The American Scholar

Force of Nature

SOMETIMES I FEEL that Peter Matthiessen is the most underappreciated of recent American writers. I am biased, because he was my uncle and my godfather, but I think he should be mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, William Styron, Philip Roth. The 20th-century version of the cultivated 19th-century adventurer, he brought back elegant accounts of the wild parts of every continent, including Antarctica. He is the only author to have won the National Book Award in both nonfiction (The Snow Leopard in 1980) and fiction (Shadow Country, 2008). His novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a finalist for the award in 1966, and so too was a nonfiction work, The Tree Where Man Was Born, in 1973.

Not just ambidextrous, Matthiessen stretched both forms of writing. After reading Under the Mountain Wall, his 1962 account of life in a New Guinea tribe, Truman Capote credited him with inventing what would be called the nonfiction novel, whereby fictional techniques shape narrative facts. Matthiessen’s experimental novel Far Tortuga, about a doomed voyage of turtle hunters, was his favorite of his 30-odd books. Among other conceits, it eschewed the use of adverbs and adjectives. When Far Tortuga was published in 1975, the poet and novelist James Dickey told him he had changed American literature.

Not quite. When Matthiessen died in 2014, the obituaries were full of praise, but they didn’t say he had changed our literature. Since he was raised not to toot his own horn, Peter would not have complained. Still, he observed more than once that, in dividing his work between fiction and nonfiction, he had made the assessment of his literary achievement more difficult.

My uncle was a hard man to get a hold of, in more ways than one. Reserved and self-deprecating on the outside, he was jumpy and hotheaded on the inside. If you stood next to him, you could sense the unquenched embers of the young rebel. His politics were uncompromisingly left wing, another impediment, perhaps, to fully appreciating him. His ardent defenses of endangered species, endangered fishermen, Latino farmworkers, Native Americans, and others were modulated by an ironic, elegiac tone, which deepened as he grew older. Peter’s literary voice and also his speaking voice, magnetic and low in his chest, were resonant of Zen Buddhism, a practice he adopted in his early 40s. Although “mindfulness” seems to be on everyone’s lips today, a generation ago a picaresque writer who averred Buddhist restraint was a peculiar persona to understand.

He wouldn’t have liked my use of but I’m thinking of the episode that—to his irritation and chagrin—he became most known for, having nothing to do with his writing. As a young man, Peter had worked for the was his cover for the agency. He gave up the secret assignment after a short time, but the revelation of it, decades later, caused him a lot of trouble.

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