Book Essay - Summer 2018

Force of Nature

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The racing tides beneath Peter Matthiessen’s literary achievement

The Matthiessen family in Connecticut: Betty, Matty, Peter, Carey, and Mary. (Courtesy of Jeff Wheelwright)

By Jeff Wheelwright

June 4, 2018


Sometimes I feel that Peter Matthiessen is the most underappreciated of recent American writers. I am biased, because he was my uncle and my godfather, but I think he should be mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, William Styron, Philip Roth. The 20th-century version of the cultivated 19th-century adventurer, he brought back elegant accounts of the wild parts of every continent, including Antarctica. He is the only author to have won the National Book Award in both nonfiction (The Snow Leopard in 1980) and fiction (Shadow Country, 2008). His novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a finalist for the award in 1966, and so too was a nonfiction work, The Tree Where Man Was Born, in 1973.

Not just ambidextrous, Matthiessen stretched both forms of writing. After reading Under the Mountain Wall, his 1962 account of life in a New Guinea tribe, Truman Capote credited him with inventing what would be called the nonfiction novel, whereby fictional techniques shape narrative facts. Matthiessen’s experimental novel Far Tortuga, about a doomed voyage of turtle hunters, was his favorite of his 30-odd books. Among other conceits, it eschewed the use of adverbs and adjectives. When Far Tortuga was published in 1975, the poet and novelist James Dickey told him he had changed American literature.

Not quite. When Matthiessen died in 2014, the obituaries were full of praise, but they didn’t say he had changed our literature. Since he was raised not to toot his own horn, Peter would not have complained. Still, he observed more than once that, in dividing his work between fiction and nonfiction, he had made the assessment of his literary achievement more difficult.

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Jeff Wheelwright is a magazine writer and the author of three books, most recently The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA./

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