Peter Matthiessen Matthiessen, Peter (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Matthiessen 1927–

American novelist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, and editor.

Matthiessen is a novelist and naturalist who writes with conviction and compassion about vanishing cultures, oppressed peoples, and exotic wildlife and landscapes. Combining scientific observation with lyrical, intelligent prose, he explores such concerns as the impact of modern civilization on the natural world and the necessity for commitment to environmental concerns. An extensive traveller who has explored uncharted areas, Matthiessen bases the majority of his writing on his personal experiences.

Matthiessen wrote his first novel, Race Rock (1954), while living in Paris, where he cofounded the Paris Review with Harold L. Humes. After returning to the United States in 1953, he wrote the novels Partisans (1955) and Raditzer (1961). In the late 1950s Matthiessen began the travels which have strongly influenced his career. These led him to such places as the remote wilderness areas of North and South America and resulted in Wildlife in America (1959) and The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961). Matthiessen's fourth novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), met with considerable critical recognition. This work takes place in the jungles of South America, where a primitive tribe is threatened with extinction due to the encroachment of civilization. William Styron describes this novel as "a dense, rich, musical book, filled with tragic and comic resonances."

During the ten-year span between the publication of At Play in the Fields of the Lord and his next novel, Far Tortuga (1975), Matthiessen wrote numerous nonfiction works which further strengthened his reputation as an outstanding writer and an observant traveller. The Shorebirds of North America (1967) is a nature study written in the flowing style characteristic of much of his work; Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969) examines the famed American fighter for the rights of migrant workers; Blue Meridian (1971) is based on Matthiessen's expedition in search of the great white shark; and The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972) exemplifies his powers of observation and his humanitarian concerns as he describes the nature and cultures of East Africa.

Far Tortuga is widely considered Matthiessen's most accomplished work. It relates the doomed voyage of a group of sailors who leave the Cayman Islands to hunt turtles in the Caribbean. The novel is made up of descriptive passages interspersed with blocks of dialogue in Caribbean dialects. Matthiessen does not explicitly attribute the dialogue to specific characters; the reader must identify the characters by their individual speech patterns and comments. Also included are such unusual items as pages with a single word, blots to signify death, and type set in the shape of a ship's mast. Matthiessen was praised for the poetic quality of his prose and for his detached manner of describing only the characters' behavior and not their thoughts. Although overall critical response was mixed, Far Tortuga greatly increased Matthiessen's literary stature.

Since Far Tortuga, Matthiessen has written several other nonfiction works. The Snow Leopard (1978), for which Matthiessen received a National Book Award, is perhaps his most personal nature book. It relates his 1973 journey to Nepal to observe Himalayan blue sheep and his hope of encountering the rarely-seen snow leopard. For Matthiessen the trip was also a search for peace and fulfillment following the death of his wife. As is true of many of Matthiessen's travelogues, The Snow Leopard becomes more than a simple journal of observations by virtue of his personal meditations. In Sand Rivers (1981) Matthiessen again records his African travels, this time describing an extended trek into the Selous Game Reserve, one of Africa's largest remaining wilderness areas. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and Indian Country (1984) evidence Matthiessen's interest in the history, culture, and political situation of American Indians. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse compares the legendary Indian, whose refusal to live on a reservation resulted in his death, with a modern-day Indian accused of murder. Page Stegner describes this work as "one of the most dramatic demonstrations of endemic American racism that has yet been written—a powerful, unsettling book that will force even the most ethno-pious reader to inspect the limits of his understanding." Indian Country, which centers on the struggles of American Indians to defend their land and cultural identity against modern technological society, is based on personal encounters and interviews conducted throughout the United States.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 7, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 27; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Sylvia Berkman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Edward Weeks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

William Goyen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.

James Finn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Archie Carr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Terry Southern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Marston Bates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Loren Eiseley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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....

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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John Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert M. Mengel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Hay

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Rechy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Forest

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Womack, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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William Styron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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Samuel Pickering, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jim Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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,...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Robert Sherrill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Alan M. Dershowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Roderick Nordell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Page Stegner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Wilcomb E. Washburn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Zweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Nabokov

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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