Not long after the publication of The Tree Where Man Was Born, Peter Matthiessen’s classic account of travels in East Africa, I overheard a restaurant conversation between two well-dressed men on the general topic of midlife. One said, “My wife and my psychiatrist agree that as a human being I’ve atrophied—spiritually. For my fiftieth birthday, she’s arranged a trip to the Serengeti, for God’s sake. ‘Go to a place that might change you,’ she said.” His friend said, “Well?” and the man answered, “Well, I’d rather read Peter Matthiessen. I’ll enjoy his African trip a great deal more.”
Peter Matthiessen’s writing—fiction and nonfiction—does not provide approximations. What it does do with inimitable skill is put a reader at the live heart of life—a powerful, rich sense of immediacy, of being in that moment. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974, he has long been one of our most celebrated writers, best known, perhaps, for his novels At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, his travel journal The Snow Leopard, and his lifelong advocacy of wilderness and wildlife preservation and social justice.
For the past twenty years, Peter Matthiessen has been obsessed by a remarkable trilogy of novels based on the violent life and death of Edgar Watson, a notorious frontier entrepreneur who in 1910 was gunned down by his neighbors in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the western Everglades. Killing Mister Watson, published in 1990, was followed in 1997 by Lost Man’s River, and the final volume, Bone by Bone, narrated by Watson himself, appears this spring.
This interview forms only a small part of an ongoing conversation between this writer and myself pursued for over a decade in locations as varied as northern California; Washington, D.C.; Clarksville, Tennessee; Montauk, Long Island; the Hotel Wales in New York City; and the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales. In all of these discussions, he was, as Conrad put it, “high up on the top rung of honesty as naturally and carefully and unashamedly as a man can climb.” He is a man of tough-minded opinion, deeply earned and forthrightly rendered, with passion and quick humor ringed with what one writer calls a “useful melancholy.”
Born in New York City on May 22, 1927, Matthiessen attended the St. Bernard’s School, then Hotchkiss and Yale. His junior year was spent at the Sorbonne. In 1951 he returned to Paris, where he became a founder of The Paris Review and finished his first novel, Race Rock. In 1953 he moved to the South Fork of Long Island, New York, where his daughter Sara Carey was born. For the next three years Matthiessen worked as a commercial fisherman and as captain of a charter fishing boat off Montauk, pursuing his writing in bad weather and in winter. His second novel, Partisans, was published in 1955. In 1957, he traveled to the farthest corners of America, doing research for his classic study Wildlife in America (1959). In 1961 came his third novel, Raditzer, and also The Cloud Forest, a naturalist’s account of his previous year’s travels through backcountry South America and the first of six books serialized in The New Yorker. The same year, he traveled to Sudan, East Africa, Nepal, and Southeast Asia en route to the Harvard-Peabody Expedition to New Guinea on which Michael Rockefeller disappeared; his innovative account of a stone-age culture, Under the Mountain Wall (1962), would influence Truman Capote’s conception of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. In 1965 his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 1967 came Sal Si Puedes, his account of the California grape strike and the life of Cesar Chavez.
That year Matthiessen set out on the turtle-boat voyage from Grand Cayman Island to the coastal reefs off Nicaragua that eventually led to the novel Far Tortuga (1975), which Thomas Pynchon called “a masterfully spun yarn, a little otherworldly, a dreamlike momentum. . . . It’s full of music and strong, haunting visuals, and like everything of his, it’s also a deep declaration of love for the planet.” In 1973 he accompanied zoologist George Schaller on a 250-mile trek across the Himalayas to the Tibetan plateau. His account of that journey, The Snow Leopard, won the National Book Award in 1979. Since then, Matthiessen’s books have included In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, his powerful account of the American Indian Movement and the 1975 shoot-out at Pine Ridge in which two FBI agents and a young Indian were killed (Matthiessen remains at the forefront of international advocacy for the release of AIM leader Leonard Peltier); The Wind Birds; Indian Country; Men’s Lives; and the short-story collection On the River Styx.
There is, to my mind, no writing life more vital and of greater distinction in the second half of our century. Matthiessen’s prodigious and varied works led William Styron to call him “an original and powerful artist . . . who has produced as distinguished a body of work as any writer of our time . . . He has immeasurably enlarged our consciousness.”
You are one of the few writers ever nominated for the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. Define yourself.
I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. I have written more books of nonfiction because my fiction is an exploratory process—not laborious, merely long and slow and getting slower. In reverse order, Far Tortuga took eight years, At Play in the Fields of the Lord perhaps four, and the early novels no doubt longer than they deserved. Anyway, I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction. My first published story appeared in The Atlantic the year I graduated from college and won the Atlantic firsts prize that year; and on the wings of a second story sale to the same magazine, I acquired a noted literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten, wife of James Gould Cozzens, the author of a best-selling blockbuster called By Love Possessed, whose considerable repute went to the grave with him.
And when did you start your first novel?
Almost at once. It was situated on an island off the New England coast. I had scarcely begun when I realized that what I had here at the very least was the Great American Novel. I sent off the first 150 pages to Bernice and hung around the post office for the next two weeks. At last an answer came. It read as follows: “Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better, Yours, Bernice.” On a later occasion, when as a courtesy I sent her the commission on a short story sold in England, she responded unforgettably: “Dear Peter, I’m awfully glad you were able to get rid of this story in Europe, as I don’t think we’d have had much luck with it here. Yours, Bernice.” Both these communications, quoted in their entirety, are burned into my brain forever—doubtless a salutary experience for a brash young writer. I never heard an encouraging word until the day Bernice retired, when she called me in and barked like a Zen master, “I’ve been tough on you because you’re very, very good.” I wanted to sink down and embrace her knees.
Do you stand by the early novels?
Well, those first three were a bit green—well-written and well-made, I think, but entirely unremarkable, as were most of the first thirty-odd short stories that are still moldering some place collecting mouse droppings. The third novel, Raditzer, was bolder, but I came of age with At Play in the Fields of the Lord. I like to think that At Play and Far Tortuga, as well as the collected stories and this present trilogy, will endure.
Can you say which writers have influenced your work?
A terrible confession—none. Try as I might to claim some creditable literary lineage, I find no trace that I can recognize in my writing. I don’t mean to claim that I am sui generis (though one could argue that all truthful writers are sui generis), nor that I came to work fully formed like a hen’s egg or a Buddha. Nor do I seek to be unique or even “different,” far less self-consciously “experimental.” In Far Tortuga, the innovations emerged from the writing process because old familiar novelistic forms simply weren’t working.
Many great writers inspired me, of course, but inspiration is not the same as a direct influence. I was often stirred by the beauty of great prose, the passion and startling intensity of hard-won truths, which leapt from that creative fire. I suppose I became a writer to search out my own thoughts (though I was unaware of that for years; I simply wrote). For the writer, therefore the reader, fresh truth is exhilarating, even painful truth, as in Kafka or Céline. Isn’t that what good writing finally arrives at? The insights and epigrams of Alexander Pope weren’t clichés when he wrote them, any more than those resounding lines in Shakespeare. They only became dog-eared from overuse.
The writers whose perceptions and evocations stirred me most when I first read seriously were probably Conrad and Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy and Gogol, too, of course—I loved all the great Russian writers with a passion, and certain more recent ones, as well, Babel and Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva (though I remain woefully ill-read in poetry, which I regret). And that’s just Russia! There are so many fine writers, including too many—a glum realization at my age—whom I haven’t got to yet. It is very, very exciting to be a reader!
Are there still exemplary figures whose lives or voices are important to you? Conrad? Which writers do you return to now and then?
I rarely go back to a book, since I never feel sufficiently caught up in my own work. However, a few years ago, on a stalled expedition, I had an opportunity to reread The Idiot, which I’ve always thought of as “my favorite novel” (if such a thing can be; the great ones are no more comparable than the sun and the sky). I wanted to see if that book held up—if it was as heartbreaking and magnificent as I once thought it, and of course it was. Whereas—well, let’s simply say that most modern novels, even the better ones, are pretty dinky in ambition and certainly unworthy of a second reading when one knows that great ones are still out there unread.
How about contemporaries? Are any of them important to your writing life?
I admire many of my contemporaries, especially those who risk something or bring some new element to their work. I won’t discriminate between my own contemporaries, but among subelders, I try to keep up with pretty much everything in the fiction, good and bad (for in very good writers, the intention remains interesting even when a certain work seems less so), of V.S. Naipaul, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, and a few others. Of course, there are single novels that are excellent, but what interests me most is the working through from book to book of some recurrent obsession or at least preoccupation, a reverberation from within, which may burst the work wide at any moment, though it often seems half-hidden from the writer. What I’m trying to describe, I guess, is conflagration, a life burning up, as lives do in Dostoyevsky. Obsession that isn’t crazed or criminal is always enthralling. I learned a lot about obsession from too much time spent in the mind of Mister Watson.