Peter Matthiessen, a popular author well-known both for his fiction and non-fiction, died on April 5 in his home in Sagaponack, N.Y., at the age of 86. The cause of death, according to his son Alex, was leukemia – he was diagnosed with it about a year ago. The admirers of his creative work can get a last taste of his writing from his final novel, “In the Paradise”, which has been published by Riverhead Books shortly afterwards.
Peter Matthiessen has been known not only as a prolific fiction and non-fiction writer, but also as an enthusiastic naturalist, and indeed, the majority of his writings in this or that way were dedicated to this one passion: he at great length explored the far corners of the world untouched by civilization and often put the protagonists of his books into them.
He was a man of many talents and many interests, ranging from literature and journalism to Zen Buddhism; he was even at a certain period of time an undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.
But whatever were his other interests, the main passion of his life was still writing. He also travelled far and wide, visiting the most remote locations of all parts of the world, thus giving himself a lot of subject material for his books. Peter Matthiessen wrote more than 30 books, most often based on his travels, for example, to the Himalayas (“The Snow Leopard”), Peru (“At Play in the Fields of the Lord”), the Caribbean (“Far Tortuga”) to name a few. The vast majority of these books are non-fiction, but the author himself always considered them nothing more than a work of a craftsman, while thinking about his fiction to be his real accomplishments. According to Matthiessen himself, nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet, while fiction is sculpture – and as such, real art.
And this estimation is made not only by him, but by a number of literary critics as well. For example, Matthiessen’s biographer, William Dowie, compares him to such literary titans as Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
He started his literary endeavors pretty early in his life: as an undergraduate of Yale (where he majored in English and later taught creative writing for a little while) he won a prestigious Atlantic Prize for a short story. However, for quite some time his later work was left almost unnoticed, until he wrote “Wildlife in America”, which attracted the attention of The New Yorker editor William Shawn, who hired Matthiessen to travel around the world and write about endangered wilds, thus determining the major direction of his work throughout his later life.