Peter Matthiessen (MATH-eh-suhn) is considered to be one of the foremost environmental writers of the twentieth century. Both his fiction and nonfiction devote themselves to considerations of environmental concerns and the impact of an explosion of technology on all cultures, but especially on those most threatened with extinction by the spread of industrial imperialism. Matthiessen was born in New York City to Erard and Elizabeth Matthiessen on May 22, 1927, and worked variously as a commercial fisherman and a captain of a deep-sea charter fishing boat. He attended the Sorbonne and received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1950. Matthiessen participated in expeditions to such places as Alaska, the Canadian Northwest Territories, Peru, Nepal, East Africa, and New Guinea. These and other experiences–as well as his lifelong commitment to sharing his concern for the preservation of the wild in the world–inform all of his writings. Finally, Matthiessen frequently couples an external journey with an interior one toward self-awareness or psychic healing.
Matthiessen is particularly noted for his unflinching consideration of what the technocrats are doing or about to do to the world’s fragile system, particularly to those underdeveloped or undeveloped portions of the globe most vulnerable to the depredations of such things as clear-cutting, pollution, and overpopulation. Thus, the journeys that Matthiessen shares in his writings are meant to challenge readers to think about what they see when traveling in “exotic” places and to develop a shared concern for the continued well-being of a threatened environment, ecosystem, or ancient culture. His books reflect his fear that industrial greed threatens to eliminate cultures, creatures, and whole geographical areas. Such fiction as At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga as well as most of his nonfiction, such as Indian Country, Sand Rivers, and Men’s Lives, all adopt this perspective as their controlling focus. Matthiessen came to his interest in nature and the environment early in life. His father, an architect, was a trustee of the National Audubon Society, and his son soon developed a passion for the natural world. After teaching creative writing for a year at Yale University in 1950, he returned to Paris and developed friendships with a variety of American expatriate writers, including James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Terry Southern, and Irwin Shaw. With Harold L. Humes, Matthiessen founded the Paris Review in 1951.
Matthiessen began his journeying at an early age, and, in 1956, he undertook his first lengthy trip with the intention of visiting every wildlife refuge in the United States, because he wanted to see the untamed places and peoples before they all disappeared. The result of this journey was his book Wildlife in America, which helped to launch Matthiessen’s career as a traveler to far places, an activity that was to be the main thrust of his life for the next twenty years. His travels inform all of his work, fiction and nonfiction alike. For example, Far Tortuga chronicles the voyage of a Caribbean turtling schooner. Yet, Matthiessen does not always write of faraway places; he also addresses the problems faced by the vanishing or victimized cultures of North America with the same intensity that he brings to his exploration of the more remote corners of the world. While such a book as Under the Mountain Wall examines the culture of the New Guinea Kurelu tribe, Sal Si Puedes discusses Cesar Chavez’s efforts to organize migrant workers in California. Books such as The Cloud Forest and Oomingmak examine remote cultures far from the immediate influence of the United States. In the books In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country, however, Matthiessen examines the effects of the modern age on Native American cultures and peoples.
Accounts of his own interior journey comprise the final side to Matthiessen’s writing personality. Such books take the reader on a quest for answers, not only to the problems posed by encroaching civilization but also to the complexities Matthiessen faced as he confronted personal pain and confusion. The Snow Leopard is perhaps the best example of this aspect of Matthiessen’s writing; in this book, he journeys through Nepal with George Schaller, a wildlife biologist on the trail of the endangered snow leopard. Of equal importance is Matthiessen’s search for inner peace, for he undertook this trip after his second wife’s death from cancer. The Snow Leopard is as much, if not more, about Matthiessen’s need to find internal answers and silence as it is about the two men’s pursuit of the leopard. The book functions as a working toward an interior Zen peace and acceptance, and the leopard eventually serves as an externalized version of that Zen silence. In addition to The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen has written another autobiographical work, Nine-Headed Dragon River, which reveals his journey in and practice of the Zen philosophy and way of life. The Snow Leopard won for Matthiessen both the National Book Award (1979) and the American Book Award (1980). Matthiessen has also won recognition for Sand Rivers, which received both the John Burroughs Medal and the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation Award in 1982 as well as the gold medal for distinction in natural history from the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1985.