9 minute read

Peter Matthiessen Biography

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1927. Education: Hotchkiss School, Connecticut; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, B.A. in English 1950; the Sorbonne, Paris, 1948-49. Career: Commercial fisherman, 1954-56. Has made anthropological and natural history expeditions to Alaska, the Canadian Northwest Territories, Peru, New Guinea (Harvard-Peabody expedition, 1961), Africa, Nicaragua, and Nepal. Co-founder, 1952, and editor, Paris Review. Trustee, New York Zoological Society, 1965-79. Awards: Atlantic Firsts award, 1951; American Academy award, 1963; National Book award, for nonfiction, 1979; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1979; American Book award, for nonfiction, 1980; John Burroughs medal, 1982; Philadelphia Academy of Sciences gold medal, 1984; Heinz Award, Arts and Humanities, 1999. Member: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1974.



Race Rock. New York, Harper, 1954; London, Secker and Warburg, 1955; as The Year of the Tempest, New York, Bantam, 1957.

Partisans. New York, Viking Press, 1955; London, Secker and Warburg, 1956; as The Passionate Seekers, New York, Avon, 1957.

Raditzer. New York, Viking Press, 1961; London, Heinemann, 1962.

At Play in the Fields of the Lord. New York, Random House, 1965; London, Heinemann, 1966.

Far Tortuga. New York, Random House, 1975; London, Collins, 1989.

Killing Mister Watson. New York, Random House, and London, Collins, 1990.

Lost Man's River. New York, Random House, 1997.

Bone by Bone. New York, Random House, 1999.

Short Stories

Midnight Turning Gray. Bristol, Rhode Island, Ampersand Press, 1984.

On the River Styx and Other Stories. New York, Random House, and London, Collins, 1989.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Fifth Day," in Atlantic (Boston), September 1951.

"A Replacement," in Paris Review 1, Spring 1953.

"Lina," in Cornhill (London), Fall 1956.


Wildlife in America. New York, Viking Press, 1959; London, Deutsch, 1960; revised edition, Viking, 1987.

The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness. New York, Viking Press, 1961; London, Deutsch, 1962.

Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age. New York, Viking Press, 1962; London, Heinemann, 1963.

The Shorebirds of North America. New York, Viking Press, 1967; as The Wind Birds, 1973.

Oomingmak: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea. New York, Hastings House, 1967.

Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution. New York, Random House, 1970.

Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark. New York, Random House, 1971.

Everglades: Selections from the Writings of Peter Matthiessen, edited by Patricia Caulfield. New York, Ballantine, 1971.

Seal Pool (for children). New York, Doubleday, 1972; as The Great Auk Escape, London, Angus and Robertson, 1974.

The Tree Where Man Was Born, with The African Experience, photographs by Eliot Porter. New York, Dutton, and London, Collins, 1972.

The Snow Leopard. New York, Viking Press, 1978; London, Chatto and Windus, 1979.

Sand Rivers (on the Selous Game Reserve), photographs by Hugo van Lawick. New York, Viking Press, and London, Aurum Press, 1981.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. New York, Viking Press, 1983; revised edition, Viking, and London, Harper Collins, 1991.

Indian Country. New York, Viking, 1984; London, Collins, 1985.

Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982. Boston, Shambhala, and London, Collins, 1986.

Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork. New York, Random House, 1986; London, Collins, 1988.

African Silences. New York, Random House, 1991.

African Shadows. New York, Harry Abrams, 1993.

East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of Mustang, photography by Thomas Laird. Boston, Shambhala Publications, 1995.

The Peter Matthiessen Reader, edited by McKay Jenkins. New York, Vintage Books, 2000.

Tigers in the Snow, photographs by Maurice Hornocker. New York, North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.



Peter Matthiessen: A Bibliography 1952-1979 by D. Nicholas, Canoga Park, California, Orirama Press, 1980.

* * *

Peter Matthiessen has a dream of mankind living gracefully in the world, one species of many in an organic relationship. Unlike earlier American authors given to a version of this dream, Matthiessen can have no illusions. He writes with our contemporary knowledge that the "natural man," whose free application of energy to the environment was for earlier Americans to be the means of achieving a paradise, has wrought ecological disaster. Materially that disaster derives from the rapacious application of technology to the subjugation of nature, and Matthiessen's works of nonfiction are its historical record reporting the extinction and threatened destruction of animal species, the fateful meetings of representatives of industrial society with people yet to experience even the agricultural revolution, and the desperate resistance of American farm workers to the culminating stage of exploitation. Philosophically, the disastrous consequences of the traditional American dream result from the theoretical separation of society, usually conceived of as oppressive, and the individual, always assumed to be noble; thus, people celebrating individualism but nonetheless required to construct a social system find that their rejection of the claims of fraternity does not foster sturdy independence but merely produces anomie. The counterpart of his historical record of the destruction of the natural environment, Matthiessen's first novels are a representation of this disabled American character.

Writing evocatively of his own generation and social class in Race Rock, he links four young Americans in exploring the directions their lives have taken since their adolescence in the same seacoast setting. The shifting viewpoint and intermingling of recollection and present event provide the sense of movement we associate with growth, but it is ironic since there has been no growth. Two of the male characters—George and Sam—are the ineffectual products of middle-class culture: uncertain of vocation, implausible in deeds, in short unable to complete the arc between thought and action because they doubt the efficacy of their thought. Providing the apex of a triangle is a woman who, though female and, therefore, less intensively drawn by the romance of achievement, is herself ungratified. Her fulfillment must come through the ineffectual males to one of whom she has been married and with the second of whom she is involved in a love affair. The point of reference for all three is Cady, a man whose natural capacity to act let him bully them in childhood. As adults these four are bound as they were in adolescence into personally destructive relationships. Cady's irresponsible brutishness has merely become more lethal. He still seeks to get what he wants according to a base code of individual force, while George, Sam, and Eve ambivalently resent and admire his dominance. For Matthiessen the behavior of the characters has explanation, but no excuse. Carefully avoiding extenuating circumstances that would lift their personal responsibility, he shows that they have neither the direction nor the will to exist in other than an unjustifiably predatory arrangement.

In Partisans Matthiessen again focuses upon an ineffectual son of the American bourgeoisie. Barney Sand, alienated from family and culture, proceeds on a search for a revolutionary who had befriended him as a child. By means of a descent into Parisian working class life on which Barney is led by a Stalinist Party functionary named Marat, Matthiessen parallels the physical search with an inquiry into the motives for revolutionary action. The Brechtian portrayal of proletarian conditions denies Barney the clarity available to those who think in the abstract. The bestial lives of the poor make sympathy, or even the belief in their natural rectitude, impossible for Barney, and a politics without idealism is beneath his consideration. All that Matthiessen permits Barney to grasp is that revolutionaries have strong convictions for which they will sacrifice—the man for whom he searches gives life and reputation. But since there can be no doubt that revolutionary forces are in motion, the failure to comprehend must lie in Barney. Matthiessen seems to be suggesting that so long as thought and action are held to be categorically separate, as they are in Barney's mind, no motive will be sufficient for action and no action entirely justifiable. It is integration of both in practice that makes a revolutionary, and comprehension of that fact is necessary for modern men to make their lives adequately human.

Technically Matthiessen's neatest explication of character occurs in Raditzer. The figure who gives his name to the book is a passive-aggressive, physically weak and socially a parasite, yet able to strike through the mask of civilized respectability and mastery to reveal in those he victimizes a deep-seated guilt and bewildering remorse. The kinship Raditzer insists he shares with the respectable Navy men whose tenuous security he undermines conveys, as in Race Rock, Matthiessen's perception of the split between thought and action that manifests itself in the indecisiveness of American men. The tight narrative construction enforcing psychological parallels goes beyond the earlier novel, however, making it evident in Raditzer through the substance of style that the leading characters of the book amalgamate into a general type.

Successful though he has been in the manner of psychological realism, Matthiessen's developing vision has required that he exceed the form of his first three novels, and in At Play in the Fields of the Lord he introduces to fiction the comprehensiveness of philosophical anthropology. Carrying the ineffectual civilized types he has previously described into the jungle of South America, Matthiessen strips away the protective coloration they gain from their native culture; thus, they are as exposed as the jungle Indians to the test of survival. As the narrative increasingly centers upon the grand attempt of a reservation-trained North American Indian to reclaim his past by immersing himself in the natural and cultural world of the primitive South American Indians, three levels of meaning emerge. The first concerns the historical conflict between modern technological civilization and the less developed societies whose destruction is only a matter of time. Through imaginative sympathy with both Indians and whites Matthiessen, then, establishes a second theme of the unity of desire to humanize the world. For the Indians this involves a balanced relationship to nature that yet allows a sense of transcendence. For the North Americans sharing the same impulse the desire is domination. Certainly their technology will eventually dominate but for the time being they are alone with only personal resources inadequate to sustain their sanity. Finally, on a third level of meaning he reveals both Indians and whites to be lonely beings who must find salvation through development of community that embraces the total material and social world.

Thematically more spare than the previous novels, Far Tortuga embodies in literary technique itself the forces of the natural and human world that might make a community. The crew of a Grand Cayman fishing boat going about the business of sailing to the turtle banks off Nicaragua communicates in dialogue detached from expository context. Their speech, afloat as they are, concerns the specifics of job and personality but is imbued with the sense that fishing has come upon hard times. Tales of past voyages, former captains, and historical events imply the decline their way of life has suffered because excessive fishing has depleted marine life. Impressionistic description of sea and weather and time dominates the narrative just as natural forces dominate the watery world. There is no significant plot to the narrative, for at sea the men cannot be a cause of their destiny, and, for the same reason, narrative movement is simply temporal. Human purpose appears in the novel's title, which refers to a legendary bay where fishing is eternally good, but that very purpose has sustained material nature as the ultimate force in human life.

Matthiessen's fiction and nonfiction are one. As he writes in Sal Si Puedes: "In a damaged human habitat, all problems merge." The good life will be achieved, if at all, only when man and society and nature are equally nurtured and cherished.

—John M. Reilly

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - Personal