Esteemed writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, hailed by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould as "our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition," died yesterday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86.
Photo Credit: ED BETZ/AP
Matthiessen was a celebrated novelist, former C.I.A. agent and co-founder of The Paris Review, among many, many other things. Unsurprisingly, there has been no shortage of achievement-laden obituaries published since his passing. But if you read one piece about Matthiessen this weekend, let it be this fantastic profile by Jeff Himmelman. It was published Thursday in the New York Times Magazine, two days before Matthiessen died. It is thorough, holistic, beautifully unfeigned and, we think, a more fitting sendoff than any in memoriam published in the last 24 hours.
Out the Montauk Highway, south toward the water, then a quick right before the beach and you're there, at the Sagaponack house where the author and Zen teacher Peter Matthiessen has lived for the last 60 years. The home used to be the garage and outbuildings of a larger estate, and there is an improvised, of-the-earth sprawl to the place. One side of the main house is grown over with ivy, and under the portico, in between two piles of chopped firewood, an immense finback whale skull balances on blocks. Just to the left of the front door sits a tree stump covered stupalike with shells and other found objects. After I ring the doorbell and rap a few times on the glass, Matthiessen emerges from his living room and waves me in.
He has spent much of his career going back in time — up to ancient villages in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, out to the vast plains of Africa in search of the roots of man — but now time has caught up to him. He's 86, and for the last 15 months he has been countering leukemia with courses of chemotherapy. You can still see the intensity in his long, serious face and clear blue eyes, but there is an unexpected softness to him as he pads back toward the living room in an old sweater and stockinged feet. His latest novel, "In Paradise," is being promoted by his publisher as his "final word," but Matthiessen doesn't want to talk about the book or his career in those terms. He has no desire for sympathy points. Though he did not want to dwell on it, he acknowledged that his medical situation was "precarious," and a few weeks after our two days together his health would decline to the point that he had to be admitted to a hospital, with family standing by. It gave our conversations the feeling of stolen time.
Though Matthiessen is not as well known as some other names of his generation, you would be hard-pressed to find a greater life in American letters over the last half-century. He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and fiction, but it's not just the writing: Born into the East Coast establishment, Matthiessen ran from it, and in the running became a novelist, a C.I.A. agent, a founder of The Paris Review, author of more than 30 books, a naturalist, an activist and a master in one of the most respected lineages in Zen. As early as 1978, he was already being referred to, in a review in The New York Times, as a "throwback," because he has always seemed to be of a different, earlier era, with universal, spiritual and essentially timeless concerns.
These concerns are evident throughout his house. In the living room, on the wall behind the piano, is a set of photographs from an expedition Matthiessen undertook to New Guinea with Michael Rockefeller in 1961, a trip that Matthiessen would turn into "Under the Mountain Wall" (1962). As we stood in front of the images — tribal boys throwing spears through a hoop hurled aloft, warriors approaching one another in aggression — Matthiessen mentioned that a recent book by the journalist Carl Hoffman confirmed his suspicions that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by Asmat warriors on a later expedition. It was a reminder of the extremity of his serial travels. On the other side of the room, behind a well-stocked bar, is a small study, where Matthiessen showed me two framed photographs: on the left, two slender young men in bathing suits; on the right, an aged Matthiessen holding a wooden box in his hands. "That's me and Bill Styron on a dock in Italy," he said. "We were drunk. That was right before I left the C.I.A." Then, pointing at the other: "And that's me with Bill's ashes."
Read the rest at NYT Magazine.
H/t Jason Bittel