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Writer-environmentalist Peter Matthiessen dies

Prague Writers Festival


NEW YORK (AP) - Peter Matthiessen, a rich man's son who spurned a life of ease in favor of physical and spiritual challenges and produced such acclaimed works as "The Snow Leopard" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," died Saturday. He was 86.

His publisher Geoff Kloske of Riverhead Books said Matthiessen, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, was ill "for some months." He died at a hospital near his home on Long Island.

Matthiessen helped found The Paris Review, one of the most influential literary magazines, and won National Book Awards for "The Snow Leopard," his spiritual account of the Himalayas, and for "Shadow Country." His new novel, "In Paradise," is scheduled for publication Tuesday.

A leading environmentalist and wilderness writer, he embraced the best and worst that nature could bring him, whether trekking across the Himalayas, parrying sharks in Australia or enduring a hurricane in Antarctica.

He was a longtime liberal who befriended Cesar Chavez and wrote a defense of Indian activist Leonard Peltier, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," that led to a highly publicized, and unsuccessful, lawsuit by an FBI agent who claimed Matthiessen had defamed him.

Matthiessen became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s, and was later a Zen priest who met daily with a fellow group of practitioners in a meditation hut that he converted from an old stable. The granite-faced author, rugged and athletic into his 80s, tried to live out a modern version of the Buddhist legend, a child of privilege transformed by the discovery of suffering.

Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927, the son of Erard A. Matthiessen, a wealthy architect and conservationist. "The Depression had no serious effect on our well-insulated family," the author would later write.

While at Yale, he wrote the short story "Sadie," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and he soon acquired an agent. After graduation he moved to Paris and, along with fellow writer-adventurer George Plimpton, helped found The Paris Review. (Matthiessen would later acknowledge he was a CIA recruit at the time and used his work with the Review as a cover).

The magazine caught on, but Paris only reminded Matthiessen that he was an American writer. In the mid-1950s he returned to the United States, moved to Long Island's Sag Harbor (where he eventually lived on a six-acre estate), socialized with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other painters, operated a deep-sea fishing charter boat - and wrote.

Matthiessen's early novels were short, tentative efforts: "Race Rock," ''Raditzer" and "Partisans," which features a wealthy young man who confides that "his ignorance of human misery." In need of money, Matthiessen also wrote for such magazines as Holiday and Sports Illustrated.

In 1961, Matthiessen emerged as a major novelist with "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," his tale of missionaries under siege from both natives and mercenaries in the jungles of Brazil. Its detailed account of a man's hallucinations brought him a letter of praise from LSD guru Timothy Leary. The book was later adapted into a film of the same name, starring John Lithgow and Daryl Hannah.

He wrote many other books, including "Far Tortuga," a novel told largely in dialect about a doomed crew of sailors on the Caribbean; "The Tree Where Man Was Born," a highly regarded chronicle of his travels in East Africa.

In the 1980s and '90s, Matthiessen published a trio of novels - "Killing Mr. Watson," ''Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone" - about a community in Florida's Everglades at the turn of the 20th century and a predatory planter. Unhappy, especially with "Lost Man's River," he spent years revising and condensing all three books into "Shadow Country," published in 2008 and a surprise National Book Award winner.

Although an explorer in the Hemingway tradition, Matthiessen didn't seek to conquer nature, but to preserve it. In 1959, he published his first nonfiction book, "Wildlife in America," in which he labels man "the highest predator" and one uniquely prone to self-destruction.

Much of his fiction, from "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" to "Bone by Bone," bestowed a lion-like aura upon nature - grand when respected, dangerous when provoked, tragic when exploited.

"There's an elegiac quality in watching (American wilderness) go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes," he once wrote. "I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."

Matthiessen was married three times, most recently to Maria Eckhart, whom he wed in 1980. He had four children, two each from his first two marriages.

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El Presidente April 06 2014 at 11:13 AM

If your work can make you immortal, this man will live forever. "The Snow Leopard changed my life.

Respect, admiration, and love, dear friend.

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VIPRLARES April 06 2014 at 1:35 PM

RIP Peter Matthiessen and thank you for your writtings.

Flag Reply +14 rate up
mirthfully April 06 2014 at 11:12 AM

Thank you for sharing your insight and your journey.

Flag Reply +12 rate up
suzannji2 April 06 2014 at 12:49 AM

The Snow Leopard changed my life profoundly, and I am immesurably grateful to him.

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1 reply
Ruth suzannji2 April 06 2014 at 8:10 AM

"Snow Leopard" is a wonderful book on many levels. While reading it, I was on the Tibetan plateu, snarled at by mastiffs, watching the blue sheep frolick. My favorite story was the abbot of Crystal Cave monestary. Crippled, he would never be able to leave his remote mountain top temple again. Peter asked the abbot how, under the circumstances, he maintained his happiness. The abbot answered that the place was beautiful, and peaceful and just great. Then he added, "besides, I have no choice." That one line has helped me understand the nature of contentment.

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sfcbob121 April 06 2014 at 12:24 AM

"Wildlife in America" was some of my favorite reading.

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viviglam April 06 2014 at 1:18 AM

Rest in Peace Mr. Matthiessen.

Thank You for your positive contribution to our planet. My Uncle just died at 88 from Leukemia. He was also active and accomplished. He was taken away from us suddenly. His health was good and then one day - gone.

You are an inspiration. Thank You. Sweet Restful Sleep.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
1 reply
James viviglam April 06 2014 at 4:10 AM

Sorry about your uncle, but what on Earth does that have to do with Matthiessen? Oh yeah, they both died. I get it.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
joe April 06 2014 at 8:52 AM

Another "renowned" person whom I've never heard of. My ignorance seems to be infinite these days. R.I.P

Flag Reply +6 rate up
Susan April 06 2014 at 10:47 AM

Sad to hear this! Loved his books and learned much from them!

Flag Reply +11 rate up
Alexis Elizabeth April 06 2014 at 11:59 AM

R.I.P. you were a great man and I hope other people will follow in your footsteps!!

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1 reply
crazy ray Alexis Elizabeth April 06 2014 at 12:25 PM

You mean to the grave?

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1 reply
emmett crazy ray April 06 2014 at 6:41 PM

crazy ray draped in liberty only for himself .

Flag +1 rate up
dwhisperk April 06 2014 at 2:45 AM

The people here taking shots at a dead man, no doubt didn't read any of Matthieesen's work. Yes, he defended Peltier in his book, but then the larger issue is what European greed mongers did to a nation of Native Americans. But I guess that was alright. Wounded Knee was a tragedy all the way around.

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