MATTHIESSEN, PETER (1927– ). New York-born Peter Matthiessen
has borne the double titles of author and naturalist since the beginning of
his professional writing career. Son of an architect father who was also a
trustee of the National Audubon Society, Matthiessen has continually demonstrated a deep respect for, and knowledge of, the natural world, which
permeates his writing. Having served in the navy 1945–1947, he began
writing short stories at Yale University while enrolled in courses in zoology
and ornithology. His junior year, 1948–1949, was taken at the Sorbonne,
University of Paris. In 1950 he received both his B.A. from Yale and the
distinguished Atlantic Prize for Best First Story (“Sadie”).
In 1951 Matthiessen cofounded the Paris Review with Harold L. Humes,
and during 1954–1956 he captained a deep-sea charter fishing boat out of
Montauk, Long Island, New York. He has been a commercial fisherman and
a member of expeditions to wild areas of all five continents, keeping a record
of his observations of the natural world in both his fiction and nonfiction.
His first nonfiction volume, the encyclopedic Wildlife in America (1959),
was written after a three-year journey to every then-existing North American
wildlife refuge and is in the permanent collection of the White House Library. He was a National Book Awards judge in 1970; he received both the
National Book Award for Contemporary Thought and the American Book
Award for The Snow Leopard (1978). In 1985 he was awarded a gold medal
for Distinction in Natural History from the Academy of Natural Sciences.
He is a member of the New York Zoological Society and from 1965 to
1978 served as a trustee. The volumes of Matthiessen’s work that depict the marine world are many
and encompass diverse locales and themes; a recurring concern is the tension
created between the natural world and capitalist forces. Oomingmak: The
Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea (1967) chronicles Matthiessen’s experiences in a 1964 trip underwritten by the University of
Alaska and the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research, whose purpose
was the capture of musk ox calves for transfer to Fairbanks, where they
would become the source of a permanent North American herd. In the same
year he produced the reference The Shorebirds of North America with Ralph
S. Palmer and artist Robert Verity Clem. In 1970 Matthiessen undertook
another of his numerous “remote” journeys, this time as a diver in Australia,
accompanying a team attempting to capture the first footage of the great
white shark. He chronicled this period in Blue Meridian: The Search for the
Great White Shark (1971). The film was eventually released under the title
Blue Water, White Death (1970). He is also the author of a children’s book,
Seal Pool (1972), illustrated by William Pene Du Bois and published in
England as The Great Auk Escape.
Far Tortuga* (1975) remains Matthiessen’s most extensive fictional treatment of the sea and has enjoyed lasting critical acclaim for its singular narrative technique as well as its carefully researched and documented setting.
The characters illustrate one of Matthiessen’s ongoing concerns: the vanishing breed of “hands-on” fishers, slowly pushed into uselessness by human
greed, monolithic corporations, and increasingly mechanized fishing procedures.
More recently, Matthiessen has returned to nonfiction chronicles about
the sea and its inhabitants, human and otherwise. His own experience as a
commercial fisherman and boat captain informs his study of the vanishing
community of eastern Long Island fishermen, Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and
Baymen of the South Fork (1986), adapted into a play, Men’s Lives,* by Joe
Pintauro (first perf. 1992; pub. 1994). His murder-mystery trilogy about
Edgar J. Watson, pioneer of the Florida Everglades (Killing Mr. Watson
[1990], Lost Man’s River [1998], and Bone by Bone [1999]), is set in the
Ten Thousand Islands region off the coast of southwest Florida. The lushly
photographed Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia (1992) contains his diary of a
twelve-day journey along the 400-mile lake that holds one-fifth of the
world’s fresh water and includes a study of the region’s fishing population,
wildlife, and encroaching pollution. Matthiessen continues to travel and explore widely, and his work appears in numerous popular publications including Audubon, The New Yorker, and Outside.
FURTHER READING: Cooley, John. “Matthiessen’s Voyages on the River Styx:
Deathly Waters, Endangered Peoples,” Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers. Ed. John Cooley. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994, 167–92; Dowie, William. Peter Matthiessen. Boston: Twayne, 1991.