Peter Matthiessen


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Peter Matthiessen, born in New York City on May 22, 1927, is a novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer who bases most of his writing on his travels. He writes about vanishing cultures, oppressed people, and exotic wildlife and landscapes, combining scientific observation with lyrical, intellectual prose that connects the world of art and the world of the natural sciences. 

“In fiction and in nonfiction, Peter Matthiessen is one of the shamans of literature,” says John L. Cobbs in Dictionary of Literary Biography. “He puts his audience in touch with worlds and forces which transcend common experience.” While living in Paris, Matthiessen wrote his first novel, Race Rock (1954). It established him as a serious, disciplined writer of perception and imagination with a penchant for description. 

While in Paris, he founded the Paris Review along with Harold L. Humes and was its first fiction editor. Upon returning to the United States in 1954, he settled in Long Island and worked for three years as a commercial fisherman and as captain of a charter fishing boat. He published his second novel, Partisans (1955), during this time. In the late 1950s, Matthiessen began his series of travels that informed and shaped his career and life. 

Between 1956–1963, expeditions to Alaska, Canadian Northwest Territories, Asia, Australia, Oceania, and wilderness areas of South America, Africa, and New Guinea resulted in three books of nonfiction: Wildlife in America (1959), which is still in print and considered a classic of its form, The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961), and Under the Mountain Wall (1962). In addition, he published his third novel, Raditzer (1961).

With the publication of his fourth novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), which was nominated for a National Book Award, Matthiessen received considerable critical recognition. William Styron referred to At Play in the Fields of the Lord as “fiction of genuine stature, with a staying power that makes it as remarkable to read now as when it first appeared.” In 1991 the book was adapted into a film directed by Hector Babenco.

A year after his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters) in 1974, Matthiessen published his fifth novel, Far Tortuga. Widely considered to be his most inventive work of fiction, it is experimental in form, consisting mainly of dialogue with varied typographic formats. It relates to the doomed voyage of a group of sailors who leave the Cayman Islands to hunt turtles in the Caribbean.

Matthiessen returned to nonfiction with the publication of The Snow Leopard (1978), winner of a National Book Award. Written out of his increasing interest in Zen, The Snow Leopard recounts his trip to the remotest parts of Nepal with the naturalist George Schaller in search of the Himalayan blue sheep and the rarely-seen snow leopard. 

Best author’s book


At Play in the Fields of the Lord