At Play in the Fields of the Lord Summary
by Peter Matthiessen

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At Play in the Fields of the Lord Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord, set in the jungles of South America, has received much critical recognition. An aboriginal tribe of Amazonian Indians—the Niaruna—lives so far up the headwaters of the Amazon that they have never seen “modern” men, except the anthropologist who has been there to observe them. Once discovered, however, they become the focus of a number of groups’ attempts to bring civilization to them. The Niaruna will never be the same after foreigners come on the scene, but neither will the Americans who go there. This novel expresses Matthiessen’s central concern with the negative impact that modern technology has, not only on the less “advanced” cultures on which it encroaches but also on the people who take their own advantages for granted. The book also describes the tension that arises when the innocent “savages” are confronted by an essentially corrupt civilization—in this case, Catholic and Baptist missionaries and two American mercenaries.

The Niaruna are causing problems for the governor of their state; although they usually live peacefully in their remote villages, they occasionally cause trouble for the civilized South American Indians who are their neighbors. The prefect of Oriente State wants them “pacified” by whatever means is effective. Although he personally favors bombing the Niaruna and driving them across his country’s borders, he cannot afford a scandal. Because he holds two American soldiers of fortune as detainees (Wolfie and Moon), he coerces them into taking the job.

Not only does At Play in the Fields of the Lord show readers what can happen to the Indians once they are introduced to the twentieth century, it also examines the effect that going into the jungle has on people who have always taken modern conveniences for granted. In the jungle, many pretensions are stripped away, and people such as the (perhaps well-intentioned) missionaries cannot handle the result. Being face-to-face with nature and primitive tribes can terrify, as it does Hazel Quarrier, wife of Martin, one of the Baptist missionaries. While most of the characters are far from mad, they do show the effects of their removal from the protective shelter of the modern world. The piranhas, the filth and disease, the local infighting, the brutality of the Niaruna, and their own innate brutality all conspire to test these characters in ways they have never imagined possible in their “safe” modern world. The portrait Matthiessen offers is hardly flattering, for, although the Niaruna are predictably changed from their encounters with foreigners, the people who come to civilize them—mercenaries and missionaries alike—are affected in more savage ways.

It is not the missionaries who offer the most complicated response to the Niaruna; Lewis Meriwether Moon, a Cheyenne Indian who grew up on an American reservation and who has since become a soldier of fortune, displays the most complicated response to these people. At first he looks on fulfilling the prefect’s demands to subdue the Niaruna as merely another job. Yet, once he becomes involved with these other Indians, he begins to see himself as their savior. In them he sees his own people; under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, Moon hijacks a plane originally intended for bombing the tribe and parachutes into the Niaruna’s forest. They look upon him as a sort of god; he struggles to live like a native but has trouble walking barefoot. Completely alienated by his experiences at home, he dreams of successfully leading the Niaruna in their battle to defend their territory. Given Matthiessen’s pessimistic outlook, it comes as no surprise that Moon fails in his efforts to organize the Niaruna’s resistance to the missionaries and the prefect.

Matthiessen clearly believes that the downfall of these remote cultures will only be a matter of time and that, no matter how well-intentioned the people who go to them are, contact with the outside...

(The entire section is 1,470 words.)