Obituary: Peter Matthiessen, novelist

BORN: 22 May, 1927, in New York City, New York. Died: 5 April, 2014, in Long Island, New York, aged 86.
Writer Peter Matthiessen. Picture: AP PhotoWriter Peter Matthiessen. Picture: AP Photo
Writer Peter Matthiessen. Picture: AP Photo

Peter Matthiessen was a rich man’s son who rejected a life of ease in favour of physical and spiritual challenges and produced such acclaimed works as The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Matthiessen, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia, had been ill for some months before his death on Saturday at a hospital near his home on Long Island, New York.

Matthiessen helped found the Paris Review, one of the most influential literary magazines, and won awards for The Snow Leopard, his spiritual account of the Himalayas, and for Shadow Country. His latest novel, In Paradise, is scheduled for publication tomorrow. 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.

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He became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s and was later a Zen priest, who met daily with fellow practitioners in a meditation hut that he converted from a stable. The granite-faced author, rugged and athletic into his 80s, tried 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 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 later acknowledged that he was a CIA recruit at the time and used the Review as a cover). The magazine caught on, but Paris reminded Matthiessen that he was an American writer. In the mid-1950s he returned to the US, socialised with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other artists, operated a deep-sea fishing charter boat – and wrote.

In 1961, he emerged as a major novelist with At Play in the Fields of the Lord, his tale of missionaries under siege from both natives and mercenaries in the jungles of Brazil. In the 1980s and 1990s, he published a trio of novels – Killing Mr Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone – about a community in Florida’s Everglades at the turn of the 20th century and a predatory planter. Unhappy, he spent years revising and condensing all three into Shadow Country, published in 2008.

Although an explorer in the Hemingway tradition, Matthiessen didn’t seek to conquer nature, but to preserve it. In 1959, he published his first nonfiction book, Wildlife in America, in which he labels man “the highest predator” and one uniquely prone to self-destruction.

Matthiessen was married three times, most recently to Maria Eckhart, whom he wed in 1980. He had four children, two each from his first two marriages.