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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...
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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.)
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[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 wiped a fleck of his laughter from her cheek."… The novel arouses curiosity; I want to find out. But in the end, for lack of sympathy, I am left with the bleak question, "So what?"
Edward Weeks, in a review of "Race Rock," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 193, No. 6, June, 1954, p. 74.
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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 expatriates in a Left Bank café.
The characters seem only mouthpieces. They are not empowered by depth of dramatic conviction—or confusion. They do, however, impress one with this young author's thoughtful attempt to find answers to ancient and serious questions—though here he has only chased them around Paris. One doubts the motivations—or is not convinced or driven by them as Sand is; and so the novel lacks the novelist's authentic magic, it lacks voice. What it ends up being is a temporally chopped-up, sometimes brightly written but more often sluggishly constructed, discursive and youthful treatment of a theme that does not rise into the area of ultimate realities and permanent truths as Mr. Matthiessen intended it to.
William Goyen, "Underground Quest," in The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1955, p. 4.
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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 applied ecology, and the "basic principles" of ecology are not by any means all understood; and anyway, back of them the conservationist is facing the inexorable fecundity of the human race—the most basic factor of all.
Mr. Matthiessen, however, must not be heckled about these things. He is arguing for stop-gap conservation, at the level of saving species from extinction. He is explaining why massive help is needed in this, and he does it without ranting or vaporizing, telling the story as the poignant tale it is, and sad, puzzling dilemma that we must solve at once or have on our conscience forever. If his book is as widely read as it deserves to be, our descendants may be much in debt to Peter Matthiessen.
Archie Carr, "The Need to Let Live," in The New York Times Books Review, November 22, 1959, p. 38.
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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 … punishment. The greater interest in such a case as Raditzer, however, does not rest with any standard or complex Freudian equation explaining him, but lies in the emotional Rorschach he evokes in others. That is to say, shall we kill him?
Close readers will follow an excellent and updated Christ story in Raditzer, though this is not to suggest that the tale be limited to allegory, any more than should, say Miss Lonelyhearts…. [The] novel's best reading, certainly, is not as allegory, but as character portrayal—the familiar face, that strange and furtive face seen somewhere long ago beneath brief lamplight … in the army barracks, a subway toilet, the last row of a Times Square movie … a rare bird and a very ugly one. But then is it really ugly after all? Perhaps what we sometimes see as "ugly"—in nature, in life, in the human condition—is but the unhappily twisted reflection of a much closer source.
Finally, of course, the book, like all good things alas, is not without fault. There is a great deal in it that is forced, especially at the beginning; much of the dialogue is wooden; the peripheral characters seem unduly dull and inconsequential, though perhaps here all must pale alongside the real-life stench of the hero; and lastly, the book is almost totally lacking in outward drama and suspense. This last fault is a serious one for a book of its format. It is well enough for coarse works of yesteryear's colors to pound along, fat and tardy, but novels of contemporary form should enjoy, above all, sharpness of pace and event. However, one must not cavil; wine, salad and cheese are not essential, surely, to the starving faced with a two-pound T-bone. (pp. 170-71)
Terry Southern, "Christ Seen Darkly," in The Nation, Vol. 192, No. 8, February 25, 1961, pp. 170-71.
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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. But nowhere in "The Cloud Forest" did I come across a false note, or find occasion to raise my eyebrows at the reactions of a gringo tourist. (p. 3)
Marston Bates, "Fortune Smiled on the Traveler in a Unmapped Part of the Earth," in The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1961, pp. 3, 30.
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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 articulate observer can focus upon scenes so remote from the ordinary, and so barbaric.
The Kurelu with their constant tribal quarrels, their economic concentration upon pigs, their dark feuds in which women and little children are regarded as fair game, are, at first glance, an unlovely and callous lot. (p. 3)
[Matthiessen] observes the untamed power of the warlike, the men-killers, the women-stealers, who are a potential source of trouble and the evokers of wars and feuds. But he also points out other types among the Kurelu: Weneluke, a sensitive, gentle boy who likes to sketch pictures on rock surfaces; Weake, the innocent child cut down in ambush; the wise, the good, the violent.
Now what Matthiessen has described in beautiful and poignant writing is the way of savages—savages without history, who fight with spears over stolen pigs and women—savages who must perpetually guard their lands and working women from watch towers lest enemies fall upon them unaware. Here, however, is where a dark, unspoken thought seizes upon our minds. Here is the source of that powerful observation which Matthiessen does not mention, but which lies hidden in his book: these people are another proof that all mankind is the same. They live in huts, not skyscrapers. Their weapons are bows and spears; nevertheless they are ourselves in miniature.
The gentle who would stay at peace are badgered and abused by the warlike; sly chieftains manipulate for power. Boundaries waver with the will and strength of men to hold them. Always men go armed. Always the most peaceful wayfarer, whether man, woman or child, realizes that around the next bend in the trail a spear may be driven through his body. Still the gentle speak in quiet voices; the artist draws with his charcoal sticks, not for magic but for joy.
In those great tribes that constitute modern nations, many complications have arisen, but still the aggressive and powerful threaten and contend, brandishing unheard-of weapons across the breadth of seas; still the quiet go in fear of the violent, and women and children are afraid in the night. Our ways change but slowly if at all. (p. 64)
Loren Eiseley, "Miniatures of Ourselves," in The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1962, pp. 3, 64.
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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 too much, through and around his characters; though some are memorable (particularly one missionary wife from North Dakota, who rises to grace in madness), each has his turn at being controlled by strings. The descriptive writing is lyrical and authoritative….
The intent is there, and the tools. But the magic or whatever it is that transfers caring from author to reader, that makes possible and sustains involvement, is not. Its absence, one very much regrets to say, is fatal.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Once More, the Noble Savage," in The New York Times, November 8, 1965, p. 33.
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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 adventurers, both physical and spiritual, are the elements of the plot, and his plotting is serious, responsible, and so engaging that it is likely most readers will not, need not, be aware in their excitement of how skillful and even ingenious this plotting is. In the first place, the characters assembled here are no accidental or coincidental group, no mere transitory names on a hotel register or a passenger list, come together by chance with their separate fates. Each of them has his own complicated necessity for the push through the jungle to the Niaruna tribe. Their relations with one another, also, are necessary. Their confrontations, quarrels, fights, loves, are each of them necessary stages in the plot. The perils, as I have indicated, are vivid and violent and frequent; but no single adventure seems to be there just for the adventure, for the sake of the thrill, nor because, if the danger is there, our tour must be exposed to it. The events grow out of one another, accumulating in intensity, until in the end every item of character has revealed itself in action, every gun that was hanging on the wall has been proven in discharge to have been no mere ornament, and the basic predicaments of the novel's opening have proven themselves, in their long and complex working out, to have been the true omens of fate, necessity, and action.
Two antagonists compete for the Niaruna, each wanting to save them. One is a soldier of fortune, totally disenchanted and self-debauched, but because he is, of all things, a college-educated American Indian, he is determined first of all to find some "real" Indians, and then, finding them, he is determined to lead them in what might well be a successful military defense of their territory. The other is a missionary, one of an American group determined to save the Indians' souls for Christ. The soldier of fortune, of necessity, becomes a god; the missionary, of necessity, loses his faith and becomes the tool of secular interests. And between them, in their exchanged roles, they destroy the tribe they have so spectacularly risked their lives to save.
To the reader, however, these designs of the plot are not forced in their unfolding. The book remains to the end an adventure story, with the scale and intensity of the action constantly augmenting. This is a considerable achievement. If, having finished this novel, you were to turn back to the beginning and read again a chapter or two, you would see how all this was brought about. The machinery, of course, is there. But it functions always as a related series of elements in a story. And this, I suppose, is what is meant by that phrase, a good old-fashioned novel….
The characters are readily visualized, and always instantly recognizable as they come and go. In a long novel with a dozen or more leading parts, this is no small virtue; an old-fashioned virtue, perhaps, but a genuine one. Sometimes, for all their exotic traits, it seems we recognize them a bit too readily, as though they were type-cast. And we learn probably too much about them, the author has supplied rather more background for each of them than we really require, as he has supplied, in many scenes, a bit more information than necessary. He tells us more than anyone in the scene knows, more than he should know, more than we need to know. These somewhat too-well-known characters, together with one other familiar element, give even to the endless invention and excitement of all the things that happen, to the surprises and reversals of the plot, a very faint aroma of the familiar. Again, it is a good-old-fashioned adventure story.
The other and final familiarity is that of the theme, which is the inevitable destruction of what is innocent and primitive by those who believe, or pretend to believe, that they are out to save it. (p. 20)
John Thompson, "Matthiessen and Updike," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 19, December 23, 1965, pp. 20-1.∗
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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 not worth documenting in detail, but the warning should still be made. The book, fortunately, is abundantly documented, and the author's opinions (not always sound) clearly labeled as such.
Although he has obviously watched many shorebirds in many places (whose names he tends to drop), the author is not as thoroughly familiar with shorebirds in the field as is many a competent amateur, a fact he reveals in various small but telling ways. No alert veteran, for instance, could ever state that the northern phalarope (one of the most diminutive of shorebirds and the size of a house sparrow) is not "much larger than a robin."
As to Mr. Matthiessen's literary art, I have already said that at his best he is good. Opinions would certainly vary but I find his best too rare. In striving for constantly high-pitched effect he strains, becoming more preoccupied with words for their own sake than for their relevance and meaning; a profusion of idiotic combinations, scrambled metaphors and impenetrable meanings result. In this general vein, he coins the pretty and allegorically useful term "wind birds" for shorebirds (itself a pretty and allegorically useful term of long currency). Having coined it, he proceeds to beat it to death, and it can only be silly in his long discourses on reproductive biology, evolutionary history, behavioral adaptations, etc. And I absolutely balk at the description of an oyster as a "dour opponent."
Nevertheless, too few scientists can write better, or trouble themselves to, and Mr. Matthiessen, criticisms notwithstanding, has performed a distinct service in popularizing some important matters.
Robert M. Mengel. "Haunting the World's Great Empty, Open Places," in Book World—Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1967, p. 5.
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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 scope of Matthiessen's intentions is marred by a staggering insistence on comprehensiveness, and also by his awe of Chavez.
On the first count, his document becomes so tangled in a labyrinth of labor-union details that the drama of the strike itself is sometimes all but lost. Brilliant descriptive flashes, dramatically built confrontations (the excitement of the picket line, with strikers challenging scabs to cross over) indicate what the book might have been.
Matthiessen's admiration for Chavez is boundless. He sees him as the one who, "of all leaders now in sight, best represents the rising generations." That is not so. Mystical, ascetic, dedicated, Chavez is unquestionably a giant figure in the emergence of la raza, much as Martin Luther King is for the blacks. But he is not yet a saint, and Matthiessen seems to attempt his canonization. (pp. 33-4)
[The young militant Chicanos] await the fierce warning from a Chicano James Baldwin and search for their own Malcolm X, their own Eldridge Cleaver. They know that a nonviolent man like Chavez lives under the constant threat of assassination in a lunatic state.
Despite its honest outrage, Matthiessen's book has too much of the sweet, lovely, idealistic, decent wistfulness of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream." The dream has turned into a nightmare. (p. 34)
John Rechy, "No Mañanas for Today's Chicanos," in Saturday Review, Vol. LIII, No. 11, March 14, 1970, pp. 31-4.∗
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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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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 to believe that "warmth and intelligence and courage, even in combination, did not account for what I felt at the end of the four-hour walk on that first Sunday morning…. What welled out of him was a phenomenon much spoken of in a society afraid of its own hate, but one that I had never seen before—or not, at least, in anyone unswayed by drugs or aching youth; the simple love of man that accompanies some ultimate acceptance of self." (p. 16)
John Womack, Jr., "The Chicanos," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XIX, No. 3, August 31, 1972, pp. 12-18.∗
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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 in many men, I suppose, but mercifully Peter has been more than a mere adventurer: he is a poet and a scientist, and the mingling of these two personae has given us such carefully observed, unsentimental, yet lyrically echoing works as The Cloud Forest, Under the Mountain Wall, The Tree Where Man Was Born and The Snow Leopard. In the books themselves the reader will find at least part of the answer to the reason for Peter's quest. In these books, with their infusion of the ecological and the anthropological, with their unshrinking vision of man in mysterious and uneasy interplay with nature—books at once descriptive and analytical, scrupulous and vivid in detail, sometimes amusing, often meditative and mystical—Peter Matthiessen has created a unique body of work. It is the work of a man in ecstatic contemplation of our beautiful and inexplicable planet. To this body of natural history, add a novel like At Play in the Fields of the Lord and that brooding, briny, stormswept tone poem, Far Tortuga, and we behold a writer of phenomenal scope and versatility. (pp. 251-52)
William Styron, "Portraits and Farewells: Peter Matthiessen," in his This Quiet Dust and Other Writings, Random House, 1982, pp. 249-52.
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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 three months Hoagland spent in the Sudan in 1977. Because he lacks Matthiessen's commitment, Hoagland's vision is not clouded by belief, and his celebration of life in the Sudan with all its horrors and blessings is fascinating.
Matthiessen travels into the Selous Reserve with a former warden Brian Nicholson whom Matthiessen describes in detail and with whom he frequently disagrees. Because Nicholson does not allow Matthiessen to indulge in sentimental primitivism at the start of the safari, there is some conflict. Predictably, however, the dangers of the journey bring warden and writer close together. Days in the bush scratch away the crust which the warden affects in civilization, and eventually he is revealed as a disappointed idealist with a heart as soft as Matthiessen's. Matthiessen tells many good stories about Nicholson, and although he quarrels with Nicholson, he likes and admires him. Nicholson has lived that life beyond convention that Matthiessen envies. (pp. 886-87)
Matthiessen is far better than the common run of writers, and Sand Rivers is a good book. It is filled with entertaining anecdotes; the descriptions of animals are well done, and Matthiessen is probably on the side of the angels in his wish to preserve the Selous Reserve from man's rapacity and the incompetence of the Tanzanian Game Department. Sand Rivers, however, is not extraordinary…. (p. 887)
Samuel Pickering, Jr., "At the Beginning and the End of the Earth," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Winter, 1981, pp. 883-88.∗
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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 motley group, with Mr. Matthiessen and Mr. Nicholson diametrically opposed on every issue on earth except the survival of this wilderness. Brian Nicholson is the sort of man who makes the most battle-scarred warriors of the movies (say John Wayne) seem like self-indulgent whiners. Mr. Nicholson's racist politics are not attractive, but it has been largely through his efforts that the Selous persists into the present. Part of the fascination and charm of the book is a result of the tensions between the two men….
I underlined nearly a third of the book as quotable: the prose has a glistening, sculpted character to it, especially in the last half….
Finally, as with most of Mr. Matthiessen's work, the sense of beauty and mystery is indelible; not that you retain the specific information on natural history, but that you have had your brain, and perhaps the soul, prodded, urged, moved into a new dimension. (p. 26)
Jim Harrison, "Voice of the Wilderness," in The New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1981, pp. 1, 26.
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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. Yet the political implications which, we gather, Matthiessen and Nicholson not infrequently raised on their long walk, are unavoidable, since the copious animal and bird life which Matthiessen is rehearsing is more than ever before dependent for its survival on human administration, and administration is nothing less than imagination translating the desirable into the operative. Nicholson would like to place his confidence in the occasional Tanzania Game Department official appointed by socialist management who has not been brainwashed to obstruct as a matter of course the "European" experience, but he fears there are not enough of them…. Hence, Matthiessen's narrative, told in the wide-awake terms of a teeming, continuous present, can be read as an elegy for tomorrow, an impression enforced by the autumnal tone of Hugo von Lawick's marvellous pictures, as if the menace as well as the beauty had been photographed just before the last sunset seen by mankind.
Matthiessen,… perhaps feeling that he'll never get another chance to name everything as he sees it, tends to load his paragraphs with more rare birds and insects than any but a specialized reader can identify. When he pauses to relate one marvel to another and senses the particular merging into the general, his command of color, sound and substance conjures the resonance of the vast continental space. "Big pink-and-lavender grasshoppers rise and sail away on the hot wind, the burning of their flight as dry and scratchy as the long grass and the baked black rock, the hard red lateritic earth, the crust of Africa." He is wonderful when recreating the alternate silence and clatter of an African night, and uncommon, I think, in any gathering of prose landscape writing is his talent for actualizing the sounds of wild life: "The early morning sound of a ground hornbill, the remote dim hooting of a woodland spirit, poo-too, po-to"; the "trilling" of a tiny scrops owl; the "high, eerie giggling" of hyenas; the "nasal, puffing snort" emitted by kangoni; the "peculiar, sneezing bark" made by the impala; the "ominous chinking" of a tinker bird; the "squalling and explosive chack" of four boubous chasing through a bush; the "harsh racket" of a roller; the "deep, tearing coughs of a restless leopard," and "the see-saw creaking of the coqui francolin."
As one would expect, he records … the perpetual co-habitation of life and death, glimpsed at any hour within the same frame…. (pp. 628-29)
All this … takes on a more haunted interest for the reader who is aware that this region of Africa—comprising Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti plain, the slave routes to Zanzibar, the sources of the Nile—is alive with associations of past encounters. It was within this area that Speke, in 1861, arrived at the unspeakable kingdom of Buganda (today's Uganda) with its pervert ruler, Mutesa, who buried living wives with their beheaded husbands; where Henry Morton Stanley caught up with Dr. Livingston and, later, travelling north on what he thought was the Nile, found that he was on the Congo. And it is within this quadrangle of territory that a recent school of anthropologists has alleged to have located the home of our immediate ancestor—the killer ape. (p. 630)
Vernon Young, "Africa Addio," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1981–82, pp. 625-30.∗
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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 "win, for the same reason that other new Americans won, two centuries ago, because time and history are on their side, and passion." But fourteen years later, in this, his first "social issues" book since Sal Si Puedes, there is no such note of hope, no assurance that mankind will outgrow its orneriness. (p. 115)
Maybe I read too much hopelessness into Crazy Horse. But I am fairly certain of one thing, and I think it relates to his depression: Matthiessen has lost, for the moment at least, his touch of poetry. At its best, Matthiessen's prose is so right that it becomes more than prose, as when he tells us of the song of the whales in Blue Meridian, those marvelous oinks, squeaks, grunts, and whistles, "tuned by the ages to a purity beyond refining, a sound that man should hear each morning to remind him of the morning of the world"; or recalls his meeting with the sharks in "a nether world of openmouthed dead staring forms that moved in slow predestined circles"; or paints that primordial scene, in Sand Rivers, of "spleen-yellow" crocodiles feasting on a rotting hippopotamus, "swollen a pale purple, that was stranded like a huge rubber toy on a hidden bar out in mid-river." Death and violence have often inspired him before; victims have stirred him to some of his finest writing. But not here. Here there is only prose hardened by unhappiness with a mean system that defies reform. In this respect, I guess, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is a perfect book for our times. (p. 116)
Robert Sherrill, "A Warrior's Legacy," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 251, No. 3, March, 1983, pp. 112, 114-16.
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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 precincts of despair and madness. We are offered a series of closeup views of events that were at best distantly perceived through the media at the time they occurred….
Most disturbing and controversial of all, Mr. Matthiessen has composed his history so as to reveal how the latest tensions between the United States Government and its native residents are simply further episodes in a chain of events that go right back to such deplorable 19th-century disasters as the reciprocal massacres at the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. Needless to add, the Indians in this version are not presented in the erstwhile cliché of pitiless savages but rather as a people provoked to violence by nothing less than the need for its race to survive.
Still, the case on which the whole narrative hinges does not seem all that interesting. So Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation were attacked by members of the F.B.I., according to Mr. Matthiessen, and two agents were killed. So, he maintains, the F.B.I. fabricated evidence to discredit A.I.M. instead of going after the actual perpetrators. So, he concludes, the real villains behind the latest Indian wars are the corporate interests that want the Indians' mineral and uranium rights and are even willing to pay the price of polluting and poisoning the Western reservations. So what else is new?
Aside from being rather too familiar, Mr. Matthiessen's story is so black and white in its portraits of the good guys and the bad guys that, perversely, one finds oneself dreaming up possible excuses for the bad guys. Could a case possibly be made for the right of the many to prevail over the few in the quest for an energy source independent of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries? Might the persecutors of those Indians who want to return to their native ways be sensing deep in their genes a need for more uniform cultures in the future—a melting pot whose contents will actually melt?
Such speculation is probably nonsense. Perhaps it is mere greed for material profit that lies behind the land-grab conspiracy that Mr. Matthiessen decries. Perhaps it is hatred provoked by deep guilt that accounts for our alleged persecution of American Indians.
But however we account for it all, we have certainly run into it before, with its talk of genocide and colonialism and third world consciousness. It's too bad, because the book makes a persuasive case (as a result of the Freedom of Information Act) that Leonard Peltier may well deserve a new trial following his conviction on two counts of murder in the first degree for the slayings of the two F.B.I. agents. And attention should certainly be paid to the injustices Mr. Matthiessen has tried to document. But because he seems to have lost his perspective and gone on far too long about people and events that don't in his treatment seem to deserve the attention, the reader—this reader, anyway—ultimately loses his capacity for outrage.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "The Troubled Indians," in The New York Times, March 5, 1983, p. 17.
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"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 seek to glorify their predatory acts under the flag of the movement. A history of discrimination may explain and, in extreme cases, perhaps even excuse criminality. But it can rarely justify it, especially against innocent victims.
The two executed F.B.I. agents were gunned down at close range. They were disarmed, helpless and probably begging for their lives. There were no eyewitnesses, or at least none who would testify, to who murdered them. But considerable circumstantial evidence pointed toward Leonard Peltier, one of the most militant AIM leaders. There can be little doubt that the F.B.I. was out to get Mr. Peltier. Nor can there be any doubt that the F.B.I. desperately wanted to bring to justice the murderers of its agents. The real question—and the one that Mr. Matthiessen answers in the affirmative—is whether the F.B.I. framed Mr. Peltier for killings he may not have committed.
On this issue, Mr. Matthiessen not only fails to convince; he inadvertently makes a strong case for Mr. Peltier's guilt. Invoking the clichés of the radical left, Mr. Matthiessen takes at face value nearly every conspiratorial claim of the movement, no matter how unfounded or preposterous. Every car crash, every unexplained death, every unrelated arrest fits into the seamless web of deceit he seems to feel was woven by the F.B.I. and its cohorts.
This is not to dispute all of AIM's complaints against the F.B.I. Some—such as infiltration of the movement for purposes of engendering internal distrust and dissension—carry indications of credibility. These tactics, indefensible though they are, have been commonly used by the F.B.I. against radical groups of all political persuasions. But other allegations, such as systematic beatings and "contracts" on the lives of AIM leaders, do not seem credible. Mr. Matthiessen surely provides no proof beyond the self-serving claims of the alleged victims and their partisan lawyers. As I was reading Mr. Matthiessen's "legal brief," I found myself wanting to shout at this good-hearted naif, "Don't you know that's the kind of nonsense every convicted murderer tries to get you to believe; I get dozens of these letters every week." But Mr. Matthiessen seems to have been taken in and to have left most of his otherwise excellent critical faculties at home when he interviewed Mr. Peltier and his followers.
Though the book purports at times to present an objective appraisal, Mr. Matthiessen finally acknowledges—near the end—that his "account of the Peltier case argued the position of traditional Indians and their allies in the American Indian Movmement." And at the very close of the book, he describes how "I told Leonard I believed [that he hadn't killed the agents], and I did, and I do." And I wonder. Why does Mr. Matthiessen go out of his way so frequently to make disclaimers such as "my personal opinion of his guilt or innocence [is] of no importance"? And why does he quote one of the AIM lawyers as saying: "I know Bill Kunstler [another of the AIM lawyers] thought they killed the agents, but he believes that they were innocent whether they did it or not"?
In the end, Mr. Matthiessen tries to have it both ways. He says that "from the Indian's viewpoint—and increasingly from my own—any talk of innocence or guilt was beside the point." But he insists nonetheless that the evidence "made it plain that Peltier had been railroaded into jail."
"In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," documents the imperfection of the American legal system, especially when it is mustered against a political group—even one as violent as the American Indian Movement. It is also a tragic account of the self-destructive quality of many of the self-appointed leaders of that movement. Drawn from among the most vocal, the most violent and the most radical native Americans, many of these leaders exploited their newly discovered heritage for their own personal ends. Some have ended where they belong—in jail. Other have simply drifted away. What remains are thousands of poverty-stricken Indians, first driven by years of neglect to accept false prophets of violence and then shorn even of that ineffective leadership.
The tragedy of Mr. Matthiessen's book is that he fails to understand that his heroes—the radicals of AIM—did not act in the selfless spirit of Chief Crazy Horse, that noble 19th-century leader of Indian resistance. They acted more in the violent spirit of Custer. By doing so, they helped to destroy the dream and hopes of American Indians. (pp. 26-7)
Alan M. Dershowitz, "Agents and Indians," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1983, pp. 1, 26-7.
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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 the danger of indictment being taken for polemic, of assent from the already convinced turning to doubt from readers on the fence.
The likelihood is that unadorned facts would carry the day anyway….
For all the exploration of recent controversy, perhaps the prime contribution of "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" for the reader is its immersion in Lakota life and lore. Here is an author who does not overlook anybody's human failings but who conveys with respect a sense of the achievements, setbacks and spiritual yearnings of people in conditions "almost unimaginable to most Americans."
Roderick Nordell, "Elegant Recitals of Wrongs to Lakota People and Efforts to Right Them," in The Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 1983, p. 17.
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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 Williams, he (or she) has not yet done so.
For the larger issues raised by the book, however, the literal truth hardly matters. The detective story makes absorbing reading, as good as any investigative reporting ever gets, but it is there primarily as a thread on which to hang an inquiry that goes far beyond the murder of two unfortunate men who, through ignorance or arrogance, bad judgment or professional zeal, put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The questions that concern Matthiessen are what created the climate in the first place in which such brutal violence could occur, and why was the federal government so "enthusiastic" in its investigation of the "ResMurs" (Reservation Murders)—an investigation which Arthur Flemming, chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, was moved to call in a letter of protest to the US attorney general "an over-reaction which takes on aspects of a vendetta." And why, in light of subsequent disclosures of FBI tactics that one appeals court judge called a "clear abuse of the investigative process," and in light of "eyewitness" testimony against Peltier by an alcoholic incompetent who was later shown to be fifty miles from the scene of the crimes, and in light of courtroom proceedings in which critical information was withheld from the jury during their deliberations, was Leonard Peltier extradicted from Canada, tried, found guilty, imprisoned, and denied (as yet) retrial?…
The chronicle of our nation's sorry relationship with the Indian is important background for Matthiessen's book, but perhaps because it is not exactly news he devotes only a short section to historical recapitulation, focusing his attention instead on a period of activism that begins with a "Declaration of Indian Purpose" at a conference of sixty-seven tribes in Chicago in June 1961 and ends with the death of the FBI agents at Pine Ridge in June 1975. During this period a number of confrontations took place that exacerbated the suspicion and distrust with which Indians regard whites. These came at a time of reemerging ethnic pride among young red men and women who had begun remythologizing ancestral leaders like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, and who had begun to take a few of their cues from militant blacks and Chicanos. Suspicion and distrust coupled with anger and pride—a volatile combination. (p. 21)
The psychological climate in which the FBI agents were killed is clearly not the result of simple Indian paranoia. They had good reason to be frightened of armed lawmen. But Matthiessen makes no attempt to excuse murder on the grounds it was provoked. [The FBI agents], he acknowledges, were not just killed in a fire fight; they were coldly executed, and he makes no case for mitigating responsibility for that act. Nor did any of the men indicted for the killings deny that they, along with more than a dozen other Indians, took part in a shoot-out with the FBI agents. They claimed they acted in self-defense. One of the Indians was killed.
At the same time Matthiessen cannot ignore a disturbing question: why did the death of two white men inspire "the biggest manhunt in FBI history" …? (p. 23)
In truth, nobody knows who killed Agents Coler and Williams either, though that did not prevent Leonard Peltier from going to prison for their murder. Maybe Peltier did pull the trigger. Or maybe he was railroaded by a Justice Department so eager to revenge two of their own that they wanted to hang any Pine Ridge Indian they could get their hands on. By Matthiessen's account, there is good reason to think so. (p. 24)
Matthiessen makes … [an] argument that Peltier should at least be retried. It is but one incident in Matthiessen's far broader argument that our entire national Indian policy should be retried (and not, it should be said, by a return to 1950s proposals for "termination" of all relations with the Indians favored by James Watt and Ronald Reagan). "Whatever the nature and degree of his participation at Oglala," Matthiessen writes, "the ruthless persecution of Leonard Peltier had less to do with his own actions than with underlying issues of history, racism, and economics, in particular Indian sovereignty claims and growing opposition to massive energy development on treaty lands and the dwindling reservations."
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is 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…. Leslie Marmon Silko, the Laguna Pueblo writer, commenting on the romantic sentimentality most whites harbor for "the Indian" (the one who isn't armed, drunk, or holding up progress) wrote, "The American public has difficulty believing … [that] injustice continues to be inflicted upon Indian people because Americans assume that the sympathy or tolerance they feel toward Indians is somehow 'felt' or transferred to the government policy that deals with Indians. This is not the case." Along with its many other accomplishments, Peter Matthiessen's superb new work should put an end to that assumption. (pp. 24, 31)
Page Stegner, "Reds," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXX, No. 6, April 14, 1983, pp. 21-4. 31.
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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. Why? Because the Indian activists have learned to phrase their denunciations of the white man and legitimate Indian leaders in terms of stereotypical values familiar to whites (e.g., reverence for "Mother Earth") even though in most cases these activists have only a casual (at best) or cynical (at worst) acquaintance with these values.
It need hardly be stated that Matthiessen's book has no scholarly value except for the light it throws on these detribalized activists and their white supporters and agents. Beginning with Matthiessen's suggestion on the first page that the Indians were named so not because Columbus thought he had arrived in the Sea of India but because he believed he had found a people living in harmony with nature (una gente in Dios), we are treated with partisanship, innuendo, opinion and rumor masquerading as fact. One cause involving Indian land after another is spread before us…. (p. 10)
In almost every one of [the] disputes concerning Indian land, the picture presented is one in which a handful of beleaguered "traditionals" is battling an insensitive elected "puppet" tribal government established under the authority of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, part of the sweeping New Deal revision of Indian affairs undertaken under the leadership of John Collier. The courts, which have vigorously defended and expanded the sovereign character of Indian governments in the last 40 years, are also denounced by Matthiessen when they rule against the pretensions of a handful of "traditionals" in favor of elected tribal governments. The efforts of a few of the "traditionals" to bring their "case" to the United Nations in Geneva, or to Fidel Castro (as Buffalo Tiger of the "Miccosukee Nation" did in 1959) is celebrated. Curiously no mention is made of the indictment and conviction of the U.S. Government (for crimes against the "traditionals") at the socalled Russell International Tribunal in Rotterdam in 1980 by a group of ideological activists sharing Matthiessen's point of view, and presented by one of his informants for Indian Country, Tim Coulter of Washington's own Indian Law Resource Center. Coulter's generously funded center affords "traditionals" the opportunity to attack elected tribal governments. (It also represents a few legitimate tribal governments.) Why the omission of the Russell tribunal from Matthiessen's book? Could it be that he realized that the too obvious linkage of the "traditional" cause to the ideological cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, to say nothing of the absurdity of the charges of genocide, sterilization of Indian women and the like, with which the United States was charged and "convicted," would deprive the "traditionals" of the sympathy Matthiessen carefully seeks to cultivate?
Matthiessen and the few individuals and groups celebrated by him live in a symbiotic relationship. Each one sustains and—one is tempted to say—creates the other. Few would hear about Matthiessen's friends if he and other ill-informed journalists did not amplify their voices and ignore those of the vast majority of Indians opposed to their point of view. Barring this not-to-be-expected miracle, the American people will continue to have Matthiessen's mushy sentiments repeatedly shoved into their faces. (p. 11)
Wilcomb E. Washburn, "Who Speaks for the Indian?" in Book World—The Washington Post, May 20, 1984, pp. 10-11.
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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.
The opening scenes of Matthiessen's newest book, Indian Country, take us yet again into this vanishing world, in this case a part of inland Florida…. [There is a] sort of lyrical precision one appreciates in Matthiessen's writing: the sense of limitless space, an elusive population of vividly named species, grasses, sky—whole vocabularies of trees. (p. 36)
Matthiessen has two subjects in Indian Country: the destruction of America's last open land by the grinding pressure of big industry, in particular the energy industry; and the tragic struggle of the last people on the land to preserve their shrinking territories, and even more, to preserve the holy balance of their traditions, linked to the complex, fragile ecology of the land.
Matthiessen has crisscrossed the country, visiting Indian reservations in Florida and Tennessee, New York, California, the Dakotas, the Southwest. Among Hopis and Navaho, Cherokees, Mohawks and Muskeegees; among countless remnants of tribes that have left powerful names in the sagas of the American past—Sioux, Apache, Comanche—he has stopped to talk, and found distrustful, secretive peoples, who have learned that there is little to hope for from a white man, even a friendly one. They are struggling to keep old traditions intact, amidst the desolation of rugged territories, hostile white neighbors, and energy conglomerates who often conspire with the Indians' own lawyers to steal the oil and mineral rights of America's last wilderness for pennies an acre.
With patience and impassioned sympathy, Matthiessen has penetrated the "Indian awakening" that has been taking place for more than twenty years on reservations around the country. Repeatedly he has encountered a complex, often bitter political struggle between Indians who have bought the B.I.A.'s offer of welfare money, running water, and electricity—who have moved into tract villages, abandoning traditional settlements located near sacred pools rich with hundreds or even a thousand years of tradition—and recalcitrant, usually minority groups of "traditionals," for whom the B.I.A. (along with other official state agencies) is merely a more cunning face of cultural annihilation. (pp. 36-7)
It is a tragic conflict; both the "traditionals," longing to observe the old "Mohawk Way," and the "Tribals," hoping to manage some integration with white society, live under a destructive shadow. In this wilderness of upper New York State, almost visible from the camp of the "traditionals," a General Motors foundry spews acrid smoke into the air and a Reynolds Aluminum plant wafts "a light warm haze of fluoride effluvium."… The Indians are fighting, but they are fighting for a dead land.
Indian Country tells the same desperate story over and over again…. In place after place, the rape of the land and the despoiling of the Indians go hand in hand; and all of us are poorer for it. For, in Matthiessen's view, the Indians—those that are left, even half-acculturated, desperately poor, often alienated from their own past—are the spiritual custodians of a relationship to the natural world which we have lost.
The loss may destroy us. The Indians are our conscience; as they are silenced, bought off, discouraged, "terminated," something irrevocable is happening to our country. Those places of silence and ancient emptiness, about which Matthiessen writes so movingly, are vanishing, and with them our own secure place in the world is vanishing too, replaced by factory smoke, by piles of radioactive tailings at the mouth of uranium mines, and by the planet-wide death still barely bottled up in nuclear warehouses. (pp. 37-8)
Indian Country tells the story of many lost battles, and a few battles won. Every celebration of Indian courage and determination, every injunction barring the destruction of yet another tract of glorious country, gives the measure of what, year by year, is being lost. Matthiessen's story is, finally, an unutterably sad one. (p. 38)
Paul Zweig, "Vanishing Tribes," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 22, June 4, 1984, pp. 36-8.
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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 key people and bring out their desperate stories [in Indian Country].
Matthiessen also dips into the morass of cultural and political history behind each of the tribes he visited. He makes an effort to untangle the legal nightmares that are part of every tribe's pedigree, trying to pinpoint the crucial shifts in the power relations between whites and Indians. Finally, as if these tasks have made him increasingly uneasy, he does what comes most naturally to him, evoking the wildlife and landscape that brought him to some of these locations on earlier assignments and still seem to engage his abiding affections. Indeed the book is at its most powerful less in its account of human misery than in its description of environmental ruin….
If Matthiessen's outrage about the environment and his sympathies toward the Indian seem so well directed, why does one sense throughout that something is cripplingly wrong with his voice and his thesis?…
To [Matthiessen] what makes his Indian friends authentic is that in spirit they still exist ab origine. He would have us see his eleven sketches as pilgrimages to the last strongholds of primeval truth in America. To reach them he takes as his companion that long-suffering intermediary, the mystic scout. As Thoreau had his Penobscot guide Joe Polis, and Leather-stocking his loyal Chingachgook, Matthiessen has Craig Carpenter, who describes himself as a "half-baked detribalized Mohawk from the Great Lakes country trying to find his way back to the real Indians."
As we follow them on backroads and into Indian kitchens we see the reenactment of an old pattern of intellectual exploitation: had the Indians never existed, perhaps white writers would have had to invent them, as a utopian antithesis to everything they disliked or found alienating about their own world. The spectrum of symbolic interpretations to which the defenseless Indian societies have been subject over the centuries has been well delineated in Elemire Zolla's The Writer and the Shaman: A Morphology of the American Indian. Since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not to be confused, as Matthiessen seems to have, with the painter Henri Rousseau) opinions about Indians have swung from deploring them to adoring them. Indian writer Vine Deloria, Jr., maintains that US government policy still reflects this historical ambivalence; in this century he sees the pendulum swing between pro-Indian and anti-Indian legislation and back again as condensed into twenty-year cycles.
Reading Matthiessen's book one has the sinking feeling that he is somehow trapped at the pro-Indian pole of this fixed ambivalence. His loyalties and evocations seem inherited from the earlier writers and approaches which Zolla surveyed. His pious attitudes toward his native hosts too often fall within the "tradition of benevolence," exemplified by the idealistic descriptions of Indians in Thoreau, Melville, and Hamlin Garland. His sense of outrage is often undercut by a mystical romanticism straight out of the "literature of reverence" epitomized by the writings of D. H. Lawrence. And to the broad genre Zolla calls "poetic ethnography," a category embracing fiction and non-fiction, Matthiessen splices the hyperbole and innuendo of radical journalism that often comes dangerously close to branding most whites as insensitive exploiters and most nonradical Indians as sell-outs….
The problem with such lofty sentiments lies in using "The Indian" as a screen on which to project them. For how can one judge the validity of this interpretation of the collective essence of Indian society against those that claim that all Indians are dumb, lazy, savage, or nearly extinct? The problem, of course, is that "the" Indian has always been a fiction, and Matthiessen's promotion of this monolithic stereotype is among his book's major failings. While he pays respect to particulars of culture and ecology when he is visiting Indians, his book's pervasive certainty about what Indianness means leads him to ignore the widely contrasting social, religious, demographic, economic, political, and ecological circumstances found among over three hundred different North American Indian peoples. (p. 44)
In his novel Far Tortuga Matthiessen was willing to experiment boldly with prose rhythms and Caribbean dialects, and the risk produced the most brilliant novel I have read about the sea since Joseph Conrad's Nigger of the "Narcissus." But his writing here seems strangely cowed as he unhesitatingly takes sides with the Indian factions he dubs as true "traditionals." This reduction of Indian social and political realities to struggles between traditionals and "elected" or "tribal" Indians makes for grievous oversimplification. Today's system of tribal governments was set up during the Indian New Deal in the 1930s by the idealistic Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier. For the tribes that voted to come under Collier's Indian Reorganization Act, the system was intended to restore land and some semblance of power to Indian peoples who were disenfranchised during the late nineteenth century. During the last few decades increasing numbers of Indian leaders have contested the authority of the tribal government apparatus, claiming that it has effectively denied them their sovereign rights as promised in old treaties. They maintain that their tribal council officials are puppets of the government's Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that, by deputizing the opposition, the federal government has turned Indians against themselves and left them vulnerable, once again, to outsiders who want their remnant lands….
Matthiessen seems unaware, however, that this internal tribal dissent over how white to become has persisted since colonial times and that it has always been the part of Indian history that whites have chosen to emphasize…. As with most short-term visitors to Indian communities before him, Matthiessen ignores the other, myriad interest groups whose alliances and competitions make contemporary reservation life a far more complex puzzle than the one he presents. He gives little or no attention to the issues that have priority for Indians who live in cities and periodically come back to the reservation or retain voting rights there, to the concerns of mixed-bloods with varying degrees of status and investment in reservation policies, to the interests of college-educated Indians or professionals who have returned home or serve as long-distance emissaries, or to the preoccupations of members of various religious groups that stand together when it comes to tribal issues. For these and other constituencies, Matthiessen's "traditional" versus "tribal" dispute is only one of many tensions that surround them; most would resent an outsider designating them as less "Indian" in spirit or creed because they had other things on their minds….
[The] most intriguing and heartening aspect of Indian survival is the ways that tribes have continually been able to reinvent their identities as groups through the interplay of their inherited traditions, their historical circumstances, their imagined selves, and manipulations of their "image" and expressive symbols. The dialectic between a timeless perspective and the time-bound exigencies of survival have helped to produce the Native American Church, the Shaker Church, the revived Sun Dance, the new inter-tribal sweat lodge ceremony, the California Bola Maru Religion, the Redbird Smith movement, and other examples of native American ability to endure in tormenting times. Matthiessen runs into trouble by applying one exclusive criterion for traditionalism to a spectrum of tribal cultures. It is rather like assessing the degree to which the French or British are more or less European, and then maintaining that Europeanness is a nobler attribute than either of them. Most Navajos, for instance, will be bewildered to learn that their ageold talent for incorporating items from other cultures—whether weaving methods, religious iconography, or pickup trucks—puts them low on Matthiessen's scale of traditional virtue….
Throughout the book Matthiessen offers incomplete, sketchy references; his apparent wariness of [his primary sources] …, as well as voluminous anthropological and historical materials on each of the tribes he investigates, seems based either on the constraints of magazine deadlines or the distrust in which many of his Indian informants hold those materials. Yet he might have take a lesson from Edmund Wilson, whose Apologies to the Iroquois was effective as advocacy journalism precisely because Wilson patiently interwove the perspectives of the best academicians, historical scholarship, his own experiences, and native testimony—much of it from vociferous militants.
Matthiessen comes across as an uneasy polemicist and a reluctant war correspondent; he relaxes only when he has animals to watch, hills to climb, surroundings to describe, and one or two people whose inner sensibilities he can quietly respond to across a campfire…. Otherwise these reports seem a burden of conscience to him….
What is most interesting about Matthiessen's book is its unwitting perpetuation of the oldest images that whites have used to turn the Indians into symbols of their own deepest longings. Perhaps these images can be replaced only when the conversion of spirit Matthiessen preaches comes to pass. Meanwhile his impassioned confusion of the themes of America as Lost Paradise and the Indian as its Dispossessed Spirit seems evidence of the astonishing power of the myth of "the Indian" to enthrall white imaginations. It is as if, in some cosmic compensation for five centuries of anguish and insult, Indians have preserved a way to imprison their conquerors and still keep their secrets. (p. 45)
Peter Nabokov, "Return to the Native," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 14, September 27, 1984, pp. 44-5.