To Learn Something


In Memoriam

This remembrance of our founding editor, Peter Matthiessen, originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine; we’re grateful to the staff and to Lewis Lapham for allowing us to publish it.

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Peter Matthiessen in the 1945 Misch, the Hotchkiss School’s yearbook.

I first encountered Peter Matthiessen in the summer of 1949, on a beach at Fishers Island where he soon was pointing out the sights to be seen if one had the wit to see them—seven or eight species of seabird inshore and offshore, the likely change in the weather inferred by the wind veering around to the south, the Latin name for a nearby snake or crab, the probable catch in the hold of a trawler bearing east by north on the far horizon.

The meeting had been called by my godmother and Peter’s father, long-abiding friends whose houses on the island were a short distance from one another; by both parties it was thought that Peter could tell me what to look out for at the Hotchkiss School, from which Peter had graduated in 1945 and at which I was a member of the class embarking upon its lower middle year. I was fourteen, Peter seven years older, a senior at Yale tormenting himself with the ambition to become a writer of important books. Literature in those days was understood to be a noble calling, the high and not easily traveled road to light and truth.

The first question put to Peter about Hotchkiss proved to be the last. He didn’t wish to discuss what he deemed to be an ornamental pillar of the bourgeois status quo, and so as the afternoon went on (many fish to be seen and named, further sightings of sandpipers and gulls) I was surprised by the likeness of his interests and turns of mind to those of Mr. George Van Santvoord, the headmaster of the school with whom Peter seemed to share not only a love of words and nature but also the courage to lead an examined and examining life. Before the day was done I’d compounded the likeness of Mr. Van Santvoord with that of the druid, Merlyn, in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, one of the books on the school’s list of suggested summer reading. By the time I returned to the lamps being lit on my godmother’s sundeck, it had occurred to me that Peter’s teachings on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean not only resembled those of Mr. Van Santvoord’s to the Hotchkiss woods squad but also those that under the walls of Camelot Merlyn had vouchsafed to the young King Arthur:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails … you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

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The entirety of Matthiessen’s page in the Misch. Click to enlarge.

Which was the lesson that the young Peter Matthiessen developed into both a life and an art. Over the course of his long, shape-shifting day in the sun (1927–2014) he never stopped asking questions; it was his fierce and passionate will to know and understand that prompted him to try his hand as a naturalist, an explorer, a novelist, a Zen Buddhist, a journalist, a commercial fisherman, an investigative asset in Paris for the Central Intelligence Agency. From his travels high into the Himalayan mountains and low under Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, through the jungles of Peru and across the frozen desert of the Arctic, he returned with reports—on the Snow Leopard and the Musk Ox, on the banyan tree and the Great White Shark—that placed him, together with Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, and Loren Eiseley, in the front rank of American writers illuminating the book of nature.

Peter’s novels wander around in the tropical swamp of man’s inhumanity to man, asking of the natives, himself among them, “Who is there?” The question seldom leads to answers suitable for framing in a college commencement speech or a state of the union address. The critics who praised Peter’s care for the music of words were careful to say that the force of his writing derived in no small part from his willingness to confront—look squarely in the face, acknowledge the reflection in a mirror—mankind’s vainglorious cruelty and greed.

The only American writer to receive a National Book Award for both nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1978) and fiction (Shadow Country, 2008), Peter once told an interviewer that prose held captive to the facts “cannot fly,” but there were poetic exceptions to the rule when the subject was the oriental crane (red-crowned, white-naped, or golden-eyed) for which Peter had a particular affection and in search of whose breeding grounds Harper’s Magazine, of which I was then the editor, sent him in 1992 to the Siberian basin of the Amur River.

Since our first meeting on Fishers Island we had stayed intermittently in touch within the company of writers and editors gathered around the center of literary gravity that was George Plimpton’s Paris Review. Peter in 1953 had joined in the founding of the journal that also served as his cover for what he later called the “youthful folly” of his brief stint with the CIA. Plimpton as the editor in 1956 moved its headquarters tent from a barge in the Seine River moored to a quai four miles downstream from the Louvre to his Manhattan apartment on East 72nd Street alongside the East River, six miles upstream from the Brooklyn Bridge, and for the next half century, while the Review published the major American writers of the second half of the twentieth century, among them William Styron, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Evan Connell, Terry Southern, Irwin Shaw, and Peter Matthiessen, the apartment was where, sooner or later, everybody went to help out with the drinking, rejoice in the favor of attentive young women, steal from one another the secrets and sorrows of Grub Street, add fuel to the fires of their ambition and pride.

For fifty years no week went by in which George didn’t give at least one party (sometimes preceded by invitations, more often not) in praise of a newly-published issue or book—a first novel, a volume of essays, an interview with W. H. Auden, James Baldwin or Ernest Hemingway, an epic poem, a revised biography, a collection of short stories, a translation from the Medieval French.

It didn’t matter how many people were present—sometimes twenty-odd, sometimes upward of two hundred—nor did it matter whether any famous authors were to be found, like Easter eggs, asleep under the piano or passed out on the pool table. People didn’t come with the thought of reading their names in the next day’s papers. They came for the fun of it, drawn to the light of George’s insatiable curiosity and irreducible enthusiasm. Peter possessed the same adventurous and life-grasping spirit, forever asking questions, relentless in his rage to know why the world wags and what wags it.

Over the years at the 72nd Street address Peter spoke of many things—of bears and pack mules and Richard Nixon, of Cesar Chavez and Ronald Reagan and Crazy Horse—and as he grew older, and the lines drawn on his time-worn but still handsome face more deeply set, I was more often reminded of his likeness to both Mr. Van Santvoord and the druid, Merlyn. I came to know him well enough to know that more than once he’d lost an only love, that he’d seen a great deal of the world about him devastated by evil lunatics—by the stupidity of the war in Vietnam, and the selfishness of America’s moneyed classes, by the ruin of his beloved biosphere at whatever compass bearings could be sold for a handful of silver—but also well enough to know that he never forgot that the best thing for being sad was to learn something. He published thirty-three books, the last of them In Paradise, a novel coming forth from the press during the same week in April 2014 that he died, at the age of eighty-six at home in Sagaponack, Long Island, on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.

Lewis Lapham is the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly.