From the office of the Riverhead Books publisher, Geoff Kloske:
Peter Matthiessen, award-winning author of more than thirty books, world-renowned naturalist, explorer, Buddhist teacher, and political activist, died at 5:15 PM on Saturday April 5, 2014 after an illness of some months. He was eighty-six years old.
Matthiessen is the only writer to win the National Book Award more than once – in fact three times, twice in two nonfiction categories for The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, and in fiction three decades later for Shadow Country. His final book, In Paradise,is scheduled to be published by Riverhead Books on April 8, 2014. A novel inspired by a profound experience Matthiessen underwent as a participant in a Zen meditation retreat at Auschwitz in the 1990s, In Paradise is a powerful and uncompromising exploration of the legacy of evil and our unquenchable, imperfect desire to wrest good from it. “We are deeply honored to be custodians of Peter’s final, characteristically bold work of art,” says Riverhead Books publisher Geoff Kloske, noting that the publication reunited Matthiessen with editorial director Rebecca Saletan, who had worked with him on several books since the early 1980s, initially under the auspices of Random House editorial director Jason Epstein. In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks writes, “Matthiessen’s work has always carried a powerful moral message.… In Paradise is a logical conclusion to a long writing career.”
Matthiessen’s exceptional body of work, much of it about the planet’s remaining wild places and the people who inhabit them, was inspired by boundless curiosity and lifelong travels, most recently to Mongolia in the summer of 2012, when he was 85. It was also fueled by a disciplined work ethic. “Peter was a force of nature, relentlessly curious, persistent, demanding—of himself and others,” says his literary agent, Neil Olson. “But he was also funny, deeply wise and compassionate.” The resultant writing was largely nonfiction, published both as books and as journalism, including in The New Yorker under William Shawn. But Matthiessen’s first love was fiction. He sold a short story to the Atlantic while an undergraduate at Yale and became the first fiction editor of The Paris Review, which he cofounded with Doc Hume in 1953. He went on to publish four novels before he was forty, including At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which was nominated for a National Book Award and later made into a feature film. His travels fueled not only his nonfiction but his fiction, and he was as fearless in pushing the horizons on the page as in the physical world. His experience among Caribbean turtle fishermen resulted in Far Tortuga, written entirely not only in dialogue but in their Grand Cayman dialect.
A 1973 expedition to the Himalayas after the early death of his second wife resulted in The Snow Leopard, whose enduring success eclipsed his fiction for some years. But he always regarded himself primarily as a novelist, and he devoted more than twenty-five years to his masterwork, a historical epic about the Everglades sugar planter and outlaw Edgar Watson. When the project grew overlong in both time and volume, he allowed it to be published initially as a trilogy, Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone. But he never stopped thinking of it as a single work, and after the final volume appeared in 1999, he devoted another eight years to cutting, restructuring, and revising it into a single novel, which was published as the National Book Award-winning Shadow Country in 2008. “In everything he wrote, Peter was always relentless in his quest to get it right, to drive the impression on the page ever closer to the vision in his imagination, through draft after draft,” says Saletan. ”Every galley page was a palimpsest, even on this final book.”
Matthiessen’s outspoken activism for environmental and social causes was also reflected in his books, including the 1983 In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the American Indian Movement, which resulted in libel suits again Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking Penguin, by a former governor of South Dakota and an FBI agent he wrote about; the suits were finally dismissed in 1990.
Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974 and designated State Author of New York in 1995-97, Matthiessen was the recipient of the William Dean Howells Award, given by the Academy once every five years for fiction, for Shadow Country, and the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, among many other honors. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen eventually became a priest of the White Plum Asanga. Until the time of his death he lived for decades on the South Fork of Long Island, where he had worked as a commercial fisherman in his twenties. He is survived by his wife, the former Maria Eckhart; six children – a son, Lukas, and a daughter, Sara Carey, with his first wife, Patsy Southgate; a daughter, Rue, and a son, Alexander, with his second wife, Deborah Love; and two stepdaughters, Antonia and Sarah, from his third marriage—and six grandchildren.