Most of the old lions and the ambitious strivers after lionhood—Bellow, Updike, Cheever, Styron, Mailer—are gone. A single writer on the long side of 80 who might be considered a major figure remains. But Peter Matthiessen has never known the acclaim that attended the careers of his contemporaries. He has merely worked with unrelenting devotion to his craft and art during a span of 60 years, producing 19 books of nonfiction, mostly accounts of travels to the wild places of the earth or polemics for liberal causes, and 10 books of fiction, including nine novels and one collection of short stories.
That the splash he has made is comparatively modest does not mean he has gone unnoticed. Six of his books were serialized in the New Yorker, which generously funded much of his wanderlust; some of his work has risen to the top of the bestseller lists; high honors have not been slow to come his way. The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972), which relates his adventures among the wildlife of Kenya and Tanzania, was nominated for a National Book Award; The Snow Leopard (1978), which tells of a 250 mile trek across the Himalayas and his coming to terms with the death of his second wife, won it. Among his novels, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), about a half-breed North American Indian who parachutes into a South American wilderness and is greeted as a god by a primitive tribe, was nominated for it; Shadow Country (2008), about the dark and bloody life and death of an aspirant to backwoods empire in the Everglades, won it.
This is rich distinction, yet it has all arrived rather quietly. So questions press themselves upon the reader. Does Matthiessen deserve to be regarded among the foremost writers of our time? And what are the literary virtues that entitle this arch-liberal, never hesitant to spit his contempt in the face of American business, military power, belief in progress, and conservatism in general, to the esteem of persons who disagree with him on virtually every serious political matter?
Peter Matthiessen was born in 1927 in New York City and raised in the Connecticut suburbs, which were rather wilder then than they are now. Peter and his brother, crazy about snakes, captured and collected copperheads on the family property until their mother put her sensible foot down and squashed the fun. In 1944 he fled boarding school and joined the Coast Guard Reserve; when his father returned, he yanked his underage son from the Guard and marched him back to Hotchkiss. The next year, finally of age, Matthiessen enlisted in the Navy. After a two-year hitch, he entered Yale in 1947.
One of his professors recruited him for the CIA, and when the agency told him he could work in Paris if he joined up, he accepted the offer, “out of sheer greed and opportunism,” as he put it recently. Utter political innocence marked his entry into the intelligence community, and disillusioned revulsion would attend his departure. Agency business chiefly involved a certain convivial insinuation into the lives of persons of interest, and such duties left him plenty of time to work on his first novel, to write which was the main reason he took the job in the first place.
In 1951 he became a founding editor of the Paris Review, the cover he invented for his CIA labors. Before long this little magazine, which remains celebrated among its kind to this day, came to absorb him more than his government job. Meanwhile, the very French Communists he was supposed to be undermining began to win his admiration. When his first child was born premature and died after 12 days, Matthiessen and his wife blamed the stress of Peter’s being a spy; and when she became pregnant again in 1953, Matthiessen resigned from the agency, renouncing it and all its works. The political Left would be his native ground from then on.
His calling as an adventurer bent on seeing the unspoiled precincts and primitive peoples of the earth before they are ruined forever led naturally enough to passionate advocacy for environmentalist causes; Tom Brokaw, a great admirer of his, has called Matthiessen “one of the original eco-warriors.”
Matthiessen has set foot in most every available corner of wilderness, or anything still resembling wilderness, in North America (Wildlife in America, 1959). He has braved the rapids of a Peruvian jungle river on a balsa raft in quest of a storied gigantic fossil (The Cloud Forest, 1961). He has lived among New Guinea tribesmen still in the Stone Age, whose principal activity is war (Under the Mountain Wall, 1962). He has scuba-dived in a metal cage off the Australian coast to view great white sharks, which did their damnedest to rip the cage apart and get at the sweet meat inside (Blue Meridian, 1971). He has enjoyed, or at any rate survived, intimate and rather uncomfortable encounters with some of the large game animals of Africa (The Tree Where Man Was Born, 1972; Sand Rivers, 1981; African Silences, 1991).
Matthiessen’s political passions have dovetailed with the impulses of his soul. The mere thought of Republicans fills Matthiessen with odium—the wilderness protector Theodore Roosevelt being a notable exception—which he often expresses in a venomous discharge. Since his departure from the CIA, the life he has led has gone not only contrary to Republican values but against the American grain, with its love of bigger, faster, and more.
He prefers primitive people living with next to nothing and not missing what they don’t have to the miserable and resentful poor of urban slums and Indian reservations that so-called progress has produced. He detests Christianity, largely for its complicity in imperial conquest and its smothering of sensual instinct, and his search for spiritual sustenance impelled him to the heavy use of hallucinogens during the 1960s, attracted him to American Indian religions, and ultimately turned him toward Zen Buddhism after the death from cancer in 1973 of his second wife, Deborah Love, who had been a devout Buddhist herself. Matthiessen wrote a study of select Zen masters and an account of his own Zen practice, Nine-Headed Dragon River (1985), married his third wife in a Zen ceremony, and became a Buddhist priest.
His anger at the plight of black, red, and brown peoples is of a piece with his rage at the desecration of the natural world. But the oppressed and marginalized, he realizes, do not necessarily possess an innate decency or wisdom superior to those of the capitalist despoilers; if the poor were suddenly made rich, he writes, many would likely sprout all the vices of their new status. So it is up to enlightened leftists such as himself to give voice to the best in his unfortunates. The immiserated are of course not his target audience: he writes for educated men of goodwill, in the hope that his ardor will kindle in them a similar longing for social justice.
All too often, however, he is simply given to the usual rant, designed to tickle the usual suspects. At his most emphatic, as in Sal Si Puedes (Escape If You Can): Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969), he could not sound more intemperate and ridiculous:
It is plain materialism that is the true betrayal of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, encouraging the richest land in history to abandon thirty-five million of her people to poverty or worse, to pollute and scar an entire continent for private gain, to crush modern equivalents of the American Revolution in other countries, and to force a “democracy” that is rotting at home upon weaker nations of the hemisphere where U.S. economic interests are imperiled—all this in the name of an anti-Communism which is not only irrelevant but fraudulent.
Of course, these were the 60s, and many were intemperate and ridiculous; but Matthiessen’s radical fires continue to consume him. He gets as unreasonably hot over global warming as he did over anti-Communism, dismissing all evidence to the contrary as bunk, furiously calling every last scientist who questions climate change or the primacy of man’s role in it a shill for Big Oil. When it comes to the intellectual defense of his political passions, Matthiessen is at his weakest: riled, he stops thinking and resorts to boilerplate.
With so much going against him, how can Matthiessen be accounted a serious and important writer? Fortunately, political cant occupies a comparatively small portion of his oeuvre. The foolishness of his anti-anti-Communist diatribe is offset by his admiration, in Men’s Lives (1986), one of his best books, for the hardy but endangered breed of Long Island commercial fishermen, Republicans almost to a man:
Full-time baymen—there are scarcely one hundred left on the South Fork—must also be competent boatmen, net men, carpenters, and mechanics, and most could make good money at a trade, but they value independence over security, preferring to work on their own schedule, responsible only to their own families. Protective of their freedom to the point of stubbornness, wishing only to be left alone, they have never asked for and never received direct subsidies from town or county, state or federal government.
Mostly, at least in his nonfiction, he renders the world he loves, and that rendering is a celebration, even when it describes the fearsome aspects of nature. To borrow the highest praise from that most urbane of writers, Henry James, in the wild Matthiessen is one of those on whom nothing is lost. He sees and hears and smells with preternatural acuity, and his best prose tosses off prodigies like a stunt pilot pulling blithely out of a death spiral. Nobody watches animals more intently or finds such marvelous words to describe them, as here in The Tree Where Man Was Born: “The walk of lions is low-slung and easy, and leopards move like snakes, striking and coiling; the cheetah’s walk looks stiff and deadly as if it were bent on revenge.”
The inevitability of death haunts this vital man, and the spectacle of predators and scavengers alike going about their daily business is riveting in his hands:
Vultures run like gimpy thieves, making off over the ground in cantering hops, half-turned, with a cringing air, as if clutching something shameful to the stiff stale feathers of their breast. The marabou, with its raw skull and pallid legs, is more ill-favored still: it takes to the air with a hollow wing thrash, like a blowing shroud, and a horrid hollow clacking of the great bill that can punch through tough hide and lay open carcasses that resist the hooks of the hunched vultures. Vultures fly with a more pounding beat, and the cacophony of both, departing carrion, is an ancient sound of Africa, and an inspiring reminder of mortality.
As though seeing such reminders of mortality weren’t enough, Matthiessen feels obliged to reach out and touch them. Here is the climactic passage of Blue Meridian (1971), where he is in a cage in the water amid great white sharks:
The larger shark barged past the cages and banged against the hull to swipe and gulp at the chunks of meat; on the way out, it repeatedly bit the propeller of the outboard, swallowing the whole shaft and shaking the motor. Then it would swing and glide straight in again, its broad pectorals, like a manta’s wings, held in an upward curve. Gills rippling, it would swerve enough to miss the cage, and once the smiling head had passed I could reach out and take hold of the rubber pectoral, or trail my fingers down the length of cold dead flank, as if stroking a corpse.
Danger is unavoidable in what Matthiessen does because he is after the extraordinary sensation, and the wild he loves is just that: wild, and therefore perilous to puny man, however bold and resourceful he may be. These extraordinary sensations are meant to gather into an understanding of inhuman nature and man’s relation to it.
The ultimate understanding, which Matthiessen came to approach most nearly through his Zen practice, is that every sensation is extraordinary, that every moment, properly lived, is as intense as the next. He joins Zen and nature most superbly in The Snow Leopard, with its wondrous depictions of exotic mountain landscapes and mountain people, among them unassuming icons of Buddhist spirituality, and with its shattering memories of his wife’s dying. This is a book as good as any by an American writer in the past 30 years.
While much of Matthiessen’s nonfiction depicts the purity of the natural world he loves, his fiction represents the blighted world of men that he wants to get away from. His novels are tragic, and fragrant with disgust for human evil and degradation. In Race Rock (1954), a cat placed in a barrel full of rats, a rigged game of Russian roulette, a heroic and entirely unnecessary attempt at sea rescue that results in a good man’s drowning, much talk of boredom and meaninglessness and failing to live, and dismal half-hearted stabs at romantic love mesh in an infernal machine of perfect sardonic clockwork. His best novel is Far Tortuga (1975), a triumph of formal audacity, yet a ripping good yarn. It follows the final voyage of a Grand Cayman turtling schooner; the stink and brutality of life ashore contrasts with the wild splendor of the Caribbean, and human and inhuman violence combine to do in the boat and its crew as they flee a gang of piratical Jamaicans only to founder on a reef in the night. Far Tortuga deserves a place among the supreme fiction of the time.
Matthiessen had even grander ambitions for Shadow Country (2008), a triptych of novels over which he labored for 30 years. Edgar J. Watson, the tirelessly enterprising but never quite successful farmer and businessman out to tame the Everglades around the turn of the 20th century, and a murderer murdered by his outraged fellow citizens, is one of the most memorable characters of modern American fiction. However, the pervasive themes of American racism and corrupt practice and ruination of wilderness get shrill and tiresome with ceaseless repetition. This could have been one of the great American novels if Matthiessen hadn’t let his political opinions obtrude, to his fictional world’s diminishment.
To empty the mind through religious discipline, to rove the world, and to write both what one sees and what one imagines are callings that few men can balance might seem at hopeless odds with one another. Pascal famously wrote that all man’s trouble is caused by his being unable to sit still in a single room: Matthiessen seriously craves stillness but can’t stop moving.
The ugliness and bustle of modernity repulse him, and he seeks solace in simplicity; however, as he was not born a primitive in some rain forest or a Buddhist in some mountain fastness, finding simplicity generally means an ironic journey of thousands of miles by some loathsome modern conveyance such as a steamship or jet plane. Modern civilization is inhospitable to natures such as his and largely uninterested in the subjects that obsess him. That is surely the cause of his relative obscurity, even if fairness demands that his name be placed high on the short list of significant American writers of our time.