Critical Context

Far Tortuga, Matthiessen’s fifth novel, is quite highly regarded by most critics; along with At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), it is recognized as a small masterpiece, particularly notable for its technical daring and lyric beauty. Matthiessen’s union of scientific expertise, practical experience (he once sailed on a turtle boat), and passionate impressionism is unique in contemporary fiction.

From the beginning of his career, Peter Matthiessen has bridged the gap between the worlds of natural science and art. A naturalist, anthropologist, and explorer as well as a novelist, he has published numerous nature books, including Wildlife in America (1959) and The Tree Where Man Was Born: The African Experience (1972). Far Tortuga, like his other works, is distinguished by a love of nature and an urgent concern that the elemental harmony between man and nature is in great jeopardy.

After writing Far Tortuga, Matthiessen went on to widen his range of styles and subjects and to write with great verve and success. The Snow Leopard (1978), a spiritual odyssey which charts the course of his journey over the high Himalayas in search of the near-mythical snow leopard and truths about his own life, was a best-seller and winner of the National Book Award. In In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and Indian Country (1984), he turned his eye to the plight of the American Indian and continued to write passionately of lands and of people whom responsible people ignore at their peril.

Peter Matthiessen is a versatile and challenging writer. His eclecticism, intellectual range, and literary talent make him one of America’s most important voices.