"I used to distinguish between my fiction and nonfiction in terms of superiority or inferiority." -- Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen (born May 22, 1927, in New York City) is a two-time National Book Award-winning American novelist and nonfiction writer as well as an environmental activist. He frequently focuses on American Indian issues and history, as in his detailed study of the Leonard Peltier case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. In November 2008, at age 81, he received his second National Book Award for Shadow Country, an 890-page revision of a trilogy of novels he released in the 1990s. His first National Book Award was won in 1980 for The Snow Leopard. His story Travelin' Man was adapted into the film The Young One by Luis Buñuel.
"Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined - how is it that this safe return brings such regret?""I think in any writing you're paying attention to detail.""I was just very interested in the American frontier and the growth of capitalism - those enormous fortunes that were being made, more often than not, on the blood of poor people, black people, Indian people. They were the ones who paid very dearly for those great fortunes.""In fiction, you have a rough idea what's coming up next - sometimes you even make a little outline - but in fact you don't know. Each day is a whole new - and for me, a very invigorating - experience.""In nonfiction, you have that limitation, that constraint, of telling the truth.""When I'm in the field, when I'm working, I keep very careful notes. I wear big shirts with big breast pockets, and I carry in them two little spiral notebooks."
Along with George Plimpton, Harold L. Humes, Thomas Guinzburg and Donald Hall, Matthiessen founded the literary magazine The Paris Review in 1953. At the time he was working for the CIA.
In 1959, he published the first edition of Wildlife in America, a history of the extinction and endangerment of various animal and bird species at the hands of the human settlements that occurred throughout North American history, as well as historical efforts at endangered species protection. It was one of the first books to call attention to global warming, by mentioning how the polar ice cap formations caused the lowering of the seas, and how the isthmus that Mongoloid people crossed from Asia to present-day Alaska to establish North America's first settlement is now submerged by the Bering Strait.
In 1965, Matthiessen wrote a novel about a group of American missionaries and a South American tribe. The book was later made into a major Hollywood film with the same title, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, in 1991. In 1979, Matthiessen's nonfiction book The Snow Leopard won the Contemporary Thought category of the National Book Award. His work on oceanographic research, "Blue Meridian," with photographer Peter A. Lake, documented the making of the film "Blue Water, White Death," which was directed by Peter Gimbel and Jim Lipscomb. This is widely considered to have inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws in 1974. Matthiessen has been the official State Author of New York, 1995-1997.
In 2008, Matthiessen revisited his trilogy of novels -- Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, based on accounts of Florida planter Edgar J. Watson's death shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910. He revised and edited the three books, which originated as one 1,500-page manuscript, and the result was a single volume entitled Shadow Country. The book won the 2008 National Book Award.
Shortly after the 1983 publication of In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen and his publisher Viking Penguin were sued for libel by FBI agent David Price and former South Dakota governor William J. Janklow. The plaintiffs sought over $49 million in damages; Janklow also successfully sued to have all copies of the book withdrawn from bookstores.After four years of litigation, Federal District Court Judge Diana E. Murphy dismissed Price's lawsuit, upholding Matthiessen's right "to publish an entirely one-sided view of people and events." In the Janklow case, a South Dakota court also ruled for Matthiessen. Both cases were appealed. In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear Price's arguments, effectively ending his appeal; the South Dakota Supreme Court dismissed Janklow's case the same year. With the lawsuits settled, the paperback edition of the book was finally published in 1992.
In his book The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen reports having a somewhat tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with his wife Deborah, culminating in a deep commitment to each other made shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in New York City near the end of 1972. She and Matthiessen had four children; the youngest of them, Alex Matthiessen, was 7 or 8 years old at the time of her death. In September of the following year, Matthiessen went on an expedition to the Himalayas with field biologist George Schaller.
Matthiessen and Deborah practiced Zen Buddhism. Matthiessen later became a Buddhist priest of the White Plum Asanga. Before practicing Zen, Matthiessen was an early pioneer of LSD. He says his Buddhism evolved fairly naturally from his drug experiences.
In 1980, Matthiessen married Tanzanian-born Maria Eckhart in a Zen ceremony on Long Island, New York. They live in Sagaponack, New York.
In 2005, Matthiessen along with Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin, was hailed in Mark Tredinnick's The Land's Wild Music in which Tredinnick analyzed how the landscape nourished and developed Matthiessen's writing.