Peter Matthiessen was described by Stephen Jay Gould as “our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition.” In his extraordinarily rich life, Matthiessen had co-founded the Paris Review, been a CIA agent, become a Zen master, and won two National Book Awards for his books, The Snow Leopard and Shadow Country.
Peter Matthiesden born in New York City (1927). His father was a successful architect, and Matthiessen grew up in an affluent area of southwest Connecticut. He hated the stifling atmosphere of country clubs and private schools, and he became obsessed with nature.
He kept a secret collection of poisonous copperhead snakes in his bedroom and charged local kids money to see them. He was also a devoted bird watcher and eventually persuaded his father to join the Audubon Society.
He served in the Navy during World War II, where he managed the Navy’s boxing team and wrote sports articles for the Honolulu Advertiser. He studied at Yale after the war, and published his first short story in the Atlantic Monthly while he was still in college.
Later that year he traveled to Paris, where he and two other young writers, Harold Humes and George Plimpton, decided they were sick of having their work rejected by literary magazines, and so they started their own. They called it The Paris Review, and it went on to become one of the most influential literary journals of the second half of the twentieth century.
Matthiessen published two novels, Race Rock(1954) and Partisans (1955), but they didn’t make much money, so he began working as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Long Island. Working on a boat brought him closer to nature than he’d been since he was a child, and he realized that what he really wanted to write about was nature.
He took off on a trip across the United States in his Ford convertible, with a shotgun and a sleeping bag, looking for places where certain American animals were dying out: the bear, the wolf, the crane. His journey became the subject of his book Wildlife In America (1959), which was one of the books that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement in the United States.
Matthiessen has continued to write novels, such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1966), as well as books about nature, such as The Snow Leopard (1978) and End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica, which came out in 2003. He wrote more than 33 books in his lifetime, switching effortlessly between fiction and non-fiction.
Matthiessen once said, “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. 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.”