Peter Matthiessen Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Peter Matthiessen often writes unflatteringly about the U.S. government. In what ways does he think that the United States failed in its obligations to the native people of the Americas?

Matthiessen is often characterized as an environmental writer. What purpose does such a writer have in crafting books for his readers? What “enemies” does Matthiessen identify in this type of writing. Do you believe that it is possible for writers such as Matthiessen to make a difference in people’s attitudes about environmental issues?

Are there instances in which it is right for people to take the law into their own hands, as the men of the Everglades did with Mr. Watson?

Is it possible, given the nature of the multiple versions of the story of Edgar J. Watson recounted in Killing Mister Watson, to ever know the “truth” about a particular event?

For what reasons did Matthiessen choose to write about his search for the snow leopard? In what ways does The Snow Leopard work on a variety of different thematic levels? If these levels interconnect, in what ways do they do so? For what purpose?

In what ways does the novel Far Tortuga function as a parable? In what ways can this be said of much of Matthiessen’s writing?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Peter Matthiessen (MATH-eh-suhn) is perhaps better known, and certainly far more prolific, as a writer of nonfiction than as a novelist. He has produced numerous volumes of nonfiction, beginning with Wildlife in America (1959). Many are chronicles of Matthiessen’s trips to distant and barely accessible areas of the earth, such as The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961), Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962), Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea (1967), Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971), The Tree Where Man Was Born: The African Experience (1972), The Snow Leopard (1978), Sand Rivers (1981), African Silences (1991), and End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica (2003). The Shorebirds of North America (1967) and The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (2001) are straight natural history, and Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1970) is a biographical essay and political commentary on the California labor leader.

Among Matthiessen’s other works of nonfiction are In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), Indian Country (1984), Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, 1969-1982 (1985), and Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986). He has also published two volumes of overlapping short fiction, Midnight Turning Gray (1984) and On the River Styx, and Other Stories (1989), and a children’s book, Seal Pool (1972).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Peter Matthiessen’s achievements lie in two distinct but interrelated genres: the personal essay, similar in many respects to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, and the novel. Two of his most distinguished works of fiction, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, draw heavily on the author’s evocation of the natural world: the Amazon rain forest in the first case and the open sea and Caribbean islands in the second. Both novels are extended studies of humanity’s interrelation with these wild environments, and much of their effectiveness lies in Matthiessen’s ability to place the reader within the primeval setting, projecting the smell, taste, and feel of the jungle and the sea. Similarly, Matthiessen’s nonfiction relies for its power on transporting the reader to a remote natural world and making that world live, impressing indelibly nature’s importance. Matthiessen stresses the value of nature to humankind, as a fountainhead of fundamental impulses and as an avenue of self-exploration, a means of cutting away the confusions of the “civilized” world and probing the essential elements of human nature. Matthiessen is not, however, a naïve romantic, finding in nature a Rousseauistic panacea for all the ills of society. His essays, whether book-length or merely brief sketches, have a gritty objectivity that precludes any superficial romanticizing of the natural world.

In 1973, Matthiessen was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He won both the American Book Award and the National Book Award for The Snow Leopard. He received the John Burroughs Medal and the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation Award for Sand Rivers, and his nonfiction book Wildlife in America can be found in the White House’s permanent collection. In 2008, Matthiessen received both the National Book Award for Shadow Country and The Paris Review’s Hadada Award for his lifetime commitment to the literary arts.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bawer, Bruce. The Aspect of Eternity. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1993. Contains an essay titled “Peter Matthiessen, Nature Boy,” a generally unflattering critique of Matthiessen’s novels prior to Killing Mister Watson. Argues that Matthiessen romanticizes the primitive and hypocritically attacks American and Western civilization. It also traces what Bawer calls an “antagonism toward fathers” in Matthiessen’s work.

Bishop, Peter. “The Geography of Hope and Despair: Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 26, no. 4 (1984): 203-216. Places Matthiessen alongside other literary travelers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and D. H. Lawrence. Discusses The Snow Leopard in depth and compares it to Far Tortuga and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Sees the book’s lack of conclusion as its success. A thought-provoking article which presents psychological insights into Matthiessen.

Dowie, William. Peter Matthiessen. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A good introduction to Matthiessen for the beginning student. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Gabriel, Trip. “The Nature of Peter Matthiessen.” The New York Times Magazine, June 10, 1990, 30. An insightful profile, based on interviews with Matthiessen and his circle. Gabriel focuses on Killing Mister Watson but also provides an overview of Matthiessen’s career. Neither sycophantic nor hostile, Gabriel presents a nuanced portrait of the man behind the books.

Grove, James P. “Pastoralism and Anti-Pastoralism in Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 21, no. 2 (1979): 15-29. Discusses this highly praised novel and reflects on the influence of Zen on Matthiessen’s views. An in-depth treatment of the content and intent of this novel within the theme of pastoralism.

Raglon, Rebecca. “Fact and Fiction: The Development of Ecological Form in Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35, no. 4 (1994): 245-259. Looks at Matthiessen’s work, Far Tortuga especially, as a criticism of the dualistic view of nature and humanity. Raglon argues that Matthiessen sees no separation between nature and humanity and writes instead of their necessary interrelatedness.

Roberson, William. Peter Matthiessen: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. A useful resource guide to primary and secondary source literature.

Shnayerson, Michael. “Higher Matthiessen.” Vanity Fair 54, no. 12 (1991): 114-132. Contains considerable biographical information and gives a balanced view of Matthiessen’s personal strengths and weaknesses.