Matthiessen, Peter (Vol. 32)
Peter Matthiessen 1927–
American novelist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, and editor.
Matthiessen is a novelist and naturalist who writes with conviction and compassion about vanishing cultures, oppressed peoples, and exotic wildlife and landscapes. Combining scientific observation with lyrical, intelligent prose, he explores such concerns as the impact of modern civilization on the natural world and the necessity for commitment to environmental concerns. An extensive traveller who has explored uncharted areas, Matthiessen bases the majority of his writing on his personal experiences.
Matthiessen wrote his first novel, Race Rock (1954), while living in Paris, where he cofounded the Paris Review with Harold L. Humes. After returning to the United States in 1953, he wrote the novels Partisans (1955) and Raditzer (1961). In the late 1950s Matthiessen began the travels which have strongly influenced his career. These led him to such places as the remote wilderness areas of North and South America and resulted in Wildlife in America (1959) and The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961). Matthiessen's fourth novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), met with considerable critical recognition. This work takes place in the jungles of South America, where a primitive tribe is threatened with extinction due to the encroachment of civilization. William Styron describes this novel as "a dense, rich, musical book, filled with tragic and comic resonances."
During the ten-year span between the publication of At Play in the Fields of the Lord and his next novel, Far Tortuga (1975), Matthiessen wrote numerous nonfiction works which further strengthened his reputation as an outstanding writer and an observant traveller. The Shorebirds of North America (1967) is a nature study written in the flowing style characteristic of much of his work; Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969) examines the famed American fighter for the rights of migrant workers; Blue Meridian (1971) is based on Matthiessen's expedition in search of the great white shark; and The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972) exemplifies his powers of observation and his humanitarian concerns as he describes the nature and cultures of East Africa.
Far Tortuga is widely considered Matthiessen's most accomplished work. It relates the doomed voyage of a group of sailors who leave the Cayman Islands to hunt turtles in the Caribbean. The novel is made up of descriptive passages interspersed with blocks of dialogue in Caribbean dialects. Matthiessen does not explicitly attribute the dialogue to specific characters; the reader must identify the characters by their individual speech patterns and comments. Also included are such unusual items as pages with a single word, blots to signify death, and type set in the shape of a ship's mast. Matthiessen was praised for the poetic quality of his prose and for his detached manner of describing only the characters' behavior and not their thoughts. Although overall critical response was mixed, Far Tortuga greatly increased Matthiessen's literary stature.
Since Far Tortuga, Matthiessen has written several other nonfiction works. The Snow Leopard (1978), for which Matthiessen received a National Book Award, is perhaps his most personal nature book. It relates his 1973 journey to Nepal to observe Himalayan blue sheep and his hope of encountering the rarely-seen snow leopard. For Matthiessen the trip was also a search for peace and fulfillment following the death of his wife. As is true of many of Matthiessen's travelogues, The Snow Leopard becomes more than a simple journal of observations by virtue of his personal meditations. In Sand Rivers (1981) Matthiessen again records his African travels, this time describing an extended trek into the Selous Game Reserve, one of Africa's largest remaining wilderness areas. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and Indian Country (1984) evidence Matthiessen's interest in the history, culture, and political situation of American Indians. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse compares the legendary Indian, whose refusal to live on a reservation resulted in his death, with a modern-day Indian accused of murder. Page Stegner describes this work as "one of the most dramatic demonstrations of endemic American racism that has yet been written—a powerful, unsettling book that will force even the most ethno-pious reader to inspect the limits of his understanding." Indian Country, which centers on the struggles of American Indians to defend their land and cultural identity against modern technological society, is based on personal encounters and interviews conducted throughout the United States.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 27; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
[With] his first novel "Race Rock," [Peter Matthiessen] assumes immediate place as a writer of disciplined craft, perception, imaginative vigor and serious temperament.
The story he presents is intricate, both in method and in the complex of emotional relationships with which it deals. It is a story of salt shifting tidal waters, so to speak, not only in that its events take place against the shoreline of an ever-various, continual sea but, plunging deeper, in that its prime concern is with the rearranging interflowing briny particles of hate, love, shame and fear that form the groundswell of experience….
Mr. Matthiessen presents his material … with dramatic power and acute verisimilitude. He commands also a gift of flexible taut expression which takes wings at times into a lyricism beautifully modulated and controlled.
Sylvia Berkman, "The Reluctant Adults," in The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1954, p. 5.
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[Peter Matthiessen] is by intention a tight writer: he begins with a situation of tension and screws it to a higher pitch. This is his device in his first novel, Race Rock …, and I'm sorry to report that the story will be disagreeable to many readers. It concerns four Americans, all in their twenties, who have been attracted to each other since childhood: Sam, who has proved a failure as a painter; Eve Murray, who was his wife; George McConville, a wealthy young broker who has made Eve his mistress and, as she thinks, pregnant; and Cady Shipman, the embittered veteran who in his rough way also attracts Eve….
In the story that follows, Mr. Matthiessen in his counterpoint of present and past seeks to tell you why they have become what they are. But his aims are in opposition: his first and most compelling is to show you the deterioration, no matter how repellent; his second, to recover the integrity of his quartet where he can. It is a losing battle.
The author is at his best in his scenes of direct action: Cady and the cat, the sea wind and the fishermen, the drunken Russian Roulette—here, we say, is a writer, observant and of power. He is beyond his depth when he depicts the elders at their Sunday dinner. And he is very, very, unsure of himself in his similes and metaphors, which clutter up the story and make it self-conscious: "Indoor associations, careening forward like ancient odorous dogs" …; "she...
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["Partisans" is] the quest of a young American for his identity in terms of a search for a political hero and guide. It is the hope of this young man, son of a United States diplomat and working for an international wire service in Paris, that in "interviewing" his hero, now purged from the party and kept in hiding before being disposed of, he might clarify for himself his own political and philosophical confusions. The hero's name is Jacobi, the seeker's Sand….
In the end, Sand finds Jacobi who will not divulge his "story" to the interviewer but tells him to go home and continue the struggle of the Great Twentieth-Century War in the name of oppressed humanity.
The author means this novel to be a study of a man of action whose relationship to Party ideology has been destroyed by personal passion. It is a study of failure, too, and of noble aims. He intends his novel, I believe, to be an exploration of the meanings of partisanship and of the search for a clear way of individual action and belief through the confusions of ideologies and groups. Certainly Peter Matthiessen's Jacobi is Idea rather than Man. Yet Sand, as well as such minor characters as Lise and Olivier, seems Idea that speaks of The People rather than human beings involved in struggle with Idea. Perhaps this is the author's ultimate intention. Nevertheless, these ideas are rather like those exchanged in a session after a political science class or by...
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In Partisans many of the situations … seem contrived….
[Too] often [the] characters do not merely express or even embody the ideas they discuss; they are engulfed by them. In spite of the insistence of detailed, sensuous observation, of personal and idiosyncratic behavior, the characters do not fully emerge from the dialectic in which they are involved. Embattled concepts, not engaged people, are presented to us. We are left with a novel of ideas that does not quite come off.
In spite of such strictures, there is much to be commended in the novel. The scenes which are good are impressive, the descriptions ring true, and the writing has a nervous energy that is suited to the subject and exciting in itself.
James Finn, "A Modern Quest," in Commonweal, Vol. LXIII, No. 4, October 28, 1955, pp. 102-03.
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Packed with carefully gathered information, ["Wildlife in America"] is a delight to read. Appendices offer factual material on rare, declining and extinct species, a chronology of wild-life legislation, and there is an extensive bibliography….
This is a dramatic, unsettling story, skillfully told in a clean, strong prose not often found in the literature of conservation. The author never veers toward either sentimentality or over-documentation. He remains, in fact, almost too aloof for good propaganda, by withholding explanation of the motives of conservation. He never stoops to tell, in so many words, why we must fight to save wild things, assuming, evidently, that men of goodwill already know, as he knows, how awesome the finality of extinction is. I wonder about this.
Although depletion and waste are prominent in the book they are not by any means the whole story. There is, in fact, a good deal of optimism in it….
Biologists may get querulous over Mr. Matthiessen's falling in with the tendency to restrict the word "wildlife" to animals with backbones, leaving as some unstipulated kind of life all the teeming spineless creatures. There is what seems to me a serious oversimplification in the author's statement that "the basic principles of conservation are now quite clearly understood, and it is only the details of their application which, here and there, are still disputed." Conservation is...
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[In Raditzer we find] a character distinct from those in literature, yet one who has somehow figured, if but hauntingly, in the lives of us all. It is, in certain ways, as though a whole novel had been devoted to one of Algren's sideline freaks, a grotesque and loathsome creature—yet seen ultimately, as sometimes happens in life, as but another human being….
We see Raditzer, the ordinary seaman, mostly through the eyes of Charles Stark, his shipmate and reluctant mentor, abroad the U.S.S. General Pendleton in Pacific waters, late 1944. Stark is that sane and perceptive fellow who used to be played by Herbert Marshall in the movies but who frequently recurs, somewhat younger now, as first-person narrator in New Yorker short stories—a cardboard figure and a pretty dull tool actually, with his flagrantly self-conscious "reasonableness" and "normalcy," and his finger-deep introspection. Stark is, in short, a literary ideal; he represents the reader. (p. 170)
Raditzer attaches himself to Stark, and the latter, much to the ire and consternation of the rest of the crew, tolerates the imposition—though, granted, with a rather formidable ambivalence. Raditzer's general demeanor might be described as gregariously anti-social; he is so obsessed with the ugliness others see in him that he is in a constant drive to assert it tenfold—groping desperately, one might believe, for alienation … hatred...
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Peter Matthiessen, novelist and naturalist, started on his way to South America. Five months later he came back—and wrote a book ["The Cloud Forest"]. There is nothing unusual about this. Countless gringos have visited South America, and one sometimes gets the feeling that most of them must have written books. Yet Matthiessen's trip was unusual. Somehow he managed to get to parts of the continent that have been seen by very few gringos. And, most unusual of all, he came back with a completely delightful book.
This, to my knowledge, has only happened twice before in this century; and to get this statistic we have to stretch the word gringo to include the British. But comparison with H. M. Tomlinson's "The Sea and the Jungle" and with Peter Fleming's "Brazilian Adventure" is inevitable. Among American writers on South America, Peter Matthiessen is unique.
Mr. Matthiessen, to be sure, can write; and this is always helpful in the case of people producing books. He is master of a clean, dry, straightforward prose that is yet vivid and often aptly picturesque. Beneath this prose, there is an extraordinary perception. How, in these five months and with only rudimentary Spanish, did he get such an intimate "feel" for the country and the people? Having lived for eight years in a little town on the eastern slopes of the Colombian Andes, I think I know the kind of people and kind of country that Peter Matthiessen encountered....
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["Under the Mountain Wall," a] sensitively written book by Peter Matthiessen, is an engrossing human document that sheds light on the story of man, stone-age or modern. The material is drawn from the 1961 Peabody-Harvard Expedition to Central New Guinea whose members—Matthiessen was one—were the first white men ever to establish close contact with the Kurelu and live among them for several months….
In the world today there are very few men left who could truly be called "stone age" in the sense of being completely untouched by the faint echoes emanating from the larger world beyond their borders. The Kurelu of Central New Guinea, dwelling in the mile-high Baliem Valley, were such a people. Matthiessen, in his Preface, speaks of them as destined to be no more than another backward group "crouched in the long shadow of the white man." Ironically, so fast-paced are present changes that it is now the shadow of Indonesia that will fall athwart these simple natives, whose lands have been transferred under such dubious ethics as may be attributable to the exigencies of the cold war. It is not, of course, as political pawns that Matthiessen has seen the Kurelu, compelling as that phase of their story may be to the political scientist. Nor has he been content to report what could easily have been, in other hands, abstract institutional details of tribal life. Rather, he has brought to his subject the pity and insight that only a truly...
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["At Play in the Fields of the Lord"] has nearly everything—a powerful plot, a rich variety of characters, a perceptive, deeply felt view of man's yearnings and his essential ironic tragedy, and a prose style that is vivid, sensuous and disciplined by intelligence. What it lacks—and, I'm afraid, prevents it not only from being a great novel but also from being even a particularly good one, is a sense, or quality, of necessity. By this I mean, the book does not compel the reader into it; its intensity does not engulf the reader as I think it must in this kind of serious, committed novel (as opposed to an entertainment), but acts rather as a barrier between the world within the book and the emotional involvement with the world that the reader wants so much to have.
Thus, at every page, one is interested, admiring, agreeing even—but not transported, not engrossed. It's like reading Conrad, but without the magic (I have no other word for it). Because of the book's many obvious qualities and because passion is there, powerful though fixed, one's disappointment at being less than absorbed is keen and eventually overriding….
False morality myth, magic, the Noble Savage, man's tragic destiny to corrupt himself and find innocence only in madness, are the subjects of "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," a title that conveys not comedy but bitter endless irony….
Mr. Matthiessen tends to speak, perhaps...
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Far back upstream, so very far back in the jungles of the Amazon headwaters that not even an anthropologist has visited them, live the Indians of Peter Matthiessen's novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Perhaps this little naked tribe is the last in the world untouched by civilization. In this story, they are touched and they fall, undone by the fascination their ultimate remoteness exerts on an assortment of Americans. The novel tells how this happens, how by airplane, outboard motor, by jungle trail, the Americans at last bring the first successful contact of the modern world to the savage Niaruna. At every stage of their various journeys, the Americans are tried to the extremes of danger by the piranha-infested rivers, by the filth and disease of jungle outposts, by the treacheries of the local satrap, their enmities for one another, by drink, drugs, madness, by machine gun and rifle and pistol fire, by spears, machetes, arrows, knives, fists, and broken bottles. They are tormented day and night by lusts, racial hatreds, and religious enthusiasms. Some of them die, but some, much altered, survive even the final catastrophe.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord is then, a novel of adventure, and it is, furthermore, to bring in at once the inevitable phrase, a good old-fashioned adventure novel. Peter Matthiessen is not horsing around with the elements of an adventure story, he gives us one straight. The perils of his...
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Robert M. Mengel
Highly original in its approach and a beautiful object in its own right, [The Shorebirds of North America] devotes itself to its subject, not only with unstinting effort, but also with a refined extravagance recalling the great tradition of the 19th-century luxury works on birds—the Goulds, Audubons, Elliots, and others….
Peter Matthiessen's general text takes the form of a prolonged essay, which has already appeared, with unsubstantial differences, in The New Yorker. Mr. Matthiessen is a writer of considerable experience and at his best produces a flowing, poetic style somewhat suggestive of Daphne DuMaurier. He devotes himself to the shorebirds—everything about shorebirds—with unflagging enthusiasm remarkable for its sustained pitch. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that many readers, swept along in this flow, will therefore follow him into areas they would never normally enter, and will acquire, in the process, not only a good deal of generalized and particulate information on shorebirds but, more importantly, a certain insight into what modern field biology is all about. Such readers should be warned that, while Mr. Matthiessen has obviously done an extraordinary amount of reading, he is as clearly not a trained biologist and his text abounds with small factual errors and conceptual near misses (occasionally the misses are wide). This will probably not be very important to many readers and is certainly...
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[The Shorebirds of North America] is one of the finest books of natural history that I have ever seen, regardless of its qualities as an ornithological text, which are considerable. Not the least of the assets of The Shorebirds of North America is its feeling of scope, a sense it provides of the worldwide environment in which these "wind birds," in Peter Matthiessen's phrase, have their various being. In other words, this is not just a glossy teaser for the uninitiated; it has authentic unity and depth….
Peter Matthiessen's text has the deftness and balance of a fine writer, it is a mosaic of fascinating information, of observation and description expertly placed. He ranges the field from the fringes of this continent to its interior—not to mention his use of collateral avian associations in many other parts of the world—giving innumerable examples of ways of flight, of mating and nesting, and of distraction and displacement behavior. In a relatively short number of pages we are given the wide realm of shorebirds not only in fact and detail but in their beauty of action, in so far as words can accomplish it.
John Hay, in a review of "The Shorebirds of North America," in Natural History, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, January, 1968, p. 70.
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Peter Matthiessen's Sal Si Puedes ("Escape If You Can") documents … [a] list of horrors surrounding the migrant workers: abysmal living conditions, exposure to dangerous sprays, a 1967 average income of less than $1,500, housing codes specifically excluding laborers' camps (officials of the Farm Bureau Federation in Bakersfield, California, admitted to the Housing Authority that they deliberately created miserable living conditions for the migrants so they would leave immediately after the harvest was completed), violations of child-labor regulations (a skinny boy of ten is described struggling to lift a heavy box of grapes), exclusion from Social Security and Workmen's Compensation, filth and illness, an infant mortality rate 125 per cent higher than the national level.
Protesting such conditions, workers led by Cesar Chavez, himself a field laborer, struck the grape growers of California in 1965. The strike was greeted by violence. (p. 33)
"Most good Americans, like 'good Germans,'" Matthiessen says, "have managed to stay unaware of inhumanity in their own country [because] … misery refutes the American way of life." And he correctly sees the plight of the migrant worker as part of a multifaceted evil, "related to all of America's most serious afflictions: racism, poverty, environmental pollution, and urban crowding and decay—all of these compounded by the waste of war."
Yet the broad...
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[In Sal Si Puedes Peter Matthiessen] prefers the typewriter equivalent of the cinema verité, shoulder-held camera approach over the rehearsed, Mennen-deodorized, color-enhanced sound stage method…. As a consequence, Matthiessen records everything pretty much as it's happening and being said; and the reader is allowed to share in the surprise of experience with all its jostles, open-endedness and frequent lack of sequential progression. (It isn't until well into the book's second half that much is told of Chavez' childhood—Matthiessen waited for the recollections to surface from a more spontaneous stimulus than a writer's questioning).
The method left me feeling I had been there—walking with Chavez early one August morning along a highway at Delano's edge, eating matzohs and drinking Diet Cola at the end of the fast, picketing with Mexican-American and Filipino strikers (while Mrs. Zapata, a large woman, bellowed la causa's message to the laboring strikebreakers within the vineyard), even talking with furious but thoroughly human growers who believe the strikers are communists. Always, the shoulder-held camera—to which Matthiessen, despite his admiration for the strikers and their cause, refuses to attach ideologically selected filters. (p. 72)
James Forest, "Rendering to Cesar," in The Critic, Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, May-June, 1970, pp. 72-7....
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John Womack, Jr.
Of all the recent books on farm-workers, the truest is Peter Matthiessen's Sal Si Puedes. It was born in a deathly time, in the wretched summer of 1968, after the assassinations, the riots, and the mournful mud of Resurrection City, when Matthiessen journeyed to Delano to interview "one of the few public figures that I would go ten steps out of my way to meet." Courting disaster, he expected Chavez to "impress" him. If Chavez had, and Matthiessen had taken it, the book would have been only another exposé of one more fraud by one more exhibitionist. But on the quiet Sunday morning when he received Matthiessen at his house, walked with him to early Mass, and drove out to Forty Acres to sit and visit with him. Chavez was just himself—which "startled" Matthiessen. The result is this splendid and inspiring book.
It is not a biography, in style or purpose. Only at random Matthiessen concedes Chavez's past…. He does not even suggest why Chavez, hobnobbing with congressmen, hustling mayors and legislators, meeting in "the best motel in town," quit it all in 1962 to settle his wife and eight kids in Delano and start building from scratch without violence a movement that had always before failed, a farmworkers' union.
But Matthiessen does have the man Chavez has become as alive as he can be in print…. Because Chavez gave him the nerve to write in praise without idolatry or shame, Matthiessen gives others the nerve...
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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in 1979 as an introduction to Peter Matthiessen, A Bibliography: 1951–1979, compiled by D. Nichols.]
I read Partisans and Raditzer with the same careful eye that I had Race Rock; as talented and sensitive as each appeared to be, the statement of a writer at the outset of his career, they were, I felt, merely forerunners of something more ambitious, more complex and substantial—and I was right. When At Play in the Fields of the Lord was published in 1965 there was revealed in stunning outline the fully realized work of a novelist writing at white heat and at the peak of his powers; a dense, rich, musical book, filled with tragic and comic resonances, it is fiction of genuine stature, with a staying power that makes it as remarkable to read now as when it first appeared.
But before At Play was published Peter had to begin that wandering yet consecrated phase of his career which has taken him to every corner of the globe, and which, reflected in a remarkable series of chronicles, has placed him at the forefront of the naturalists of his time. (p. 251)
From what sprang this amazing obsession to plant one's feet upon the most exotic quarters of the earth, to traverse festering swamps and to scale the aching heights of implausible mountains? The wanderlust and feeling for adventure that is...
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Samuel Pickering, Jr.
In comparison to The Snow Leopard, which is marred by botanizing amid Eastern philosophy, Sand Rivers is straightforward. Although the elephant becomes a symbol, Matthiessen resists making it apocalyptic; it represents the primitive majesty of the natural, something that man has destroyed within himself and is rapidly destroying outside himself.
In many travel books the personality of the author is more important than the ostensible subject of the book…. Matthiessen is an ascetic. In attempting to return to the natural or unadorned purity, he has pared his character to the bare bones; and although the safari through the Selous Game Reserve is important for him because he journeys out of our age into a simpler, better time, it would have been more intriguing if Matthiessen were not a true believer. In general ascetics write dull travel books. Spiritual progresses are usually strippings—and after the world, the flesh, and the devil are torn away, little is left that is interesting. The best potential writer of a travel book is the man who indiscriminantly sucks the marrow out of life, not out of a bean pod like Thoreau. Instead of traveling to the heart of darkness to find the light he knows is there, he inhabits the shadows, civilizations between worlds in which contrasts and conflicts are strikingly apparent. The best travel book on Africa in recent years is Edward Hoagland's African Calliope, an account of...
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"Sand Rivers" is a strange, bittersweet, autumnal book based on a safari into the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, one of the last great wildernesses left on earth. Once again we have a clear triumph from Peter Matthiessen, who has delivered so many that I am reminded of D. H. Lawrence's insistence that the only true aristocracy on earth is that of consciousness. Whenever Mr. Matthiessen publishes a book, we learn what new lid of consciousness he has popped through. (p. 1)
On its surface, "Sand Rivers" is a record of a trek, a march back through time with the deeply disturbing resonance of the future hanging in the air like a death announcement. Mr. Matthiessen is guided by a white Kenyan, Brian Nicholson, the former warden of Selous…. Selous is a "reserve," not to be confused with such famous game parks as the Serengeti or Ngorongoro. There are no accommodations or conveniences for tourists in Selous, an area of some 22,000 square miles … The reserve has an estimated mammal population of 750,000 creatures, a density of animal life that renders all comparisons fatuous….
"Sand Rivers" moves from natural history to the novel to some sort of majestic fable. After providing considerable historical background … and describing a succession of base camps, Mr. Matthiessen narrates how he and Mr. Nicholson moved off on foot with a half-dozen bearers for a 10-day hike into a totally trackless area. They are a...
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Matthiessen was invited, in 1979, to join what the sponsor called "the last safari into the last wilderness," namely the Selous Game Preserve, largest remaining wild-life sanctuary on the continent, and to extend the hunt with a walk into territory untrodden by white men before, in the company of an ex-gamewarden, Brian Nicholson, and the eminent photographer, Baron Hugo von Lawick. As anyone who has read The Snow Leopard will recall, Matthiessen combines the exhaustive knowledge of the naturalist (he knows the names of everything—bird, bush and mammal!) with a poet's response to farout landscapes. Since the country into which he trekked on this occasion is in one of the new African republics, Tanzania, his book [Sand Rivers] has the twin appeal of a travelogue and a political footnote. Matthiessen confesses to being a sentimental American who would like to argue the cause of Africa for the black Africans. In view of the damaging evidence that accumulates before his eyes or in the reminders of Nicholson, who has spent a lifetime in British East Africa and lately fought a losing battle against native indifference or mismanagement, he does not insist on his thesis. (pp. 627-28)
Sand Rivers is not a political critique of contemporary Africa; it is among the journeys back which have distinguished the trek literature of a hundred years and more, from Mungo Park to Evelyn Waugh and Bruce Chatwin....
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[Matthiessen] has had considerable experience observing others hunt all sorts of beasts and fish. This is the first time he has observed manhunts, and there are moments in [In the Spirit of Crazy Horse] when I get the feeling that, though he follows the events with meticulousness and gusto, he almost wishes he were back dealing with more admirable predators, such as the lion in Kenya that snapped off a schoolgirl's head (Sand Rivers) or the shark that swam off with the bottom half of a Californian (Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark).
Those who have, through his books, accompanied Peter Matthiessen on his wide-ranging adventures know that he is a man of great courage, conscience, insight, sympathy, and tenderness. Those characteristics are seen again in In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. But unless I am badly misled by the internal evidence, there has also been a profound change in Matthiessen: he is losing confidence in mankind, and perhaps in himself. In Sal Si Puedes, his 1969 book about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, Matthiessen, after quoting a black migrant farm worker as predicting "the world gonna be great one day," adds that "Cesar Chavez shares this astonishing hope of an evolution in human values and I do too; it is the only hope we have." On the final page of that book, he predicts that sooner or later "the new citizens" who prefer freedom to conformism and fear will...
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In a letter of his own that he quotes in his latest nonfiction work, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," Peter Matthiessen describes the case he treats in this book as "one of the most complex and interesting trials of our time." That may possibly be true. Elsewhere, he compares it to the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. That too may very well be valid.
But from the point of view of a reader of "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," the case is not that interesting or momentous. Indeed it is one more in what seems to have been an endless string of similiar cases that we have been reading about ever since the 1960's. To my dismay, in the process of reading Mr. Matthiessen's work, I eventually grew bored.
One wishes it were not so. One does not like to be put in the position of yawning at murder, injustice, conspiracy and the railroading of innocent people. Moreover, there are important aspects to "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," In it, one of our better nature writers offers a grim but detailed portrait of contemporary Indian life on the reservations of South Dakota. In particular, we get the drama of the reviving warrior spirit in the formation of the troubled American Indian Movement (A.I.M.), led by such charismatic and controversial figures as Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier.
In long quoted passages, we get appalling autobiographies by people who have spent most of their brief lives in the...
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Alan M. Dershowitz
"In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," is really about contemporary America and the way American law is seen through the eyes of American Indians. It is not the tale of a particular tribe or geographically centered culture but rather of a political group spanning the entire spectrum of tribes and geography—the American Indian Movement, or AIM, as it has come to be known. Mr. Matthiessen focuses on the deadly confrontation between AIM and the F.B.I., and specifically on the execution-style murder of two F.B.I. agents at Ogala, S.D., on June 26, 1975, and the events that followed. (p. 26)
The issues of guilt and innocence—both in their technical legal sense and in their broader moral sense—are still vigorously disputed; they form the basis for much of Mr. Matthiessen's narrative. He is at his best when he discusses the complex and compelling moral issues. His theme is that the violence of the American Indian Movement cannot be understood, or judged, in a vacuum; it must be viewed against the suffering inflicted upon the forebears of AIM—and all Indians—over several centuries. But Mr. Matthiessen is at his worst when he becomes a polemicist for his journalistic clients. He is utterly unconvincing—indeed embarrassingly sophomoric—when he pleads the legal innocence of individual Indian criminals. And let there be no mistake: The American Indian Movement—like every militant fringe group—contains its share of violent criminals who...
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Even when Peter Matthiessen writes the text in a book full of photographs ("The Tree Where Man Was Born," with Eliot Porter's pictures of Africa) he goes for literature as well as information. This is both a strength and possible drawback in the 600 gray, unillustrated pages of "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."
Matthiessen's literary art pulls you along. There is the resonance with history, as he recalls the 19th-century massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee while describing the past decade's often violent events in the same Pine Ridge reservation area of South Dakota. There is the skilled interweaving of past and present individual voices to tell a story of treachery, corruption, and courage on and off the reservation, in and out of government. There is the distinctive presence of the author's own voice, letting admiration, indignation, and sarcasm glint through. The result: an eloquent recital of wrongs done to the Lakota people, along with latter-day efforts to right them, justice gone astray, and lands plundered for newly found mineral resources in defiance of bygone treaty obligations.
The possible drawback is that the very elements making for distinction may undercut the persuasiveness of the case Matthiessen offers. When he adds more and more to his rich investigative mixture, the clear thread of argument becomes slack. When he lets his mockery of government officials, however justified, edge his prose, there is...
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On a sultry morning in June 1975 two FBI agents assigned to the Pine Ridge Reservation near Rapid City, South Dakota, followed a station wagon onto Indian land somewhere between the little towns of Oglala and Pine Ridge, two traditional Lakota Sioux communities thought to be harboring American Indian Movement (AIM) agitators and generally hostile to outside law enforcement agencies…. [They] suddenly found themselves parked in a wood-lined field and fired upon from a nearby hill by an unspecified number of angry Indians….
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse revolves around [the murder of the two FBI agents], the ensuing manhunt, the trials of the three men eventually charged with the crimes, and the highly suspect conviction of one, AIM member Leonard Peltier, now serving two consecutive life terms for murder. Through meticulous examination of the evidence presented in court, extensive interviews with the accused, law enforcement agencies, defense lawyers, prosecuting attorneys, prison inmates, traditional Indian leaders, AIM organizers, and in profiles of everybody from the judges who presided over the trials to the witnesses who testified at them (or refused to testify), Peter Matthiessen tells a story that slowly clarifies what probably happened on that hot June morning some fifty miles southeast of Custer's last stand. If anyone beside the actual killer (or killers) can tell the literal truth about the final moments of Coler and...
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Wilcomb E. Washburn
Mix together the following ingredients: a threatened natural environment, endangered plants and animals, and Indians resisting change, and you have the formula for a story that will be bought by an American public quick to applaud those who fight against change when it is perceived as unjust or unnecessary.
Peter Matthiessen, a naturalist and journalist who has only recently (in his In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) moved from the natural environment to Indians, has in this book combined both. Indian Country is neither history nor social analysis. It consists of personal reminiscences by Matthiessen and his informants. His principal informant, Craig Carpenter, was, in the 1950s, "by his own account, a 'half-baked detribalized Mohawk from the Great Lakes country trying to find his way back to the real Indians.'" In the "spiritual" journeys the two take together, many other detribalized urban Indians, far from their original homes, appear in the guise of "traditional" Indians, usually as "spiritual advisers" to other detribalized Indians.
The pretensions of these Indians to represent the 500 Indian tribes, nations, bands and villages officially recognized by the United States as having governmental character have not been accepted by these governments. The white media, on the other hand, have uncritically treated the tiny handful of individual Indian activists as somehow representing the Indian point of view....
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For almost twenty years, Peter Matthiessen has pursued a vanishing world of wilderness and uninhabited spaces in which man is no more than a sparse, gentle guest. In a dozen books of fiction and naturalist reportage, Matthiessen has written about the Amazon jungle and the plains of eastern Africa; he has tramped across the Nepalese Himalayas, and climbed into the high jungle valleys of New Guinea. No one writes more vividly about the complex sounds and sights of a world without man, or where man blends in uncannily as merely another venture in nature's billion-year experiment.
Matthiessen's knowledge of the botanist's and zoologist's lore is encyclopedic. His descriptions of the African savannah or of the inner reaches of the Himalayas may be the best we have. In such remote places, his writing becomes a poetry of nomenclature in all its whimsy and barbarism, but also its curious splendor, as man casts his net of language upon the fluid rhythms of a world that ignores him, or would if man did not have a power of destruction which cannot be ignored….
Matthiessen the naturalist has also been an elegist, chronicling the decline of an older earth of sparse populations hunting and gathering, or planting according to modest needs, in a ritual of respect for the cycles of the year. It is a gentle picture, maybe a purely invented one, expressing as it does a powerful longing: the dream of a reconciled world.
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During the past eight years Peter Matthiessen has returned from his travels in Africa or Nepal to discover a hidden network of native American states of mind and places—his "Indian country." These are remote, impoverished, embattled enclaves within or on the borders of the official Indian reservations. There the representatives of what Matthiessen considers the true Indian way of life are still holding out—his "traditionals."… [The "traditionals"] are troublemaking idealists from Florida to California who refuse to abandon their old treaty rights, who dream of absolute tribal sovereignty, defiantly resist federal authorities and their own tribal governments, and equate their survival with that of the land they revere.
To Matthiessen these holdouts represent America's last hope as they stand up to the federal Indian bureaucracy, the law enforcement establishment, and the multinational energy consortiums that are poisoning their sacred lands. Matthiessen has no doubt that the white man's frontier crusade to obliterate Indian culture remains very much alive; he seems to regard this collection of magazine pieces as urgent dispatches from censored zones in an American cold war. He is to be commended for caring enough about these beleaguered corners of Indian America to search them out. Again and again he must outwait the suspicious scrutiny of his wary subjects. Through a mysterious string of inside contacts he manages to connect with...
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