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Peter Matthiessen
April 5, 2014 11:50 PM   Subscribe

Peter Matthiessen’s Homegoing. "He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and fiction, but it’s not just the writing: Born into the East Coast establishment, Matthiessen ran from it, and in the running became a novelist, a C.I.A. agent, a founder of The Paris Review, author of more than 30 books, a naturalist, an activist and a master in one of the most respected lineages in Zen. As early as 1978, he was already being referred to, in a review in The New York Times, as a 'throwback,' because he has always seemed to be of a different, earlier era, with universal, spiritual and essentially timeless concerns." Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86.
posted by homunculus (40 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

posted by jokeefe at 11:52 PM on April 5

posted by notyou at 11:59 PM on April 5

A very strong memory of childhood is endlessly rereading 'The Tree Where Man Was Born', Matthiessen's beautiful coffee table book with wonderful writing and photographs that my parents owned. It still sticks with me.

so, thank you

posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 12:32 AM on April 6

posted by zaelic at 12:35 AM on April 6

posted by Megami at 1:11 AM on April 6

posted by Vibrissae at 2:23 AM on April 6

I'll miss him because I loved his writing but like a lot of the greats he had a hell of a run.

posted by edeezy at 2:30 AM on April 6

I love "The Snow Leopard" and hope that you might consider reading it if you haven't.

posted by gen at 2:47 AM on April 6 [9 favorites]

Oh, this hurts. I remember after graduation in the early nineties, working as a security guard on the night shift at a superfund site, sitting in a freezing trailer at 4:00 a.m. and reading The Snow Leopard, trying to escape my life.

“The glee of it. The ecstasy of It. I can't speak about this It because I know no word. It is just there, It is always there, like death in life. In this instant I know that something terrible is rising that must be seized and turned back upon itself before it twists outward into violence. But that knowing always comes too late, a wild unraveling is under way and I am caught up in it like a coyote seen late one afternoon in an Arkansas tornado-a toy dog spinning skyward, struck white by a ray of sun against black clouds, then black, then white, then gone and lost forever. The wind dies. A dead stillness. Mirror water. That ecstasy that shivered every nerve replaced by the precise knowing that what this self perpetrated is as much a part of the universal will as erupting lava that subsides once more into the inner earth.”
― Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country
posted by mecran01 at 3:13 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]

“In the jungle, during one night in each month, the moths did not come to the lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon.”
posted by chavenet at 3:59 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

In a lifetime of reading, I'd rank Snow Leopard as one of my top-three non-fiction experiences.

Interesting that the article omits any mention of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. It's certainly hiding an important (and controversial) aspect of PM's career by doing so. There was a lot more to PM than Zen.
posted by Twang at 4:34 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

posted by Hobgoblin at 5:11 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

Shadow Country is probably my pick for The Great American Novel. The Snow Leopard has been on my to-read list for ages. Incredibly gifted writer, with a passion for the world that seemed to shine through whatever he was working on.
posted by Wrongshanks at 5:26 AM on April 6

The Snow Leopard.

posted by Mister Bijou at 5:43 AM on April 6

posted by Obscure Reference at 5:46 AM on April 6

posted by alms at 5:54 AM on April 6

Shamefully, I've only read sections of his work, never a complete book. He always struck me as someone who would have been incredibly interesting to know in person.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 AM on April 6

I read the NYT magazine article last night just before going to bed and was reminded of much his writing has moved me in the past and woke up thinking time to get all of his books that I haven't read. Then a friend told me this morning that he had died. He was a remarkable writer who led a remarkable life. I'd guess he was more at peace and ready to move on from what he said in the magazine article.

posted by leslies at 6:03 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

Like many others, I'm sure, The Snow Leopard and the Watson trilogy are at the top of my nonfiction and fiction book lists. Sad loss of a rich life.
posted by cedar key at 6:05 AM on April 6

Wow, I was hoping when I saw his name that this wasn't the case. He was a model in multiple ways. From I everything I read about and by him, he was a man of real character, and I had hoped to meet him. If you're curious about his life and his practice, I would recommend Zen and the Writing Life is a series of lectures. Thank you, Peter.

posted by vecchio at 6:06 AM on April 6

I saw him read once in college. It was hypnotic, probably too intense to be enjoyable. The Snow Leopard has grown on me over the years though. At the time I found it boring--rereading it recently I realized it's just densely packed with meaning.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:28 AM on April 6

Such a shame that he died and just days before this latest novel, In Paradise, was to be released.

posted by Fizz at 6:49 AM on April 6

posted by jasper411 at 6:58 AM on April 6

posted by dannyboybell at 7:02 AM on April 6

posted by gingerbeer at 7:05 AM on April 6

He had a knack for memorable book titles: At Play in the Fields of the Lord .. describing him as a "throwback" is sort of right, he has an ancient granite quality, but a stone tool with a cutting edge, and the timeless appeal of cave paintings.
posted by stbalbach at 7:09 AM on April 6

posted by TwoStride at 8:25 AM on April 6

That New York Times magazine article had a detail I had missed:

Rockefeller was killed and eaten by Asmat warriors on a later expedition.

Then I found this on the Daily Mail website. Is 1961 the last and closest to documented ritual human eating of an industrialized traveler?

Anyway I think the article exaggerates a bit. We can all give our informed speculation about Rockefller's death details but unless they have a body that's all it is. Like the Malaysian airliner without the black box recovered. There isn't any physical evidence. For all we know Rockefeller was eaten by a crocodile which is no more fun but not as sensational. They have some really nasty crocodiles in New Guinea.

Oh yeah and Mathiessen was one of the greats. Snow Leopard. At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Both of which are temporarily out of stock from my computer! If you act quick you can snatch a copy of The Tree Where Man Was Born.
posted by bukvich at 8:38 AM on April 6

That Daily Mail link is truly horrific - I am not terribly squeamish and found it absolutely gruesome.
posted by leslies at 8:45 AM on April 6

posted by allthinky at 9:09 AM on April 6

My reading life was changed so much for the better when I randomly discovered him in high school, both by his own books -- fiction and nonfiction -- and by the things he made me realize I cared about: the environment, anthropology, even motherfucking Florida, of all things. His life alone is the stuff of novels, but his writing deserves to live forever.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 10:56 AM on April 6

posted by From Bklyn at 11:49 AM on April 6

"See, Buddy? Dat de north star. Goes very bright, and den she fades again, every four days. Dat is one thing you can count on. Everything else in dis goddom world changing so fast dat a mon cannot keep up no more, but de north star is always dere, de cold eye of it, watchin de seasons come and go…It were watchin on de night dat you were borned, and it be watchin when dat night comes dat you die."

Matthiessen's 'Far Tortuga' is the last manifestation of the Late American Sublime: ecstatically, ambitiously Melvillian in its scope, experimental audacity, baffled initial reception and canonical inevitability. Highly recommended.
posted by Haruspex at 12:24 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]

This is an excellent post that does justice to the man. Thank you homunculus.
posted by latkes at 4:40 PM on April 6

. ... :)
posted by kozad at 4:53 PM on April 6

posted by Halloween Jack at 5:57 PM on April 6

posted by jcrcarter at 8:32 PM on April 6

posted by oneironaut at 10:10 PM on April 6

Oh my god, I was reading this post thinking, "Yes, a post about Peter Matthiessen, the author of my favourite book of all time!" And then the last line—

This kills me.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:25 PM on April 6

Like Potomac Avenue above, I didn't much like The Snow Leopard, and I've bogged down in at least three or four other books of Matthiessen's I've started reading — maybe this sad news will inspire me to try again. I have, however, always been fascinated by his life – and now how incredible it is to learn that The Paris Review was started at least partly as a CIA cover operation.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:26 AM on April 7

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