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.)