Sunday, 6 April 2014


My obituary of the writer Peter Matthiessen is up at the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here, and it should be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it quickly, to a flexible word length. A few things were cut out, and some explanations added it, but mostly it is as I wrote it.

The most extensive loss was my second graf:
No less than his work, Matthiessen's life embodied the nature of opposites beloved in the Zen Buddhist philosophy he practised. Beyond the dichotomy of fiction and fiction, Matthiessen was able to found the pre-eminent literary journal, The Paris Review, while working for the CIA. And his journey to radical politics and alternative life-style never saw him abandon the elite New York society from which he came, right down to living in the smart east end of Long Island.
I felt the point about the Zen nature of his life was an important one to make, particularly because his final novel seemed so strongly to encompass opposites. And though some of the specifics are covered later in the obit (hence the cut) I actually would have liked to take a little more time to explore the contradictions in his atrician New York life style and his earthy proto-hippie explorer quality. It was something that is very American upper-class--another small item cut was my mention that while at Hotchkiss he withdrew his name from the family's listing in the Social Register; yet proceeded on to Yale, and continued to live the life-style of the elite. I also mentioned that he'd been at school with George Plimpton, a fellow founder of the Paris Review, and a close copy of Matthiessen, right down to writing for Sports Illustrated--Plimpton explored professional sports the way Matthiessen explored the natural world. They were both elegant in that strong patrician way, the kind of men who wear seersucker that never wrinkles. Perhaps my interest reflects all the time I have spent in this country!You can seen the connection when people compare those Americans to the same sort of English, more prevalent in the pre-Thatcher years than now, a sort of transcontinental Oxbridge centered on America's prep (ie: British 'public') schools and our Oxbridge of Yale and Harvard. Of course, if America were Britain, Matthiessen would have probably been presenting wildlife programmes, a la David Attenborough.

These were the men recruited for the CIA in its early days, and although the taint of having spied on his fellow expats never seemed to stick to Matthiessen, it was interesting the way he always moved to distance his magazine from his own work. Yet anyone following the funding dispersed by the CIA in that period could hardly doubt that some of it must have made its way to the Paris Review. The question inflames some people, like Elia Kazan informing on fellow-travelers, yet here it doesn't quite makes its way into Philby territory, perhaps another difference between the American faux-aristocracy and the British.

That life style is interesting too because Matthiessen's house on Long Island was a meeting place for New York's literary world, which was a potent mixture of WASPy upper crust and urban immigrant-types, mostly Jews. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, if you please. From this mix emerged the bright world of post-war American fiction. I seem to recall reading an Esquire piece about a highly competitive softball game organised out there, but I couldn't dig up the reference.

Mathiessen was quite funny about the way Timothy Leary ruined the world of LSD for everyone, by making such a fuss the government was almost forced to make it illegal. I wanted to include Matthiessen's take on Leary, but didn't; in the end, the single mention of him went too. His trip to New Guinea in 1961, which became Under The Mountain Wall, was made with Michael Rockefeller, who later would disappear, and appears to have been killed and eaten by cannibals.

I found it interesting too that his father was awarded an OBE for his camouflage designs for merchant convoys during the war (that was cut) and that his father's cousin was F.O. Matthiessen, the legendary professor of American Studies at Harvard, whose book, American Renaissance, was one of the first and still one of the classic looks at the great writers who seem to have in part inspired Matthiessen's fiction (I didn't have space for that rumination!). The Watson trilogy might be compared to Melville or Twain, you could also mention Faulkner, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, or James Carlos Blake.

But the important thing was Matthiessen's writing, and trying to explain the nature of its appeal, both to the most intense literary types and to casual readers of travel, exploration, and nature. A few British comparisons occur to me now, but although many are elegant, they are more concerned with the phenomenology of travel, not the dissection of the spirit of the natural world. In this, Peter Matthiessen was one of a kind.

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