Sunday, April 06, 2014

Peter Matthiessen, RIP

Peter Mattthiessen has died at 86. the word had been out that he was not well, but he had been a figure on the horizon for all of us who write about nature  for a lifetime, and like Patrick Leigh Fermor it seemed he might go on forever...

I thought as a writer he could be uneven, led astray by obsessions and politics and, I suspect, a flinty patrician Yankee's sense of noblesse oblige. By all accounts he was warm and even funny in person, but that does not often show in his work. Which does not matter if the quality is high, and when he aimed high, it was.

His views of what was most important in his work and my favorites, at least, were different. I could never get through ANY version of his Florida  trilogy- plus- fourth- volume- condensation, nor most of his pure political stuff. I loved At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and his often ignored book on cranes. Wildlife in America is magnificent but was too pessimistic;  any amount of species that he had given up as lost are more numerous than when he wrote the first version, in 1959.  You should still own it as a yet unmatched history of the post- European continent.

I enjoy The Snow Leopard, which is of course not about the mammal but Buddhism and a bit about George Schaller. The Tree Where Man was Born re-reads well. I would also like to reread Blue Meridian some time, because he was a blue- water man by birth and inclination. Where we unite-- no, where I will go further than he seemed to--- is in thinking that the on- its- face experimental Far Tortuga is a masterpiece, and one that becomes vividly "real" as you enter its universe. I would guardedly call it his best fiction, maybe best book.

It is also safe to say that no contemporary writer during his long career wrote such a various body of lasting work. And let us not slight Paris Review, still readable after all these years, though whether its style owed most to him or to George Plimpton I am not establishment enough to know.

More on his last days here. (Photo from NYT) Thanks to Andy Wilson for links.


mdmnm said...

"Men's Lives" is a very good book as well.

Steve Bodio said...

Absolutely, Mike, and I need to get one again. "Problem" with him is that there are just so many! (This was his book on professional fishermen on Long Island).

Randy Davis said...


Peter M s writing could be tedious, particularly the non fiction but I think he found his subject with Watson, the first volume being a masterwork in my view. Growing up in Florida among people and relatives he was writing about in the trilogy, I thought he captured their ways and voices like no one else ever has. Far Tortuga I thought owed a lot to The Windward Road.

Andy said...

You're welcome, Steve. A sort of similar problem is I need to get another copy of TSL, because I'd like to read it again. Seems like it (and many other books) moved elsewhere when I had the book exchange in Acapulco ten years ago. This isn't the first time I can't find a book I had and loved. --Andy

Steve Bodio said...

Randy: the Windward Road suggestion is brilliant. I think Archie Carr needs a revival. Ulendo too, as a minimum.

I have been bouncing off the Florida cycle. Do you think the "condensed" version is worth trying?

Lucas Machias said...

PM was on Charlie Rose, last night.

I t should be available on line somewhere.

I flipped into the middle of it and it took a few seconds to figure who he was. It hit me he was the guy in the pic here.

I read his Wildlife in America when I was 13-14 and it was a formative book for me. Loved the Bob Hines line drawings,too.

Randy Davis said...


SHADOW COUNTRY is actually a different book, I mean he started off in another direction with a some new characters, new events, and major differences. changes in the story too. He expanded part of my great grand dads history a page or two which of course thrilled me, and its a brilliant move and book, but and this is a big but, it suffers from one of Peters writerly drawbacks which is covering too much ground too speedily to a degree that you begin to feel vertigo. Peter told me by letter from Europe after SHADOW COUNTRY had come out that he wasn t done with Watson yet, he planned another Florida book! He must have changed his mind. Over all, the first volume and last volume of the trilogy to me is Peter at his best fiction wise.