunters and trappers enjoyed a healthier relationship with wildlife and nature than people from the developed world, detailing environmental destruction wherever western civilization invaded wild habitats, but with scant notice of the ecological recovery in North America that his own work helped to inspire.
Matthiessen did, however, document the rise of North American struggles for justice for indigenous peoples in Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969), In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), and Indian Country (1984).
Matthiessen’s most acclaimed work may have been The Snow Leopard, recounting his 1978 expedition with New York Zoological Society naturalist George Schaller to seek and study argali sheep, snow leopards, and other species in their native Himalayan habitat. The Snow Leopard received both the 1979 National Book Award in the category “Contemporary Thought”and the 1980 National Book Award for best nonfiction paperback. Schaller and Matthiessen bunked at Tibetan Buddhist monastaries on their trek through the mountains, inspiring Matthiessen to take up Buddhist rituals and to speak and write extensively about Buddhism, but whatever he learned about reverence for all life in theory did not seem to trump ideas about species conservation that assign greater moral value to scarcity than to the capacity to suffer.
Schaller, however, had second thoughts about the animal suffering involved in their work in A Naturalist & Other Beasts: Tales From A Life In The Field (2007).
“I was, and still am, ambivalent about providing a snow leopard with live bait,” Schaller recalled. “I checked the goats twice a day to make certain that they remained fed and watered and were not distressed; they lacked only companionship. I could have offered dead baits, as it still done by hunters for lions and leopards, but that would have caused the death of goats needlessly. Most of the live goats were not discovered by a snow leopard in the few days they were tied out, and there was little chance that a cat would find a goat carcass before it was stripped by vultures. Furthermore, my heart is with the rare markhor, not the locust-like domestic goat. Each meal of a domestic goat eaten by a snow leopard saved the life of a markhor.”
After producing Nine-headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969–1982 (1986), Matthiessen returned to nonfiction natural history in Men’s Lives: The Surfmen & Baymen of the South Fork (1986);
African Silences (1991); Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia (1992); East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of the Mustang (1995); Tigers in the Snow (2000); The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes (2001); and End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica (2003).
In late career Matthiessen produced a triology based on the life and times of Florida planter Charles J. Watson (1855-1910), who reputedly boasted of killing 57 men, and early in life was acquitted of killing Old West outlaw Belle Starr. Watson himself was lynched by gunfire. After separately authoring Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999), Matthiessen rewrote them into a single volume, Shadow Country, recipient of the 2008 National Book Award for fiction. This made Matthiessen the only winning in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.
Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, centering on the practice of Zen Buddhism, went to press just before his death.