Conversation with Peter Matthiessen

Credit Wolf Gang/flickr creative commons

This interview originally aired September 12, 2011.  

From Faith Middleton: Only Peter Matthiessen, a celebrated author (and Buddhist priest) from The East End of Long Island, would have confessed to me in the interview posted here that he used his meditation time once to work on his book. And he said it with so much earnestness, though he was a little amused. How could I not adore him? 

Matthiessen died Saturday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. from leukemia, according to a family member. Like the snow leopard he once wrote about, I half expected Peter to be wandering the jungle forever, puzzling out his plots and thinking about putting a spotlight on people who are poor and unseen. I don't know why I would think that since his life was aimed at staying in touch with the moment at end, rather than wishing for more, or fretting about the past. But that's wishful thinking for you.

What a fascinating life he led, with parts that left him unsettled, especially about the life of privilege he enjoyed growing up on Park Avenue, overlooking Central Park. He attended the best schools. And, after that, he clearly decided to chart his own course, taking LSD, attempting to write his first novel, rejected, and then agreeing to work for the CIA in Paris. In those days, the CIA recruited countless academics and literary types who could easily travel in the right circles to gather information on Americans who traveled abroad. Many Yale professors were among those working for the CIA.

According to interviews Matthiessen has done, he regretted the CIA work, describing it as "youthful folly," and a way to get paid to write in Paris, his first love. Some associates, including George Plimpton, were not amused when the story broke about Matthiessen years later. Plimpton and Matthiessen were schooled together at Hotchkiss in Connecticut, bonded for life, and it was Plimpton that Peter invited to be editor of The Paris Review.

While many young, talented writers saw The Paris Review as an outlet, Matthiessen admitted he also used it as a cover for his CIA work, reported in The New York Times. Yet, he insisted, The Paris Review had nothing to do with the CIA.

Fences were eventually mended, and the whole literary gang met frequently at Matthiessen's home on The East End of Long Island—William Styron, Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow and Tom Guinzburg among them.

Peter Matthiessen stayed true to his anti-elite principles, starting with withdrawing his name as a young man from The Social Register. His travels with Cesar Chavez led to the 1969 book, Escape If You Can. The novel Raditzer was about a wealthy young man going to sea to find himself. (Matthiessen once worked to earn money as a commercial fisherman.)

Of his more than 30 books, he wrote more non-fiction than fiction. As The New York Times said in his obituary, "He holds the distinction of being the only writer to win the National Book Award in both fiction and non-fiction."

Matthiessen's final novel, In Paradise, will be published tomorrow by Riverhead Books. I will be the first in line to read his last and no doubt lasting impressions.

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  • Peter Matthiessen was an author and environmental activist.


  • “Gne Gne,” Montefiori Cocktail
  • “Melodramatic Groove,” Kristian Dunn