Matthiessen, Peter

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Matthiessen, Peter

Peter Matthiessen (măth´əsən), American writer, naturalist, and adventurer, b. New York City, grad. Yale (1950). A founder (1951) of the literary Paris Review, he published his first novel, Race Rock, in 1954. Best known of his early novels is At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965, film 1991), the story of relations among tribes people, missionaries, and mercenaries that grew out of a trip to the South American jungle and his nonfiction book The Cloud Forest (1961). By the late 1950s he had begun his world travels, many undertaken for The New Yorker magazine. His wilderness wanderings took him to Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, and the Flordian swamps and under the sea. A longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhism, which profoundly influenced his thought and writings, he became a Buddhist priest in 1981. He wrote more than 30 novels and nonfiction works, many dealing with the degradation of the natural world. A trip (1972) to Nepal's Himalayas led to his most famous nonfiction work, The Snow Leopard (1978, National Book Award), a Zen-inflected tale of mourning and spiritual pilgrimage. Other nonfiction works include The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972), In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), and End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica (2003). His novel trilogy, Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999), inspired by early 20th-century murders in the Everglades, was reworked as Shadow Country (2008, National Book Award). His last novel, In Paradise, tells of a Zen retreat held at Auschwitz.

See The Peter Matthiessen Reader (2000); biography by P. Dowie (1991); I. Oh, Peter Matthiessen and Ecological Imagination (2010); bibliography by W. Roberson (2001).

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