Peter Matthiessen, 1927–2014

The author who roamed the wild

In his first nonfiction book, the naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen staked out the ground he would revisit throughout his life: the violence inflicted by mankind on the natural world. “Until man, the highest predator, evolved, the process of extinction was a slow one,” he wrote in 1959’s Wildlife in America. “No species but man, so far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climatic change, has ever extinguished another.” Matthiessen doubted humanity would ever change. “Man has been a murderer forever,” he wrote in his final novel, this year’s In Paradise, about a visit to a former Nazi death camp.

Born into a wealthy New York family, “Matthiessen was a man of many parts,” said The New York Times. Recruited by the CIA while at Yale University, he briefly served as a covert agent in France, where he co-founded The Paris Review literary magazine to cover his spying. After quitting the agency, Matthiessen turned to journalism, writing a series of reports on endangered species for Sports Illustrated, which became the basis for Wildlife in America. The book’s success allowed Matthiessen to venture farther afield. He trekked through South America for his 1961 book The Cloud Forest and hiked the Himalayas for 1978’s National Book Award–winning The Snow Leopard.

These travels also fueled his fiction, and 1965’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord—a tale of missionaries, mercenaries, and an elusive tribe in the Amazon rain forest—established him “as a major novelist,” said The Wall Street Journal. He won another National Book Award for his 2008 novel Shadow Country, about a Florida plantation owner. Writing a novel, Matthiessen explained, provided far more satisfaction than producing nonfiction. “In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on Earth,” he said, “one feels almost delirious with a strange joy.”

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