Writer-Environmentalist Peter Matthiessen Dies

The Tuscaloosa News, April 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Writer-Environmentalist Peter Matthiessen Dies


NEW YORK | Peter Matthiessen, a rich man's son who spurned a life of leisure and embarked on extraordinary physical and spiritual quests while producing such acclaimed books as "The Snow Leopard" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," died Saturday. He was 86.

His publisher Geoff Kloske of Riverhead Books said Matthiessen, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, was ill "for some months." He died at a hospital near his home on Long Island.

"Peter was a force of nature, relentlessly curious, persistent, demanding -- of himself and others," his literary agent, Neil Olson, said in a statement. "But he was also funny, deeply wise and compassionate."

Few authors could claim such a wide range of achievements. Matthiessen helped found The Paris Review, one of the most influential literary magazines, and won National Book Awards for "The Snow Leopard," his spiritual account of the Himalayas, and for the novel "Shadow Country." A leading environmentalist and wilderness writer, he embraced the best and worst that nature could bring him, whether trekking across the Himalayas, parrying sharks in Australia or enduring a hurricane in Antarctica.

He also was a longtime liberal who befriended Cesar Chavez and wrote a defense of Indian activist Leonard Peltier, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," that led to a highly publicized, and unsuccessful, lawsuit by an FBI agent who claimed Matthiessen had defamed him.

"In Paradise," which he had expected to be his last novel, will be published next week. The book was inspired by a visit in the 1990s he made to Auschwitz.

"The gas chambers were all blown up at the end of the war, so they are simply these grim-looking pale ruins out in the distance," he told NPR during a recent interview. "It's a very grim scene. And so it's the enormity of it that just stuns you the first time."

Matthiessen became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s, and was later a Zen priest who met daily with a fellow group of practitioners in a meditation hut that he converted from an old stable. The granite- faced author, rugged and athletic into his 80s, seemed to live out a modern version of the Buddhist legend, a child of privilege transformed by the discovery of suffering.

Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927, the son of Erard A. Matthiessen, a wealthy architect and conservationist. "The Depression had no serious effect on our well-insulated family," the author would later write.

While at Yale, he wrote the short story "Sadie," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and he soon acquired an agent. After graduation he moved to Paris and, along with fellow writer- adventurer George Plimpton, helped found The Paris Review. (Matthiessen would later acknowledge he was a CIA recruit at the time and used his work with the Review as a cover). …

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