Peter Matthiessen Matthiessen, Peter (Vol. 5) - Essay

Matthiessen, Peter (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Matthiessen, Peter 1927–

An American novelist, short story writer, and nature writer, Matthiessen successfully incorporates his knowledge and experience as a travel and nature writer into his fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

["Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark"] is a trove of shark lore, a suspenseful adventure yarn, and a decent man's account of the way other decent men behave toward one another when they are under great pressure….

Matthiessen is especially good at tracking down images fit to represent the sensation of diving….

Memorable too is Matthiessen's account of how the prey that hunted its hunters looked beneath the ocean's surface. (p. 92)

For Matthiessen,… the search was a fine adventure come to a fine conclusion…. And the place to look for the important things, as Matthiessen shows, is at the far edge of things, just beyond the reach of light, where the white shark comes from. (pp. 92-4)

Geoffrey Wolff, "Man-Eater in the Deep," in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 26, 1971, pp. 92-4.

Peter Matthiessen, who began as a fiction writer, has become through his travels and study of anthropology a walking book of knowledge. But his speculation about human prehistory [in The Tree Where Man Was Born] tends to clot his prose, leaving the reader behind. However, if one does not fuss over his technical terms and reads with a skipping eye, the firm truths are there: about the generalized Homo who used hand axes half a million years ago, about the early worship of cattle by the migrating people who subsisted on their milk and blood drawn from a vein, and of how when men of Asia brought wheat, barley, sheep, and goats to the Lower Nile, the desert expanded and the drought was advanced "by the goats which ate the thorns that had sewn tight the land that soon unraveled into sand." Much fateful history is packed into those few words.

Entwined with this curiosity about the dim past is Mr. Matthiessen's second and to me more engrossing theme: his observations of the natives, the landscape, the wildlife he encountered on his two expeditions to East Africa…. Matthiessen is a professional and his thumbnail sketches of those who helped him on his way … are a pleasing human thread. From them he gets the prescience of the natural forces, the hatreds, and the hunger which threaten to change what is. (pp. 125-26)

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1972.

["The Tree Where Man Was Born"] is the first nonfiction book on Africa with a surprise ending. Of course [Matthiessen] is not your ordinary long-haired itinerant. His first chapters are the quality journalism he, like Rebecca West or Norman Mailer, can do. He never sees just birds, but mousebirds and bee-eaters, never just antelope, but kongoni or gerenuks. His people are members of any of 50 tribes, painted authentically in place and time, always in a landscape.

It is a plethora of information in The New Yorker fashion—damn near more than we can stand. With him we feel like privileged, intelligent tourists. But he drives us and is driven, and the beautiful chit-chat goes on and on. We are almost lulled by this quietly frantic monologue and Eliot Porter's monumental color photographs into a coffee-table slump, fascinated and slightly irritated.

Throughout, the narration of his trip affirms the singleness of man and nature….

In spite of the delicate sensibility and tough willingness to risk and push on, there are no personalities and no real satisfaction….

His mind races along with his Land Rover, cutting swaths of information overkill in the great Serengeti plain. It is there, in Tanzania, where things begin to change, and it is hard to know how much of this change in Matthiessen's story is conscious and deliberate. In the Serengeti the theme of the vast spectacle of herds and carnivores is death—the "Rites of Passage," which seems to open a door.

Now officials, zoologists and guides begin to become people … [and] a barrier is clearly crossed.

South of the Serengeti are the remnants of a hunting-gathering people, the Hadza. Destined inevitably to be destroyed by distant politicians, they are … a happy, intelligent, dignified people in the moment before oblivion. Meeting them, Matthiessen smiles his first truly glad smile in 218 pages….

[They] represent what we have lost: not an innocence so much as a profound sophistication—nonwant, repose, communal society, attention to what is alive and good. Rushing down on them is the raging ideology of want and technomania, the spurious and degrading intoxication of nationalism. Much earlier it swept across Europe and North America. The hunters will at last come to the end of their million years of peace of the heart and ecological harmony, which began, perhaps, in the same country of the sacred baobab tree where Matthiessen ends his narration. (p. 31)

Paul Shepard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 26, 1972.

With gusto, Mr. Matthiessen draws us [in "Far Tortuga"] into the comical rude dialect of the turtlers, and, in the exquisite prose one has come to expect from his nature writing, sketches the ravaged but still awesome Caribbean. Portents appear: disrupting winds, unlucky currents, a trailing sharklike shape, a disappointing haul. The book skillfully grows in resonance, and we begin to relish the familiar echoes: the storm at sea, the captain's rages, the dumbstruck sailor lashed to the mast. We enjoy the clever way—with words grouped in blocks and squiggles of unconnected type—in which Mr. Matthiessen brings his tale to stark, insistent life. In the end, the exact significance of the book has to be surmised. Is it a parable of nature's vengeance? A postscript to pirates' crimes? A lesson on searching and illusion? In any case, it is a superb feat of storytelling. (pp. 118-19)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 19, 1975.

[Most] reviewers owe Peter Matthiessen reparation for the shabby, yawning condescension with which, ten years ago, they greeted his marvelous novel, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." I hope ["Far Tortuga"] will be more carefully read, for it seems to me a beautiful and original piece of work, a resonant, symbolical story of nine doomed men who dream of an earthly paradise as the world winds down around them. (p. 85)

To convey [his] haunting story Matthiessen has invented a structure made from the sparest descriptions of time, weather and place—"Midafternoon. The tide still falling. A mosquito whines"—and blocks of dialogue unencumbered by attribution to specific characters; we come to learn from the dialogue itself who is speaking. The rhythms of these sailors' speech are both colloquial and formal: Matthiessen reproduces the West Indian dialect exactly but often allows the words to fall into lines of about fifteen unstressed syllables—the result is not poetry, but not far from it, either. Then, as if to slow our progress through his narrative, or emphasize its reverberations, Matthiessen introduces unequal amounts of white space between paragraphs and sections of his story.

The effect is rather like that of a film script, or of a surreal painting: a sharply realistic story that is precise, even informative about details, and yet one in which the figures we observe point symbolically and metaphorically beyond themselves. In sum, this is a moving, impressive book, a difficult yet successful undertaking. I haven't read anything of similar stature for a long time. (p. 86)

Peter S. Prescott, "The Last Turtles," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1975, pp. 85-6.

From its opening moment, with daybreak over the Windward Passage, the reader [of "Far Tortuga"] senses that the narrative itself is the recapitulation of a cosmic process, as though the author has sought to link his storytelling with the eye of creation.

Sea stories are usually existentialist fables; "Far Tortuga" is not—and the fact that it is not creates a certain imbalance in its structure. The insights here are sublime, but they are not within the humanistic scale. In a way there is only a single insight, the unity of things beneath an ever-changing multiplicity of forms. Matthiessen's characters are very much the carefully individuated, positivistic creatures of traditional good fiction, outfitted with speeches, histories, destinies. Their alienation from and ignorance of the essential unity of which they are a part is common to most people and "true to life," but now and then—as in the case of the psychic, Wodie—they are a little too obviously exotic constructs, a touch too predictable, a shade too close to registering as literary "originals" to serve the book's informing vision.

Yet they are effective characters, the reader becomes thoroughly involved in their fate, and the book works well even on what I take to be its secondary levels. "Far Tortuga" is an important book, its pleasures are many and good for the soul. Peter Matthiessen is a unique and masterful visionary artist. (p. 2)

Robert Stone, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1975.

Literary sea voyages often carry a heavy ballast of allegory. The potential, after all, is readymade; it requires no great leap of imagination to see a ship as a tiny world adrift in eternity. Far Tortuga shuns such metaphysics in favor of hard surfaces. Avers is no Captain Ahab, nor is the Eden a ship of fools. The captain and his crew simply make up an exotic collection of drifters, drunks, petty criminals and indefatigable optimists, worth knowing, this novel implies, for their own sakes….

To prove this point, Matthiessen writes the novel (his fifth) as if he were on board the Eden and living on short rations. Every fictional resource is jettisoned except snippets of descriptive prose and huge chunks of West Indian pidgin dialect…. He does not even allow himself access to his characters' thoughts. As far as this novel is concerned, they are what they say.

Far Tortuga therefore sets sail with a babel of unattributed dialogue swimming in blinding expanses of white space. Pages go by bearing single words: "Polaris," "horizon." Taken singly, these pages seem too easy, too close to the work of lazy poets who write a word like "loneliness" in the middle of a blank piece of paper and call it an insight.

But soon a wind starts to whistle somewhere behind those empty spaces. The rhythmic monotony on board ship ("Will relieves Buddy, Byrum relieves Will, Wodie relieves Byrum") is broken by staccato quarrels and spurts of activity when the turtles are hauled in. The crew members emerge from anonymity as their speech patterns and private obsessions are repeated. The dialects begin to tease the ear with unheard melodies. Descriptive passages, when they occur, achieve a haunting beauty: "Where the bonita chop the surface, the minnows spray into the air in silver showers, all across the sunlit coral."

Matthiessen is a noted explorer and naturalist as well as a novelist. Back in 1967, he sailed on a turtle boat out of Grand Cayman. As thoroughly as possible with words on paper, he has duplicated that experience, creating along the way an uncommonly successful mixture of fact and fiction. Far Tortuga is a treatise on turtling, an account of the dying days of sailing ships on unspoiled waters, and a history of a locale that winter tourists tripping through the Caribbean rarely see. Most memorably, it is a spare adventure tale about simple men driven to the extremities of pain and death by ignorance, greed, weakness and inexplicable fate.

Paul Gray, "Sea Changes," in Time (reprinted by permission of Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 26, 1975, p. 80.

In his undergraduate short stories,… through his expeditions to the Amazon, the Sudan, New Guinea, and more essentially, in his seafaring as a commercial fisherman and his adventures searching for the great white shark, Peter Matthiessen has lived with the potential that at some time he would write an exceptional novel. This is it. In its impressionistic form, with its humor, its melody, and its drama, Far Tortuga is a sea story the like of which I have not read since Lord Jim. (p. 92)

Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), June, 1975.

In his new novel, Far Tortuga…, Peter Matthiessen recounts the catastrophic last voyage of a decayed Grand Cayman schooner, the Eden, fishing for green turtle off the Nicaraguan coast….

Far Tortuga is … full of unfortunate typographical experiments. Many of the pages are literally agape with blank white space that I suppose is meant to symbolize the blind infinity of the sea. On one page some unevocative phrases ("trade wind, rain glitter, wind, sun, wind," etc.) are arranged in the shape of a ship's mast; another contains a single word, "horizon," with a wavering line below. When, at the disastrous climax, the ship strikes an unexpected rock off Far Tortuga, a cay not found on any chart and most likely "a mere dream and legend of the turtle men," the page reads in its entirety "THE SHIP STRIKES."

Where did the rock come from? It was put there, of course, for the symbolizing convenience of Peter Matthiessen, whose prose has been holding its breath until terrible mortality could take its mythical toll. But so accidental is the rock's appearance that the destruction of the Eden and its crew seems wholly factitious rather than tragic. Though Far Tortuga has been deliriously praised by such early readers as James Dickey and Eleanor Clark, in my mind it has already turned into 408 pages bereft of any words or deeds or moral I want to remember…. (p. 18)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), June 9, 1975.