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

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord is the most firmly plotted of Matthiessen's fictions: The developing story line provides both a sense of suspense and a dramatic resolution of conflict. The experimentation in form that later came to fruition in Far Tortuga (1975) is already in evidence here, in the alternation of narrative sequences to portray simultaneous action, and especially in the depiction of Moon's dream/hallucination under the influence of the drug ayahuasca (an incident given credibility by Matthiessen's own experimentation with hallucinogens in the early 1960s). Most notable among "technical" features is the appearance here of the full realization of Matthiessen's power as a stylist, although it must be admitted that, everywhere in his work, style is inseparable from substance. The profound sense of loneliness found in Matthiessen's writings, the distance and solitude present in works as divergent in form and function as Sal Si Puedes (1969) and Far Tortuga, stems from the desperate rush of language to fill a vacuum, the gap left by the fatal disjunction between human beings.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bawer, Bruce. The Aspect of Eternity. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1993. Contains an essay called “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 Mathiessen’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 in-depth The Snow Leopard 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.

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.

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.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Matthiessen's work can be compared to any number of precursors. The evocation of the humid South American wilderness in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, where humanity is quickly reduced to the level of...

(The entire section is 820 words.)