Peter Matthiessen (born May 22, 1927, in New York City, died April 5,2014 in Sangaponack, NY) was a great American writer, among other things, who should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shadow Country, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2008 may well be “the Great American novel.” The Snow Leopard, which won the 1980 National Book Award for nonfiction is one of the greatest travel/adventure books and has moved many readers with its flashbacks to the then-very-recent death from cancer of his (second) wife Deborah… and guilt about leaving their eight-year-old son Alex behind for an extended trek through the Himalayas trying to sight a snow leopard.
One of the especially interesting parts of the 2009 PBS documentary “Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries” (hosted by Glenn Close for WQED) is hearing from Alex Matthiessen about retracing his father’s journey and rereading the book. Alex Matthiessen has been a fulltime environmental activist, following in some of his father’s footsteps. Having published three “apprentice” novels and cofounded the Paris Review, Peter Matthiessen published Wildlife in America, a history of the extinction and endangerment of various bird and animal species in 1959 before there was an Endangered Species Act or any commitment to preserving biodiversity. He followed that with The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961), The Shorebirds of North America (1967), and other books including, most recently, The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes (2001) and End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica (2003).
His concern for humans being pushed aside by “development” included Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962, highland New Guinea), Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986, having earlier been the captain of a small vessel), East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of the Mustang (1995). More directly engagé were his 1969 book Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution and 1983 book about the framing of American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier for the murder of two FBI agents during 1975 conflicts at the Pine Ride Reservation (on which see Michael Apted’s 1992 documentary “Incident at Oglala” and fictionalization “Thunderheart”), In The Spirit of Crazy Horse. Former South Dakota governor William J. Janklow and FBI agent David Price sued Matthiessen, Random House, and any booksellers who carried the book for libel. The case was dismissed, though defending against it cost three million dollars. (A paperback edition came out in 1992.) As a major First Amendment case, Matthiessen tersely discussed that in the documentary, though focusing on the railroading of Peltier (whose trial Amnesty International has included in its Unfair Trials list).
In the documentary Matthiessen says that his peak moments writing come from writing fiction and stressed that he was a thrice-published novelist before publishing any nonfiction. His mature fiction has been much acclaimed (including by fellow writers James Salter and Tom McGuane in the documentary). It’s been so long since I read At Play in the Fields of the Lord (which was published in 1965) that I don’t recall whether I found it difficult reading. I found the dialect-clogged Far Tortuga (1975) unreadable (from an extract published in the Paris Review #60, along with an “Art of Writing” interview), Birds of Heaven unnecessarily difficult to read, and did not try any of the “Watson trilogy”: Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), Bone by Bone (1999),
Matthiessen considered them one immense (1500-page) novel, and did not think the middle one stands very well on its own. He reworked them into the 2008 Shadow Country, a mere 890 pages. The documentary includes the author speaking about the background (geographic and human) of At Play, Far Tortuga, and the Watson trilogy and inspired me to order Shadow Country.
Along with being a novelist, a nature writer, a minority rights and environmental activist, Matthiessen was also a Zen master, and the documentary is informative about that. Indeed, it introduces many facets of a private (Yankee, presumably of Dutch descent) man of great accomplishment who became a somewhat reluctant public figure out of a sense of duty. Within the constraints of an hour, I don’t see how the documentary could have been better.
Matthiessen was cooperative. In addition to fellow writers McGuane and Salter, and Matthiessen’s two sons and wife, there are cogent comments from Sidney Lumet, Rose Styron, and Margot Kidder (!).
Matthiesen’s final novel In Paradise will be published on April 8th.
In addition to the documentary, I recommend the 1999 Paris Review interview by Howard Norman. The Swedish Academy is probably going to miss again, preferring to give Nobel Prizes for literature to the likes of Herta Müller and Dario Fo… If I had any influence, it would go to supporting Michael Ondaatjee, though his chances have diminished by the choice of Alice Munro (not one of the Academy’s worst decisions).