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Peter Matthiessen Dies At 86; Wrote Of Travels In The Natural World

Writer Peter Matthiessen died Saturday at age 86 after a long fight with leukemia, according to his publisher. Here, he stands in the yard of his house in Sagaponack, N.Y., in 2004.
Ed Betz
Writer Peter Matthiessen died Saturday at age 86 after a long fight with leukemia, according to his publisher. Here, he stands in the yard of his house in Sagaponack, N.Y., in 2004.

Author Peter Matthiessen, who used fiction and nonfiction to explore how man relates to nature, has died at 86. The revered naturalist and novelist had been suffering from leukemia; he died Saturday afternoon, his publisher confirmed.

In a career that began in the 1950s, Matthiessen connected readers to people and places that were being irrevocably changed by the modern world. And in the process, he often gave them a window into the changes that shaped his own life, as well.

His more than 30 books include the nonfiction In the Spirit of Crazy Horseand the novels At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Killing Mister Watson and Shadow Country, which won a National Book Award in 2008.

Here's how Matthiessen described his ability to work in different genres, in a 1999 Paris Review interview:

"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."

In that interview, Matthiessen said his first attempt at a novel had been rejected by his own literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten. She returned it with a note, he said: "Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better. Yours, Bernice."

But Matthiessen eventually hit his stride. And in much of his writing, he celebrated and examined the essential ties he felt to the wild world, in a sense following the template he established in his early days of writing in his free time while working in commercial fishing off Montauk, N.Y.

One of Matthiessen's most notable works is The Snow Leopard, a travel journal that won a National Book Award in 1979. Ostensibly about Matthiessen's trip to the mountains of Nepal, here's how Marc S. Kaufman described it for NPR in 2011:

"The rugged Matthiessen describes matter-of-factly the endless difficulties they face — weeks of unexpected monsoon rain, the frequent disappearances of essential porters, the high cliffside trails less than two feet wide. But the hardships of the trek are a stand-in for the real drama: Matthiessen has just lost his wife to cancer. His hurt and confusion are so great that he placeshis 8-year-old son into the care of others so he can set off for Dolpo. Why he did that, how he could be so appealing yet so selfish, was always a puzzle to me.

"Clearly, Matthiessen was a seeker — a driven man who had consumed his share of drugs, who looked for wisdom in many far-flung cultures, who later turned to Zen Buddhism. But more apparent to me now is that tracking the snow leopard was a search for something essential at a time of crisis. He needed to relearn how to live in this world, how to access his crippled capacities for understanding and balance."

Matthiessen died just days before the publication of his last novel, slated for Tuesday. As part of the lead-up to that release, he has featured on Weekend Edition Saturday. For that profile, Tom Vitale visited the writer's home in the East End of Long Island.

Here's how Vitale describes it:

"On the living room wall are a dozen large black-and-white photographs of New Guinea tribal warriors. The pictures were taken in 1961 — half by the author, the others by his traveling companion, Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared on that expedition, and may have been the victim of cannibals. Matthiessen wrote a book about that journey called Under the Mountain Wall — one of his many nonfiction chronicles of man and his relation to the natural world."

While Matthiessen was known for opening rugged worlds to readers, he was also a fixture in literary society for decades, having helped found The Paris Review shortly after graduating from Yale. He was a longtime resident of Sagaponack, N.Y.

From The New York Times:

"Mr. Matthiessen was one of the last survivors of a generation of American writers who came of age after World War II and who all seemed to know one another, socializing in New York and on Long Island's East End as a kind of movable literary salon peopled by the likes of William Styron, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.