Friday, April 11, 2014

Famous New Yorkers---Peter Matthiessen

Location:   Sagaponack, New York
Year:   1927-2014

Peter Matthiessen, State Author of New York (1995-1997) was born in New York City on May 22, 1927 to Erard A. and Elizabeth (Carey) Matthiessen. His father was a successful architect, and a scion of the old Dutch Knickerbockers of New York. 

During his young years, Peter Matthiessen attended the prestigious Hotchkiss School with his neighbor, friend and classmate, George Plimpton. Matthiessen was later to write that "The Great Depression troubled his family not at all," but it troubled the younger Matthiessen morally. At the age of fifteen he wrote to the Social Register to have his name stricken from the rolls, and at age eighteen joined the Navy during World War II, where he served in the Pacific. When the time came, he refused much of a sizeable inheritance. 

After completing his Navy service (1947), he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale in 1950. Having spent part of his junior year at the Sorbonne, he returned to Paris in 1950, and with Plimpton founded the famed literary journal The Paris Review. Unknown to anyone at the time, he had been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, and his position at The Paris Review was part of his cover. Matthiessen, who along with other young Ivy Leaguers of his generation thought that he was promoting American values through his work with "The Company," quickly became disillusioned with the C.I.A.'s activities, and renounced his position as an agent. He was later to say that his stint with the C.I.A. was the only one of his adventures he regretted. 

After returning to the United States from Paris he settled on Long Island in the South Fork town of Sagaponack, where he was to live some sixty years. He wrote, and worked either as a commercial fisherman or a charter boat captain at times, though he was often away on adventures.  He married Patsy Southgate , the daughter of one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's advisors in the early 1950s. They had two children and divorced in 1956.

After his divorce, Matthiessen began traveling the world. A quiet, intensely observant man, his travels often colored his novels and his novels colored his non-fiction writing. In 1965, he had his first large commercial success with At Play In The Fields of the Lord, based upon his Amazon River travels. Although Matthiessen described himself as a novelist first and foremost, his non-fiction is at least as arresting. Like Loren Eiseley, Peter Matthiessen became a lyrical chronicler of nature:  The Cloud Forest described in non-fiction his time in the South American rainforest, Under The Mountain Wall was a memoir of his time among New Guinea tribesmen, The Tree Where Man was Born covered his adventures in East Africa. Blue Meridian, a book about Great White Sharks, was read by Peter Benchley, who was inspired to write Jaws. When translated to film by Steven Speilberg,  Jaws became the first $100,000,000 movie in history. 

Probably the best known of Peter Matthiessen's books is The Snow Leopard, written in the 1970s. Matthiessen began to practice Zen Buddhism in the late 1960s. He often told the story of, how having returned from a months-long trip abroad, he found several Zen monks in his driveway upon his return, invited there by his wife, Deborah Love, who he married in 1963. Intrigued, Matthiessen became a devoted student of Zen. After Deborah Love's premature death due to cancer, Matthiessen fled New York for a time, traveling to the Himalayas as part of an expedition to study the rare Blue Sheep. Matthiessen's notes from that trip became the text of The Snow Leopard, an intense record of a man making as great an internal voyage as external. The Snow Leopard won the National Book Award. He is the only author to win the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction. 

Matthiessen followed The Snow Leopard  with Far Tortuga, a novel remarkable for its Zenlike spareness --- he uses almost no metaphors in his writing. Matthiessen was to write Nine-Headed Dragon River, about his journey into Zen. Ultimately, he achieved the status of a Roshi, a Senior Zen teacher. 

Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart in 1980. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became intensely interested in the cultures and plight of Native Americans and produced two memorable books --- Indian Country, which many readers claim is akin to Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee in its intensity, and In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the U.S. government's vendetta against Leonard Peltier, leader of AIM, the American Indian Movement. Matthiessen was sued by an FBI agent and by the former Governor of South Carolina for slander, but the Courts dismissed their cases on First Amendment grounds.

Matthiessen kept his prolific pen active and continued to teach students at the Ocean Zendo in Sagaponack, and, through his Dharma heirs, at the Southern Palm Zen Group in Boca Raton, Florida.

In 2013, Matthiessen was diagnosed with leukemia, and died on April 6, 2014. His last novel, In Paradise, about a spiritual retreat to Auschwitz, was released two days after his death.


The Wind Birds
East of Lo Monthang
The Peter Matthiessen Reader
Courage For The Earth
Sal si Puedes
On The River Styx and other stories
Wildlife in America
Sand Rivers
Under The Mountain Wall
African Silences
Men's Lives
End of The Earth: Journeying To Antarctica
Indian Country
Blue Meridian
Tigers In The Snow
The Birds of Heaven
Zen and the Writing Life (audiobook)
The Cloud Forest
Bone By Bone
Nine-Headed Dragon River
Lost Man's River
The Tree Where Man Was Born
Far Tortuga
Killing Mr. Watson
At Play In The Fields of The Lord
Shadow Country
In The Spirit of Crazy Horse
The Snow Leopard
In Paradise

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