Matthiessen is considered one of America’s foremost environmental writers. Both his fiction and nonfiction devote themselves to considerations of the fragile planet humans share with other life-forms. Matthiessen’s subject is life on earth; he takes his materials wherever he finds them, no matter how remote the locale. His writing reflects his passion for travel, his interest in human nature—both innocent and destructive—and his commitment to calling others’ attention to the pressing problems associated with the environment. Yet, although Matthiessen characterizes himself as a romantic, he does not give into what could be a temptation to romanticize nature: He describes both the beauty and the brutality of the natural world.
Matthiessen is especially noted for his unflinching consideration of the damage that industrial imperialism is causing or is about to cause the world’s fragile ecosystem, in particular, damage to those underdeveloped or undeveloped portions of the globe most vulnerable to the devastating effects of such things as clear-cutting, pollution, and overpopulation. Thus, the journeys that Matthiessen shares with his readers are not simply travelogues for armchair tourists wishing to see exotic places; rather, his books first challenge his reader to think about what they see and, second, ask them to develop a shared concern for the continued well-being of a threatened environment, ecosystem, or ancient culture that he describes. His books again and again reflect his fear that industrial greed threatens to wipe out cultures, creatures, and whole geographical areas. Such fiction as At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga and most of his nonfiction, such as Indian Country, Sand Rivers, and Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986), take this perspective as their controlling focus.
Wildlife in America launched Matthiessen’s career as a traveler to far places, an activity that was to be the main thrust of his life for the following twenty years. His travels inform all of his work, fiction and nonfiction alike. For example, Far Tortuga chronicles the voyage of a Caribbean turtling schooner. Yet Matthiessen does not always write of faraway places; he also addresses the problems faced by the vanishing or victimized cultures of North America with the same intensity that he brings to his exploration of the more remote corners of the world. While such a book as Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age looks at the culture of the New Guinea Kurelu tribe, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution focuses on Chavez’s work to organize migrant workers in California. Books such as The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness and Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea examine cultures far from the immediate influence of the United States, but in his books In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country, Matthiessen examines the effects of the modern age on American Indian cultures and peoples.
Always present in Matthiessen’s nonfiction is a strong sense of the writer’s personality. Matthiessen is not an invisible observer clinically reporting what he sees; his personal voice and the strength of his commitment can be heard very clearly in all that he writes. His far-flung travels not only afford him the opportunity to show his readers other cultures and locales, but they also allow him to reveal his own personality, his emotions, and the interior journeying for which the external expedition is an emblem. The Snow Leopard is perhaps the best example of this aspect of Matthiessen’s writing; in it he journeys through Nepal with George Schaller, a wildlife biologist on the trail of the endangered snow leopard. The book is as much—if not more—about Matthiessen’s need to find internal answers and silence as it is about the two men’s pursuit of the leopard. The book details Matthiessen’s struggle to achieve an interior peace and acceptance; the leopard eventually becomes an externalized version of that elusive Zen silence.
Besides The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen has written another autobiographical work, Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982 (1985) which discusses his journey toward and practice of the Zen philosophy and way of life.
Matthiessen’s fiction explores the moral landscape in much the same way that his nonfiction examines humankind’s lack of moral commitment to the planet on which it lives. For example, his second novel, Partisans, reflects the liberal Left’s disillusionment with communism. Set in Paris, it concerns American newsman Barney Sand’s search for Jacobi, a communist who has been rejected by his own people. Raditzer examines the ambiguities associated with the friendship of two Navy men during World War II: the narrator, Charles Stark, and the morally corrupt Raditzer. Matthiessen confesses that Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoevski have been major influences on his writing. Raditzer reflects the same moral focus and bleak interior landscapes so often the focus of both these writers. Critics see his subsequent novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, as expressing these same interests.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord
First published: 1965
Type of work: Novel
Contact with a modern civilization can only bring about the destruction of primitive cultures.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord, set in the jungles of South America, has received much critical recognition. An aboriginal tribe of Amazonian Indians—the Niaruna—lives so far up the headwaters of the Amazon that they have never seen “modern” men, except the anthropologist who has been there to observe them. Once discovered, however, they become the focus of a number of groups’ attempts to bring civilization to them. The Niaruna will never be the same after foreigners come on the scene, but neither will the Americans who go there. This novel expresses Matthiessen’s central concern with the negative impact that modern technology has, not only on the less “advanced” cultures on which it encroaches but also on the people who take their own advantages for granted. The book also describes the tension that arises when the innocent “savages” are confronted by an essentially corrupt civilization—in this case, Catholic and Baptist missionaries and two American mercenaries.
The Niaruna are causing problems for the governor of their state; although they usually live peacefully in their remote villages, they occasionally cause trouble for the civilized South American Indians who are their neighbors. The prefect of Oriente State wants them “pacified” by whatever means is effective. Although he personally favors bombing the Niaruna and driving them across his country’s borders, he cannot afford a scandal. Because he holds two American soldiers of fortune as detainees (Wolfie and Moon), he coerces them into taking the job.
Not only does At Play in the Fields of the Lord show readers what can happen to the Indians once they are introduced to the twentieth century, it also examines the effect that going into the jungle has on people who have always taken modern conveniences for granted. In the jungle, many pretensions are stripped away, and people such as the (perhaps well-intentioned) missionaries cannot handle the result. Being face-to-face with nature and primitive tribes can terrify, as it does Hazel Quarrier, wife of Martin, one of the Baptist missionaries. While most of the characters are far from mad, they do show the effects of their removal from the protective shelter of the modern world. The piranhas, the filth and disease, the local infighting, the brutality of the Niaruna, and their own innate brutality all conspire to test these characters in ways they have never imagined possible in their “safe” modern world. The portrait Matthiessen offers is hardly flattering, for, although the Niaruna are predictably changed from their encounters with foreigners, the people who come to civilize them—mercenaries and missionaries alike—are affected in more savage ways.
It is not the missionaries who offer the most complicated response to the Niaruna; Lewis Meriwether Moon, a Cheyenne Indian who grew up on an American reservation and who has since become a soldier of fortune, displays the most complicated response to these people. At first he looks on fulfilling the prefect’s demands to subdue the Niaruna as merely another job. Yet, once he becomes involved with these other Indians, he begins to see himself as their savior. In them he sees his own people; under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, Moon hijacks a plane originally intended for bombing the tribe and parachutes into the Niaruna’s forest. They look upon him as a sort of god; he struggles to live like a native but has trouble walking barefoot. Completely alienated by his experiences at home, he dreams of successfully leading the Niaruna in their battle to defend their territory. Given Matthiessen’s pessimistic outlook, it comes as no surprise that Moon fails in his efforts to organize the Niaruna’s resistance to the missionaries and the prefect.
Matthiessen clearly believes that the downfall of these remote cultures will only be a matter of time and that, no matter how well-intentioned the people who go to them are, contact with the outside modern world will destroy them. Even in the modern desire to “do good” lies the destruction of the world’s remaining innocence and the debasement of the very people who thought that their work would help.
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
A crew of Caribbean fishermen battle against nature in their hunt for turtles.
In Far Tortuga, Matthiessen blends poetic form with the novel to create a hybrid whose form helps to tell the story of the crew of the schooner Lillias Eden and their search for the elusive green turtles. The story is one familiar to readers of tales of the sea: people against the elements. Raib Avers, the captain of the decrepit turtle-fishing boat, is determined to prove that he is the best captain alive in the Caribbean; his driving will endangers the lives of his entire crew and is strongly reminiscent of perhaps the most famous sailor, Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab of Moby Dick (1851). Like...
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