Homegoing for Peter Matthiessen ; after a Long Career, the Writer Finds What Contentment Looks Like

By Himmelman, Jeff | International New York Times, April 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Homegoing for Peter Matthiessen ; after a Long Career, the Writer Finds What Contentment Looks Like


Himmelman, Jeff, International New York Times


After a long career, the American writer finds what contentment looks like.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Out the Montauk Highway, south toward the water, then a quick right before the beach and you're there, at the Sagaponack house where the author and Zen teacher Peter Matthiessen has lived for the past 60 years. The home used to be the garage and outbuildings of a larger estate, and there is an improvised, of-the-earth sprawl to the place. One side of the main house is grown over with ivy, and under the portico an immense finback whale skull balances on blocks. After I ring the doorbell and rap on the glass, Mr. Matthiessen emerges from his living room and waves me in.

He has spent much of his career going back in time -- up to ancient villages in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, out to the vast plains of Africa in search of the roots of man -- but now time has caught up to him. He's 86, and for the past 15 months he has been countering leukemia with courses of chemotherapy. His latest novel, "In Paradise," is being promoted by his publisher as his "final word," but Mr. Matthiessen doesn't want to talk about the book or his career in those terms. He has no desire for sympathy points. Though he did not want to dwell on it, he acknowledged that his medical situation was "precarious," and a few weeks after our two days together his health would decline to the point that he had to be admitted to a hospital, with family standing by. It gave our conversations the feeling of stolen time.

Though Mr. Matthiessen is not as well known as some other names of his generation, you would be hard-pressed to find a greater life in American letters over the past half-century. He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and fiction, but it's not just the writing: Born into the East Coast establishment, Mr. Matthiessen ran from it, and in the running became a novelist, a C.I.A. agent, a founder of The Paris Review, author of more than 30 books, a naturalist, an activist and a master in one of the most respected lineages in Zen. As early as 1978, he was already being referred to, in a review in The New York Times, as a "throwback," because he has always seemed to be of a different, earlier era, with universal, spiritual and essentially timeless concerns.

Mr. Matthiessen's family is descended from Friesian whalers; he notes, with some pride, that one of his ancestors is name-checked in "Moby-Dick." He was sent to St. Bernard's, Greenwich Country Day School, Hotchkiss and Yale, and you can feel all of that breeding in his mannerisms and speech, as much as he might later have tried to forsake it.

After graduating from Yale in 1950, Mr. Matthiessen became engaged to Patsy Southgate, whose father had been the chief of protocol in Roosevelt's White House. Mr. Matthiessen made what he calls "an utter shambles" of their engagement party that summer, behaving so badly that "people still talk about it," and then he left the next morning on a birding expedition without saying sorry or goodbye. Southgate called off the engagement, but he eventually won her back, in part by securing a job with the C.I.A. that would send them both to Paris.

"I didn't know anything when I went over there," Mr. Matthiessen said of his posting. "In those days, it was considered a patriotic act, to spy for your country. People were scared of the Cold War."

"I'd started a first novel, and I had no way to pay for it," he said. "I was being urged to do something for my country, which appealed to my patriotic thing. I thought it was an ideal situation. And they also told me I would hardly have to do any work at all, that I would have plenty of time for my own."

He was assigned to keep his eye on communist "enemies," who were, he said, "out on the street corners peddling L'Humanite," the party newspaper. In his spare time, he worked on his fiction. There was a healthy community of American expatriate writers in Paris in the early '50s, among them Terry Southern, Doc Humes and William Styron. …

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