Matthiessen at WNYC New York Public Radio in 2008 promoting his novel Shadow Country
May 22, 1927|
New York City, New York
|Period||1950 – present|
|Genres||Nature writing, Travel writing, History, Novels|
|Notable work(s)||The Snow Leopard
Peter Matthiessen (born May 22, 1927, in New York City) is an American novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer. A co-founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review and a three-time National Book Award-winner, he has also been a prominent environmental activist. His nonfiction has featured nature and travel -- notably The Snow Leopard (1978) -- or American Indian issues and history -- notably a detailed and controversial study of the Leonard Peltier case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983). His fiction has occasionally been adapted for film: the early story "Travelin' Man" was made into The Young One (1960) by Luis Buñuel and the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965) into the 1991 film of the same name.
In 2008, at age 81, Matthiessen received the National Book Award for Fiction for Shadow Country, a one-volume, 890-page revision of his three novels set in frontier Florida that had been published in the 1990s.
Youth and education
Matthiessen was born in New York City to Erard A. and Elizabeth (Carey) Matthiessen. (Erard, an architect, joined the Navy during World War II and helped design gunnery training devices. Afterwards, he gave up architecture to become a spokesman and fundraiser for the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy.) The well-to-do family lived in both New York City and Connecticut where, along with his brother, Matthiessen developed a love of animals that influenced his future work as a wildlife writer and naturalist. He attended the Hotchkiss School, and -- after briefly serving in the U.S. Navy (1945–47) -- Yale University (B.A., 1950), spending his junior year at the Sorbonne. At Yale, he majored in English, published short stories (one of which won the prestigious Atlantic Prize), and studied zoology. Marrying and resolving to undertake a writer’s career, he soon moved back to Paris, where he associated with other expatriate American writers such as William Styron, James Baldwin, and Irwin Shaw. There, in 1953, he became one of the founders (with Harold L. Humes, Thomas Guinzburg, Donald Hall,and George Plimpton) of the literary magazine The Paris Review . (As revealed in a 2006 film, he was working for the CIA at the time, using the Review as his cover. In a 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, Matthiessen stated that he "invented The Paris Review as cover" for his CIA activities.) He returned to the U.S. in 1954, leaving Plimpton (a childhood friend of his) in charge of the Review. Matthiessen divorced in 1958 and began traveling extensively.
In 1959, Mathiessen published the first edition of Wildlife in America, a history of the extinction and endangerment of animal and bird species as a consequence of human settlement, throughout North American history, and of the human effort to protect endangered species. It was one of the first books to call attention to climate change (then called global warming), by mentioning that polar ice cap formation caused the lowering of the seas, and that the isthmus over which Mongoloid people crossed from Asia to present-day Alaska (North America's first human immigration) is now submerged by the Bering Strait.
In 1965, Matthiessen published At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel about a group of American missionaries and their encounter with a South American indigenous tribe. The book was adapted into the film of the same name in 1991. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
His work on oceanographic research, Blue Meridian, with photographer Peter A. Lake, documented the making of the film Blue Water, White Death (1971), directed by Peter Gimbel and Jim Lipscomb.
Interested in the Wounded Knee Incident and the 1976 trial and conviction of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist, Mathiessen wrote a non-fiction account, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983).
In 2008, Matthiessen revisited his trilogy of Florida novels published during the 1990s: Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999), inspired by the frontier years of South Florida and the death of plantation owner Edgar J. Watson shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910. He revised and edited the three books, which had originated as one 1,500-page manuscript, which now yielded the single-volume Shadow Country, his latest award-winner.
Crazy Horse lawsuits
Shortly after the 1983 publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen and his publisher Viking Penguin were sued for libel by David Price, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, and William J. Janklow, the former South Dakota governor. The plaintiffs sought over $49 million in damages; Janklow also sued to have all copies of the book withdrawn from bookstores. After four years of litigation, Federal District Court Judge Diana E. Murphy dismissed Price's lawsuit, upholding Matthiessen's right "to publish an entirely one-sided view of people and events." In the Janklow case, a South Dakota court also ruled for Matthiessen. Both cases were appealed. In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear Price's arguments, effectively ending his appeal. The South Dakota Supreme Court dismissed Janklow's case the same year. With the lawsuits settled, the paperback edition of the book was finally published in 1992.
In his book The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen reports having had a somewhat tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with his wife Deborah, culminating in a deep commitment to each other made shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer. Matthiessen and Deborah had practiced Zen Buddhism. She died in New York City near the end of 1972.
In September of the following year came the field trip to Himalayan Nepal (above). Matthiessen later became a Buddhist priest of the White Plum Asanga. Before practicing Zen, Matthiessen was an early pioneer of LSD. He says his Buddhism evolved fairly naturally from his drug experiences.
In 1980, Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart, born in Tanzania, in a Zen ceremony on Long Island, New York. They live in Sagaponack, New York.
In 2005, Matthiessen, along with Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin, was hailed in The Land's Wild Music by Mark Tredinnick, which analyzed how the landscape nourished and developed Matthiessen's writing.
- 1979 National Book Award, Contemporary Thought, for The Snow Leopard
- 1980 National Book Award, General Non-Fiction (paperback), for The Snow Leopard[a]
- 1993 Helmerich Award, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.
- 1995-1997, designated the State Author of New York
- The 6th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities (2000)
- 2008 National Book Award, Fiction, for Shadow Country
- 2010 Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression 
- Race Rock (1954)
- Partisans (1955)
- Raditzer (1961)
- At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)
- Far Tortuga (1975)
- On the River Styx and Other Stories (1989)
- The Watson trilogy
- Killing Mister Watson (1990)
- Lost Man's River (1997)
- Bone by Bone (1999)
- Shadow Country: a new rendering of the Watson legend (2008)
- Wildlife in America (1959)
- The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961)
- Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962)
- "The Atlantic Coast", a chapter in The American Heritage Book of Natural Wonders (1963)
- The Shorebirds of North America (1967)
- Oomingmak (1967)
- Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969)
- Blue Meridian. The Search for the Great White Shark (1971).
- The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972)
- The Snow Leopard (1978)
- Sand Rivers, with photographer Hugo van Lawick. Aurum Press, London 1981, ISBN 0-906053-22-6.
- In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) ISBN 0-14-014456-0.
- Indian Country (1984).
- Nine-headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982 (1986).
- Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986).
- African Silences(1991).
- Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia (1992).
- East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of the Mustang (1995).
- The Peter Matthiessen Reader: Nonfiction, 1959-1961 (2000).
- Tigers in the Snow (2000).
- The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes (2001).
- End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica (2003).
- Dual awards for hardcover and paperback books were conferred from 1980 to 1983, when both Fiction and Nonfiction were also subdivided in other ways. Most of the roughly 30 award-winning paperbacks were reprints; The Snow Leopard alone won awards in both its first and first paperback editions.
- "Travelin Man". All-Story. Retrieved 2008-12-28.
- "National Book Awards – 2008". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-09. (With interview, acceptance speech by Matthiessen, and essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "2008 National Book Award Winner, Fiction". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2009-01-16.
- Dirda, Michael “An Epic of the Everglades”, The New York Review of Books, May 15, 2008.
- McGee, Gina (2007-01-13). "The Burgeoning Rebirth of a Bygone Literary Star". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-15.
- Matthiessen, Peter (2008-05-27). "The Charlie Rose Show". 15:30-15:41 of interview. pp. 15:30–15:41 of interview. Retrieved 2008-09-14. "I went there as a CIA agent, to Paris... I invented The Paris Review as cover."
- "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest", New York Post, January 30, 1968
- Evans, Harold (1988-10-21). "The Long Arm of a Lawsuit Arrests History". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-19.
- Mitgang, Herbert (1988-01-16). "'Crazy Horse' Author Is Upheld in Libel Case". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-19.
- McDowell, Edwin (1990-01-10). "Book Notes: 'Crazy Horse' Suit". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-19.
- Matthiessen, Peter (1991-05-13). "Who Really Killed the FBI Men: New Light on Peltier's Case". The Nation. Retrieved 2008-08-20.[dead link]
- Peter Matthiessen at Tibet House
- Wroe, Nicholas (2002-08-17). "Call of the Wild". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
- Tredinnick, Mark (2005). The land's wild music: encounters with Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, & James Galvin. Trinity University Press. ISBN 978-1-59534-017-7.
- "National Book Awards – 1979". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-21. There was a "Contemporary" or "Current" award category from 1972 to 1980.
- "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- The Heinz Awards, Peter Matthiessen profile
- Spiros Vergos Prize 2010
- Works by or about Peter Matthiessen in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Peter Matthiessen interviewed on Conversations from Penn State
- Howard Norman (Spring 1999). "Peter Matthiessen, The Art of Fiction No. 157". The Paris Review.
- Charles McGrath (Nov. 11, 2008). "Are 3 Novels, Revised as One, a New Book?". The New York Times.
- "Audio file: Peter Matthiessen discussing and reading from his novel Shadow Country", Wind Mountain, November 2008