Iconic New England Author-Naturalist Peter Matthiessen Leaves Behind Rich Literary Legacy
By LEE DANIELS
Last week, the world lost an icon of the slowly fading generation of 20th century American renaissance men. Ivy-educated, veteran, naturalist/explorer, prolific author, and follower of Zen Buddhist philosophy Peter Matthiessen, aged 86, was the prototypic Yankee gentleman, and a highly respected contributor to culture in both the arts and science, beginning with the publishing of his first story while still in college.
Born into a wealthy Manhattan family of Scandinavian heritage and raised in Greenwich, Conn., Matthiessen received a classical education and then after serving in the Navy in the Pacific, went to Paris, where he, along with fellow East coast literati William Styron, George Plimpton, Tom Guinzburg and George Plimpton, launched and ran the Paris Review, at the same time working as a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency.
After his years in Paris, Matthiessen returned to the U.S. and published his first novel, Race Rock (1954), and then, moving to eastern Long Island, worked as a deep-sea commercial fisherman while continuing to write.
Not long ago, I looked up Mr. Matthiessen in Long Island, with the notion that, as a fellow secondary-school alumnus, he might be receptive to the idea of an interview. The post-it note with his address scribbled on it sits on a notepad on my desk, a subtle reminder that there is no time like the present to act on ideas or convictions.
In his New York Times obituary on Matthiessen, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt quoted a 2002 interview by The Guardian in which Matthiessen said, on the subject of Zen, “We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in the moment…we are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”
Author of 30 books, both novel and non-fiction, including At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), which was made into a feature-length film, and Far Tortuga (1976), its lyrical form flowing around the patois of turtle divers indigenous to the Caribbean, Matthiessen possessed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of marine life, as well as flora and fauna on land, garnered by his study of biology in college, followed by years of travel and exploration in places like the deep South, Mexico, The Amazon River basin, and the chronicling of his observations in short story, novel, and photographic essay.
An excerpt from a short story in his 1986 collection, On the River Styx (1986), about a cat-and-mouse game between an island-dwelling white trapper and an escaped black convict, provides a lively illustration of his intimate relationship with and familiarity with nature:
“Ocean Island is long and large, spreading down some four miles from the delta, southwest toward Cape Romaine. The true land is narrow spine supporting red cedar, cypress, yaupon, live oak, and the old-field pine, and here and there a scattering of small palmettos. There are low ridges and open groves and clearings, and a core of semi-tropic woods. Its south flank is salt marsh and ocean beach, and to the north, diked years ago above the tide, lies a vast, brackish swamp.The swamp is grassy, like a green-and-golden flooded plain, its distances broken by lone, bony tress and hurricane dikes and sluice gates. Here, in a diadem of reedy ponds, and coot and rail and gallinule, and predators.”
His 1959 book, Wildlife in America, echoes a recurring theme in Matthiessen’s literature, the juxtaposition of the ideal of man living harmoniously with the wild on our planet, while at the same time, threatening its future. One of the pioneers of the ecological movement on our planet, his words echo the plight of the eternal struggle for balance between the two forces of nature, an awareness that each of us would do well to keep in our hearts and minds.
“No species but man, so far as it is known, unaided by circumstance or climactic change, has ever extinguished another, and certainly no species has ever devoured itself, an accomplishment of which man appears quite capable. There is some comfort in the notion that, however Homo sapiens contrives his own destruction, a few creatures will survive in that ultimate wilderness he will leave behind, going on about their ancient business in the mindless confidence that their own much older and more tolerant species will prevail.”
Lee Daniels is Arts & Leisure writer for The Westchester Guardian and editor for Kiev, Ukraine-based ICU.