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Peter Matthiessen

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Title: Peter Matthiessen  
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Subject: At Play in the Fields of the Lord, National Book Award for Nonfiction, Richard Mabey, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Chokoloskee, Florida
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Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen
Matthiessen at WNYC New York Public Radio in 2008 promoting his novel Shadow Country
Born (1927-05-22)May 22, 1927
New York City, New York
Died April 5, 2014(2014-04-05) (aged 86)
Sagaponack, New York
Occupation Writer
Language English
Nationality American
Period 1950–2014
Genre Nature writing, Travel writing, History, Novels
Notable works The Snow Leopard
Shadow Country
Spouse Maria Eckhart

Peter Matthiessen (May 22, 1927 – April 5, 2014) was an American novelist, naturalist, wilderness writer and CIA agent. A co-founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review, he was a three-time National Book Award winner. He was also a prominent environmental activist. His nonfiction featured nature and travel, notably The Snow Leopard (1978) and American Indian issues and history, such as a detailed and controversial study of the Leonard Peltier case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983). His fiction was adapted for film: the early story "Travelin' Man" was made into The Young One (1960) by Luis Buñuel[1] and the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965) into the 1991 film of the same name.

In 2008, at age 81, Matthiessen received the National Book Award for Fiction for Shadow Country, a one-volume, 890-page revision of his three novels set in frontier Florida that had been published in the 1990s.[2][3] According to critic Michael Dirda, "No one writes more lyrically [than Matthiessen] about animals or describes more movingly the spiritual experience of mountaintops, savannas, and the sea."[4]

Matthiessen was treated for acute leukemia for more than a year. His death came as he awaited publication of his final novel, In Paradise on April 8.[5]

Early life

Matthiessen was born in New York City to Erard A. and Elizabeth (Carey) Matthiessen. Erard, an architect, joined the Navy during literary magazine The Paris Review. As revealed in a 2006 film, he was working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the time, using the Review as his cover.[6] In a 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, Matthiessen stated that he "invented The Paris Review as cover" for his CIA activities.[7] He completed his novel Partisans while employed by the CIA.[8] He returned to the U.S. in 1954, leaving Plimpton (a childhood friend of his) in charge of the Review. Matthiessen divorced in 1956 and began traveling extensively.


Matthiessen at the Miami Book Fair International, 1991

In 1959, Mathiessen published the first edition of Wildlife in America, a history of the extinction and endangerment of animal and bird species as a consequence of human settlement, throughout North American history, and of the human effort to protect endangered species.

In 1965, Matthiessen published At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel about a group of American missionaries and their encounter with a South American indigenous tribe. The book was adapted into the film of the same name in 1991. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.[9] His work on oceanographic research, Blue Meridian, with photographer Peter A. Lake, documented the making of the film Blue Water, White Death (1971), directed by Peter Gimbel and Jim Lipscomb.

Late in 1973 Matthiessen joined field biologist Himalaya Mountains, which was the basis for The Snow Leopard (1978), his double-award-winner. Interested in the Wounded Knee Incident and the 1976 trial and conviction of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist, Mathiessen wrote a non-fiction account, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983).

In 2008, Matthiessen revisited his trilogy of Florida novels published during the 1990s: Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999), inspired by the frontier years of South Florida and the death of plantation owner Edgar J. Watson shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910. He revised and edited the three books, which had originated as one 1,500-page manuscript, which eventually yielded the award-winning single-volume Shadow Country.

Crazy Horse lawsuits

Shortly after the 1983 publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen and his publisher Viking Penguin were sued for libel by David Price, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, and William J. Janklow, the former South Dakota governor. The plaintiffs sought over $49 million in damages; Janklow also sued to have all copies of the book withdrawn from bookstores.[10] After four years of litigation, Federal District Court Judge Diana E. Murphy dismissed Price's lawsuit, upholding Matthiessen's right "to publish an entirely one-sided view of people and events."[11] In the Janklow case, a South Dakota court also ruled for Matthiessen. Both cases were appealed. In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear Price's arguments, effectively ending his appeal. The South Dakota Supreme Court dismissed Janklow's case the same year.[12][13] With the lawsuits settled, the paperback edition of the book was finally published in 1992.

Personal life

After graduating from Yale in 1950, Matthiessen became engaged to Patsy Southgate, a Smith graduate whose father had been the chief of protocol in Roosevelt’s White House. Southgate was famously attractive and energetic. Matthiessen and Southgate had two children together. They divorced in 1956.

In 1963 he married the writer Deborah Love. In his book The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen reported having had a somewhat tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with his wife Deborah, culminating in a deep commitment to each other made shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer. Matthiessen and Deborah practiced Zen Buddhism.[14] She died in New York City near the end of 1972.

In September of the following year came the field trip to Himalayan Nepal. Matthiessen later became a Buddhist priest of the White Plum Asanga.[14] Before practicing Zen, Matthiessen was an early pioneer of LSD. He said his Buddhism evolved fairly naturally from his drug experiences.[15] He argued that it was unfortunate that LSD had become outlawed over time, given its potentially beneficial effects as a spiritual and therapeutic tool (when administered with the right care and attention) and was critical of a figure such as Timothy Leary in terms of the long-term reputation of the drug.[16]

In 1980, Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart, born in Tanzania, in a Zen ceremony on Long Island, New York. They lived in Sagaponack, New York.

In 2005, Matthiessen, along with Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin, was hailed in The Land's Wild Music by Mark Tredinnick, which analyzed how the landscape nourished and developed Matthiessen's writing.[17]

Illness and death

Matthiessen was diagnosed with leukemia in late 2012. He died at his home in Sagaponak on April 5, 2014, aged 86.[18][19]




  • Race Rock (1954)
  • Partisans (1955)
  • Raditzer (1961)
  • At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)
  • Far Tortuga (1975)
  • On the River Styx and Other Stories (1989)
  • The Watson trilogy
    • Killing Mister Watson (1990)
    • Lost Man's River (1997)
    • Bone by Bone (1999)
  • Shadow Country: a new rendering of the Watson legend (2008)
  • In Paradise (2014)


  • Wildlife in America (1959)
  • 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)
  • "The Atlantic Coast", a chapter in The American Heritage Book of Natural Wonders (1963)
  • The Shorebirds of North America (1967)
  • Oomingmak (1967)
  • Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969)
  • Blue Meridian. The Search for the Great White Shark (1971).
  • The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972)
  • The Snow Leopard (1978)
  • Sand Rivers, with photographer Hugo van Lawick. Aurum Press, London 1981, ISBN 0-906053-22-6.
  • In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) ISBN 0-14-014456-0.
  • Indian Country (1984).
  • Nine-headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969–1982 (1986).
  • Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986).
  • African Silences (1991).
  • Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia (1992).
  • East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of the Mustang (1995).
  • The Peter Matthiessen Reader: Nonfiction, 1959–1961 (2000).
  • Tigers in the Snow (2000).
  • The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes (2001).
  • End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica (2003).


  1. ^ Dual awards for hardcover and paperback books were conferred from 1980 to 1983, when both Fiction and Nonfiction were also subdivided in other ways. Most of the roughly 30 award-winning paperbacks were reprints; The Snow Leopard alone won awards in both its first and first paperback editions.


  1. ^ "Travelin Man". All-Story. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  2. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 2008". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-09. (With interview, acceptance speech by Matthiessen, and essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  3. ^ a b "2008 National Book Award Winner, Fiction". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2009-01-16. 
  4. ^ Dirda, Michael “An Epic of the Everglades”, The New York Review of Books, May 15, 2008.
  5. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, ""Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86"", "The New York Times", April 5, 2014.
  6. ^ McGee, Gina (2007-01-13). "The Burgeoning Rebirth of a Bygone Literary Star". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
  7. ^ Matthiessen, Peter (2008-05-27). "The Charlie Rose Show". 15:30–15:41 of interview. pp. 15:30–15:41 of interview. Retrieved 2008-09-14. I went there as a CIA agent, to Paris... I invented The Paris Review as cover. 
  8. ^ Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War, 1999, Granta, ISBN 1-86207-029-6; p. 246. (USA: The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, 2000, The New Press, ISBN 1-56584-596-X)
  9. ^ "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest", New York Post, January 30, 1968
  10. ^ Evans, Harold (1988-10-21). "The Long Arm of a Lawsuit Arrests History". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  11. ^ Mitgang, Herbert (1988-01-16). Crazy Horse' Author Is Upheld in Libel Case"'". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  12. ^ McDowell, Edwin (1990-01-10). "Book Notes: 'Crazy Horse' Suit". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  13. ^ Matthiessen, Peter (1991-05-13). "Who Really Killed the FBI Men: New Light on Peltier's Case". The Nation. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  14. ^ a b Peter Matthiessen at Tibet House
  15. ^ Wroe, Nicholas (2002-08-17). "Call of the Wild". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  16. ^ Perrin, Jim (2011). West: A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss. Atlantic Books. p. 81.  
  17. ^ Tredinnick, Mark (2005). The land's wild music: encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, & James Galvin.  
  18. ^ "New York Times Obituary" Obituary, April 6, 2014.
  19. ^ "Washington Post Obituary" Obituary, Washington Post, April 6, 2014.
  20. ^ "National Book Awards – 1979". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-21. There was a "Contemporary" or "Current" award category from 1972 to 1980.
  21. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
  22. ^ The Heinz Awards, Peter Matthiessen profile
  23. ^ Spiros Vergos Prize 2010
  24. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters - Award Winners". Retrieved 2014-04-07. 

External links

  • Works by or about Peter Matthiessen in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Conversations from Penn StatePeter Matthiessen interviewed on
  • Howard Norman (Spring 1999). "Peter Matthiessen, The Art of Fiction No. 157". The Paris Review. 
  • Charles McGrath (Nov 11, 2008). "Are 3 Novels, Revised as One, a New Book?". The New York Times. 
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