Novels and Nature

04.07.14

Peter Matthiessen Was One of the Greatest Writers of a Great Generation

A peerless naturalist and an even better novelist, the author, who died Saturday, came of age amid a glittering generation of writers among whom he had almost no peers.

Peter Matthiessen was a writer who outlived his time.

Matthiessen died Saturday at 86. The literary world he helped found and nurture, and whose landscape he bestrode like the colossus he was—that world is gone.

It was a strange world, or seems so in retrospect, built as it was of equal parts meritocracy and autocracy. It flowered in the ashes of World War II, when young authors and editors emerged in this country and wrested control so quickly that it took people a decade or so to take the full measure of the likes of Styron, Mailer, Vidal, Plimpton, Shaw, Baldwin, and Matthiessen, especially Matthiessen.

They were mostly men, and almost all men who had served in the war, which was as surely their college as the whale ship had been the college that educated Melville. Some of them wrote about their experience, and some did not, but in ways large and small, it marked them all.

None of the books they wrote were small bore. Not for them were the domestic dramas of hearth and home—and certainly not for them were the university writing programs just then beginning to sprout. They had been to war, seen something of the world, even fetched up as expatriates in Paris for a spell. (The writer as man of action with no permanent address was still a strong impulse—call it the Hemingway hangover.)

The novels they wrote were often overwrought and even bloated, but there was genius there, too, and you couldn’t have the genius without all that went with it.

Some of them, like Irwin Shaw, faded early, and some, like Styron, faded in the stretch. Others, like Vidal and Mailer, had more stamina, or maybe just more to say, although even there you never knew from book to book whether you were watching genius or genius gone awry.

Matthiessen was part of that generation—he and his childhood friend George Plimpton helped found the Paris Review, the house organ for a literature that was equal parts class, subversion, elegance, and comedy. But at the same time, Matthiessen was always a cat that walked by himself.

As a novelist, he did not find his footing until well into the ’60s, with his fourth book, the brilliant At Play in the Fields of the Lord, about a group of missionaries and their encounters with an indigenous people in South America. But no sooner had he published that book than he walked away from novel writing for more than a decade. He spent his hiatus from fiction proving himself the pre-eminent nature writer of his generation—the first edition of his classic and still useful Wildlife in America had actually appeared in 1959, six years ahead of At Play, and in 1979 he won his first National Book Award not for a novel but for the nonfiction book The Snow Leopard.

Mattheissen was green long before green was cool, and there is no gainsaying his contributions to and influence on the great tradition of American nature writing, so much so that it is impossible to imagine that tradition without his presence.

That said, I would argue that not only is he too often ignored as a great novelist but that he was always much better at fiction than nonfiction. The nature books, even The Snow Leopard, a book I have tried several times to finish without success, I find too narratively static to make me keep turning the pages. Whenever I read Matthiessen the naturalist, I am reminded of a film clip I once saw of him trying to catch a snake in the wild. Even as a boy growing up privileged on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he kept snakes in his room, and in that clip you see a man wholly given over to the fearless, heedless glee of wrangling a serpent. Reading his writing about wildlife, I always search in vain for some of the same abandon and danger caught on that scrap of film.

Matthiessen the novelist, in contrast, gives you that excitement on almost every page, whether in the spare experimental fiction of Far Tortuga (another of his books I struggled to get into, but there the effort pays off in spades) or the more traditional historical fiction of Killing Mr. Watson, the first of three novels about the South Florida frontier that would, as a collected trilogy, win him his second National Book Award in 2008. (He is the only author to win that prize for both fiction and nonfiction.)

There is no such thing as a typical Matthiessen novel. He insisted on reinventing himself with every book. But the character of Watson exemplifies the Matthiessen protagonist as well as anything. The real Watson was a sociopathic landowner in southwest Florida where land and water know no fixed boundary. You won’t find many people down there who won’t tell you that Watson was a murderous son of a bitch. But Matthiessen’s Watson is more mysterious. He might be a good man, he might be evil, and the genius of the novel that contains him is its preservation and articulation of this mystery—this unknowable aspect of people and things we think we know all too well.

Besides being an accomplished naturalist and novelist, Matthiessen was also a dedicated Buddhist. We met in Florida when I was assigned to write a profile. I was living there then, and he had come down to run a Buddhist service in Clearwater. I accompanied him to the event, my first such encounter with practiced Buddhism, where I sat and sat and sat and tried to clear my mind (bring a pillow and lots of patience). What I remember most clearly is that while Matthiessen was plainly a celebrity in that world, he comported himself with no sense of self-importance but more impressively with no trace of false humility. He was simply easy in his own skin.

Matthiessen’s fascination with nature and with the unknowability of reality—and the necessity of articulating that mystery—comes without expiration dates.

I should add that my faulty memory attributes to him perhaps a little more heroic asceticism than was the case: He stayed with us during that visit, and I remember him sleeping on the floor. My wife, whose memory is never clouded by what should have been, says otherwise.

Be that as it may, Matthiessen’s Buddhism was clearly no affectation, and it bleeds into his books. He told an interviewer in 2002, “Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake. We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”

It is that sense of immediacy, even in novels about the past, that you get from his fiction. The people are alive, the focus is crystalline, the prose itself shimmers with life. In his latest novel, In Paradise, whose official publication date is two days off, a group of people makes a pilgrimage in 1996 to the former site of a Nazi death camp in Poland. There are prayers and meditation, but the past and present are restive, and there are never easy answers, even in this place where absolute evil would seem to forbid equivocation. There is certainly no preaching from Matthiessen. Written with a young man’s energy, In Paradise possesses an old man’s wisdom, which eschews the presumptions of age and the easy attainment of certitude.

Matthiessen’s generation is almost gone. He was one of the last. But while the dreams and ambitions that drove most of those writers—to write the Great American Novel, to live life on a large and even glamorous scale—now seem old-fashioned, even quaint, Matthiessen endures. His fascination with nature and with the unknowability of reality—and the necessity of articulating that mystery—comes without expiration dates. He taught several generations about the beauty of the wild and how to find a place in it. And generations from now novelists will still be learning from him. In wisely sidestepping the hubristic folly of trying to sum up his own time, he achieved a sort of timelessness.

Just as he outlived his generation, his work will surely survive him for a very long time to come.