Peter Matthiessen, whose life and work can hardly be contained with the usual trio of descriptors—environmentalist, adventurer, writer—has died at age 86, of leukemia. Matthiessen was an early user and proponent of LSD, a Zen priest, a spy, a naturalist, a fisherman, a World War II veteran, and a writer. He helped found The Paris Review in the 1950s, which he had long claimed was a cover for his role as a CIA agent spying on Americans in France. The breadth of his work underscores a life that took him to some of the world’s wildest and most remote places: The Snow Leopard is a memoir of walking across the Nepalese Himalayas; Blue Meridian follows a 17-month expedition to find the great white shark; Under The Mountain Wall chronicles his participation in the Harvard-Peabody expedition to New Guinea, during which Michael Rockefeller disappeared. His books, and his life, bespeak an old-school adventurer; a New York Times profile that appeared shortly before his death says that he was being described as a “throwback” even in 1978, only 13 years after the publication of his breakthrough novel (At Play In The Fields Of The Lord).
Matthiessen is the only person to have won the National Book Award for both fiction (2008’s Shadow Country, a reworked trilogy of previously published work) and non-fiction (1978’s The Snow Leopard, which remains one of his best-known works). Several of his works inspired great filmmakers: His short story “Travelin’ Man” was adapted by Luis Buñuel as the film The Young One, and Blue Meridian inspired the documentary Blue Water White Death (in which he briefly appears), which in turn inspired Jaws. His non-fiction book The Cloud Forest, about his journeys through 10,000 miles of South American wilderness, are said to have been part of the inspiration for Werner Herzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.
In his more than 30 books, Matthiessen wrote with the precise yet evocative prose of the post-Hemingway generation of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron. Yet his writing was also often informed by his extraordinary devotion to Zen Buddhism; in The Snow Leopard, he writes: “‘I’ve been very moved…’ I say, and stop. Such words are only clutter, they do not say what I mean; I am moved from where I used to be, and can never go back.”
Matthiessen died only days before the April 9 release of his final book, the novel In Paradise. The book is about a group of people who partake in a spiritual retreat at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and is based on a retreat that Matthiessen attended there in 1996.