Peter Matthiessen was born in New York City on May 22, 1927, of a well-to-do, if not wealthy, family. His father, Erard A. Matthiessen, was a well-known architect and for many years a trustee of the National Audubon Society. His interest in nature and conservation was passed on to his son, and many of Peter Matthiessen’s essays were eventually published in the society’s magazine, Audubon. From childhood, Matthiessen was exposed to the New York world of literature and the arts. By the time he was sixteen, he had decided to become a writer. Following the path of many boys from prominent families, he was first educated at the Hotchkiss School, then at Yale University. He spent many of his summers on the Connecticut shore in the relatively exclusive society of friends from the New York intellectual world. “My first story,” he later said casually, “was published by my girl’s father”—Cass Canfield, then editor of Harper’s magazine.
Late in World War II, Matthiessen interrupted his education to join the U.S. Navy, an experience of mixed success, since he was demoted for disciplinary reasons, but one that gave him his first real experience of the life of the common man. He returned to Yale in 1947, continued his creative writing, and wrote about hunting and fishing for the Yale Daily News. He graduated from Yale in 1950, spent a year there as an instructor in creative writing, and moved to Paris, by then married to Patsy Southgate, the daughter of a socially prominent diplomat. The Matthiessens soon became the center of a glittering crowd of American expatriate intellectuals, including William Styron, James Jones, George Plimpton, James Baldwin, and Irwin Shaw. In 1951, with Harold L. Humes, Plimpton, and others, Matthiessen founded The Paris Review, which became one of the most influential literary magazines of the postwar era; for four decades, Matthiessen served as fiction editor for the magazine.
Matthiessen’s first novel, Race Rock, was written in Paris. It looks back to the world of Matthiessen’s youth: The characters are a group of disillusioned, upper-middle-class young people living on the New England coast. Aimless and confused by their meaningless lives, they stagnate, wallowing in their angst and neuroses. A reunion of childhood friends degenerates into an overflow of emotions and finally violence. Sadder but wiser, the survivors face an uncertain future, vowing to profit from their past mistakes and show maturity in the future.
In 1953, the Matthiessens returned to the United States and settled in East Hampton, Long Island, where Matthiessen divided his time between writing in bad weather and commercial fishing in good. His second novel, Partisans, appeared in 1955. It was an obvious product of Matthiessen’s knowledge of the avant-garde left wing that infested expatriate intellectual circles in the 1950’s. (Ironically, in the light of his later political commitments, it was rumored among the Paris Review crowd that Matthiessen was an agent of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which would hardly have been surprising, considering his background and contacts.) Theprotagonist of Partisans is Barney Sand, a young American journalist and son of a diplomat, who is searching for a cause to which he can commit himself. With the pure idealism of a Grail knight, he scours the Paris slums seeking Jacobi, an old and deposed revolutionary who has been rejected by the Communist Party but who is the emblem of purity and integrity to Sand. Like Race Rock, Partisans is a kind of bildungsroman—that is, a novel in which a young person grows into maturity. In this case, the young...