Biographies We Need: Peter Matthiessen, Novelist and Naturalist

Peter Matthiessen, Miami Bookfair International, 1991
Peter Matthiessen, Miami Bookfair International, 1991

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

Peter Matthiessen’s life and work spanned styles, continents, and genres. His fiction encompassed everything from a fraught period in Florida’s history to the unraveling lives of missionaries living in South America. His nonfiction ranged from the pastoral to the political, and he co-founded The Paris Review. That he did so when he was also working for the C.I.A. adds yet another wrinkle to a complex life -- one that can still prompt heated debate in literary and cultural circles. The obituary for Matthiessen that ran in the New York Times after his death last year noted that his C.I.A. connections remained a source of much discussion.

In an interview conducted in 2014 for The Believer, Matthiessen said of his fiction, "I like to be out there on the edge with people who, as I say somewhere, haven’t got time to be neurotic." Perhaps that’s what attracted him to the fraught topics of some of his books: At Play in the Fields of the Lord, for instance, which focused on clashes cultural and physical in South America, or 1983’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which detailed the FBI’s attacks on the American Indian Movement. He won the National Book Award twice: in 1980, The Snow Leopard won for Nonfiction, and in 2008, Shadow Country won for Fiction.

As part of The Paris Review’s Art of Nonfiction series, Matthiessen was asked about his work on both sides of the fiction/nonfiction divide. He replied:

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.

Even within his body of work, there are episodes that could likely support entire works of nonfiction on their own. Chief among them would be the CIA’s involvement in the early days of The Paris Review. A very fictionalized version of this crops up in Toby Barlow’s novel Babayaga, which also incorporates witches, elements taken from folklore, and consciousness-expanding psychedelics. A number of lawsuits followed the publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which resulted in a decade-long delay for the book’s paperback edition. Also notable is the story of the writing of Shadow Country, which followed a trilogy of novels based on the life and killing of the 19th-century sugar cane plantation owner Edgar Watson, and condensed them into one volume.

More than most authors, Matthiessen seemed focused on the different ways in which his body of work might be classified. He discussed the books, such as In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, that had been "written for a cause" in the same Paris Review interview referenced earlier. "All of these advocacy books contain good stuff," he said, "but I had to work on them especially hard because, from a literary point of view, they came from the wrong place."

In an appreciation that The New Yorker published after Matthiessen’s death, James Salter wrote, "There were aspects of Peter that faced elsewhere -- his spiritual life, his solitary travels, the intimate side of his past -- and that you knew only by chance or from reading his books." A number of mysteries and contradictions existed in Matthiessen’s life (not covered in this piece: his practice of Zen Buddhism, which is addressed in this interview.) His life encompassed political activism, the cultural side of the Cold War, decades’ worth of literary scenes, and an iconic approach to both fiction and nonfiction that few others have echoed. A biography of Peter Matthiessen would by necessity elude some of the conventions of the form, but given the vitality of his work, that seems entirely appropriate.