At Play in the Fields of the Lord signaled the coming together of Matthiessen’s two interests, the literary and the anthropological. Before 1965, he had published three novels on themes and in styles typical of a postwar novelist: a coming-of-age tale in Race Rock (1954), the making of a young revolutionary in Partisans (1955), and a study of human evil in Raditzer (1961). Beginning with Wild Life in America (1959), Matthiessen wrote several anthropological works on remote areas on the globe; the major ones before 1965 concern South America in The Cloud Forest: Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961) and New Guinea in Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962).
The themes of the anthropological books echo the themes of At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Matthiessen chronicles the disappearance of primitive ways of life as well as primitive ways of apprehending reality and understanding experience. Civilization’s thought patterns, as well as its technology and bureaucracy, threaten prior ways of enacting the natural harmony of man and nature.
The attempt to portray this conflict of ways of thinking has led Matthiessen to technical experiments in At Play in the Fields of the Lord and in a later book Far Tortuga (1975). Both books use surrealistic devices (the abandonment of traditional grammar, synesthesia, the depiction of impression rather than sequential events) to immerse readers in new patterns of perception. Far Tortuga is much more surrealistic; in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, the experimental passages treat Moon’s consciousness, the imagery of the landscapes, and the Niaruna’s sense of experience.