Newspaper article International New York Times

Peter Matthiessen, 86, Prize-Winning Author and Naturalist

Newspaper article International New York Times

Peter Matthiessen, 86, Prize-Winning Author and Naturalist

Article excerpt

His nonfiction explored the remote wilds of the world, and his prize-winning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of those wilds.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Peter Matthiessen, a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prize-winning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them, died on Saturday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.

His son, Alex, said the cause was leukemia, which was diagnosed more than a year ago. Mr. Matthiessen's final novel, "In Paradise," is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books.

Mr. Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island's East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow.

In the early 1950s, he shared a sojourn in Paris with fellow literary expatriates and helped found The Paris Review, a magazine devoted largely to new fiction and poetry. His childhood friend George Plimpton became its editor.

A rugged, weather-beaten figure who was reared and educated in privilege -- an advantage that left him uneasy, he said -- Mr. Matthiessen was a man of many parts: litterateur, journalist, environmentalist, explorer, Zen Buddhist, professional fisherman and, in the early 1950s, undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Paris. Only years later did Mr. Plimpton discover, to his anger and dismay, that Mr. Matthiessen had helped found The Review as a cover for his spying on Americans in France.

Mr. Matthiessen's travels took him to the wilds of Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, the Florida swamps and even beneath the ocean. They led to articles in The New Yorker and other magazines and a raft of nonfiction books, among them "The Snow Leopard" (1978), about a grief-stricken spiritual journey to the Himalayas.

Of his more than 30 books, nonfiction works far outnumbered the novels and short-story collections, but he considered fiction his first and highest calling.

He holds the distinction of being the only writer to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. And his fiction and nonfiction often arose from the same experience.

His fourth novel, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" (1965), grew out of his reporting for "The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness" (1961). The novel, set in the Brazilian rain forest, depicts the interaction between missionaries and tribesmen and Western civilization's damaging impact on primitive peoples. …

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