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Peter Mattiessen

Robert Downes - October 25th, 2010
On the Trail of Peter Matthiessen
By Robert Downes
Author Peter Matthiessen reached a summit in his literary career years
ago during an expedition to find a rare and elusive snow leopard in
the Himalayas. A student of Buddhism, the search for the nearly
extinct cat became a metaphor for his own quest for enlightenment in
the 1978 book, “The Snow Leopard.”
You can’t help but wonder if Matthiessen, 83, has been searching for
that leopard ever since as he ponders the incongruities of human
nature in books which have included 10 novels and 22 works of
non-fiction. He will offer his perspective this Friday, Oct. 29 as a
guest of the National Writers Series at the City Opera House in
Traverse City.

Matthiessen colors his prose with the brush of poetry, drawing from a
deep well of insight into the natural world and human nature. He has
been rewarded in turn by legions of devotees, with many rereading his
works over and over again. There have also been honors: “The Snow
Leopard” earned his first National Book Award.
Some of his books have attained the mythical stature of the snow
leopard itself in works such as “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”
(1965) about the culture clash between missionaries and Indians in the
Amazon; “Far Tortuga” (1975), an impressionistic work written in
pidgin English about the lives of poor fisherman in the Cayman
islands; and his latest, “Shadow Country,” which tells the tale of
Edgar Watson, a sugarcane planter in the Everglades, who was shot down
by his neighbors in the wake of a hurricane in 1910.
That last book is an exploration of racism, injustice, and the bizarre
human impulse to destroy the wilderness and its wild creatures.
“Shadow Country” is the distillation of a prior trilogy, “Killing Mr.
Watson” which spanned some 1,500 pages. Matthiessen says he was never
happy with the disjointed nature of the trilogy, however, and decided
to trim 400 pages from the work in order to create “Shadow Country,”
which earned his second National Book Award in 2008.
If fiction alone was Matthiessen’s contribution to literature, he’d be
considered one of the world’s most exalted authors. But his
non-fiction works dealing with natural history and injustice to Native
Americans also fill a large shelf of knowledge. He chronicled the
disappearance of “Wildlife in America” (1959); wrote of the “New
American Revolution” in his biography of migrant leader Cesar Chavez
(1969); and was sued for $24 million by an FBI agent for “In the
Spirit of Crazy Horse” (1983) about the FBI’s “reign of terror” and
the 1975 shoot-out between the agency and American Indian Movement
leader Leonard Peltier on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South
This is not to mention Matthiessen’s expeditions to South America,
Antarctica, Africa, Siberia, Tibet and other far horizons around the
world. Nor the revelation several years ago that Matthiessen had
been an agent with the C.I.A. when he helped found the influential
Paris Review in 1953, allegedly to gain access to the leftist
intellectuals of Europe during the Cold War. As he notes in the
following phone interview, Matthiessen was soon radicalized by the
experience and began a lifelong commitment to protecting the
environment and defending the indigenous people of the earth.

NE: What are you working on now?
Matthiessen: I’m working on two much shorter novels -- they’re both
kind of challenging ideas and rather difficult. I’m not going to talk
about them in detail because I think that’s bad luck at this stage of
the game.
And in the background my publishers want me to do a memoir. It might
be fun -- I’ve had a lot of adventures I haven’t written about.

NE: I imagine that would be quite interesting with all of the
countries you’ve visited.
Matthiessen: Yeah, well there’s that, and some of the things I’ve
done in between the lines. It might be kind of fun to do if I can
keep it self-deprecating and not fall into senile narcissism. But
I’ll do that in reserve if I can’t get the novels going.

NE: Will the new books have anything in common with your past books?
Matthiessen: No, I don’t like repeating myself -- I like to get away
from what I’ve done before.

NE: You tend to like to write about people on the edge of
civilization or outsiders in books like “Far Tortuga” or “At Play in
the Fields of the Lord,” and certainly “Shadow Country.” Have you
always been attracted to outsiders as a theme?
Matthiessen: Yeah, I always have. I like people who are on the edge
who have real difficulties and aren’t merely neurotic. I think the
neurotic ground is pretty well covered (in literature). I’m just not
much interested in what I call ‘suburban angst.’ There are an awful
lot of good writers who have that pretty well done and I can’t add to
that. I like finding people who are in their own kind of trouble and
on the edge of things.

NE: Your latest book, “Shadow Country” won the National Book Award in
2008. How did you get interested in Edgar Watson’s story? Was he
based on a real person in history?
Matthiessen: Historically, he was a real person, but the fact of the
matter is that virtually everything that was said or published about
him was wrong. It’s all myth and legend and I was interested in
getting back to the beginning of the legend. The same mistakes (about
Watson’s character) were made over and over again and he became kind
of a Bluebeard. He wasn’t a very nice guy, but he wasn’t a monster
either. The fact that he was a human being is what interested me.

NE: Did you live in the Everglades to research the story?
Matthiessen: Well, I’ve been in and out of the Everglades an awful
lot ever since I was a kid. I’ve never been a Floridian, but both my
father and now my brother are residents of Florida and I’ve been in
and out of there a lot on conservation stuff. I worked with Audubon
magazine there and also with the American Indian people. And all of
those themes interested me about the Everglades. It’s one of the most
precious places in the world and no other place is comparable as a
swamp -- there’s nothing like it -- it’s a great big river that’s 100
miles across.

NE: At the beginning of the book, you write that it’s about the themes
that have absorbed you all your life, including “the pollution of land
and air and water… the obliteration of the wilderness and its wild
creatures and also the injustice to the poor of our own species,
especially the indigenous peoples and the inheritors of slavery.”
Do you think we’ll ever get past those things in America? Do you see
any progress?
Matthiessen: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of superficial progress in
terms of racism and bigotry, and also in terms of the environment; so
we’ve won a lot of small victories. But the prevailing trend is that
we’re losing a lot more than we’re winning. The prevailing trend is
not good. Many of us have been fighting this for 80 years, and sure,
we’re slowing it down, but...

NE: Is that part of the American character?
Matthiessen: It partly is, but it’s also part of human nature. We’re
a great big overpopulated animal -- we’re a great big polluting mammal
-- and even if we solve everything else, the mere fact of our biomass
is undoing all of the good -- not enough water and too many people.

NE: There was a lot of controversy a few years back when it came out
that you had been an agent for the CIA when you helped found The Paris
Review back in the early ‘50s. Has that died down for you?
Matthiessen: I never denied it. I talked to the New York Times about
this as far back as 1970. I didn’t make a big secret of it, but my
politics changed so radically (soon after founding the Paris Review)
that as I’ve often said, it became the one adventure I wish I’d never
On the other hand, it radicalized me. I might not ever have worked
with indigenous people and those like Cesar Chavez if I hadn’t turned
way left from the whole attitude in our country back then. So it
wasn’t all bad; when I went in (to the CIA) it was the beginning of
the Cold War and things were very different. It was the patriotic
thing to do and I was also very greedy: I wanted to get back to Paris
and to my writing. It’s just that I began to like the people I was
working against more than the people I was working for.

NE: One final question: I’ve heard you had an unusual experience
during the 9/11 attacks involving Traverse City and Doug and Anne
Stanton, the founders of the National Writers Series.
Matthiessen: Yeah, I took off from New York the same time all of
those hijacked planes did. I was in the air over Pennsylvania at the
same time. And all of a sudden our pilot said ‘hey folks, we’re going
to put down and put down fast,’ and he didn’t explain, so we were all
kind of nervous about that. And by the time we flew from eastern
Pennsylvania and found an airport we could get into, it was Traverse
Luckily, I had a friend named Jim Harrison from Lake Leelanau, who I
was supposed to be meeting with some friends in Montana. So I called
him and asked who could help me out here and he said he knew a good
guy in town named Doug Stanton; and Doug and his wife Anne were very
hospitable and made me feel very welcome in a difficult situation.

At “An Evening with Peter Matthiessen,” the author will be joined
onstage by National Writers Series founder and New York Times
best-selling author Doug Stanton for a conversation about
Matthiessen’s books, work and life, as well as an audience Q&A. The
event will be held at the City Opera House in TC on Friday, October 29
at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15-35 in advance or $20-40 at the door.
Students and tribal members receive a $10 discount on all tickets.

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