Issue 209, Summer 2014
When Peter Matthiessen died on April 5 at his home in Sagaponack, The Paris Review lost an inspiring founder and intrepid spirit. To reflect on his life is to see the world’s widest horizons, sometimes detailed in the patterns of color on the wings of his beloved birds.
Peter served the Review for six decades, from planning the first issue in Paris cafés in 1953—when he was fiction editor and contributed a story of his own (“A Replacement”)—to judging this year’s literary prizes. If you had anything to do with the Review over all that time, Peter welcomed you as a colleague and a friend—and how generous that felt, when, everywhere you turned, Peter’s flags flew so high. He was a defender of the natural world and everything in it; an interpreter and translator of all things human, from Stone Age cultures in New Guinea to the modern tribes of the American West; an explorer on every level, from his early experimentation with LSD, which evolved into his study of Zen and practice as a Buddhist priest, to trekking Mongolia in 2012 to meet its ancient eaglers, horsemen who hunt wolves and deer from the saddle with golden eagles.
His writing was singular, astonishing in its range. The Snow Leopard won the 1979 National Book Award in the Contemporary Thought category, and then the National Book Award for Nonfiction the next year. In 2008, at age eighty-one, he received a third National Book Award for Shadow Country, a one-volume 890-page revision of his three novels set in frontier Florida and originally published in the 1990s. His favorite book was his novel Far Tortuga, a masterwork of simplicity that reflected both his experimentation with form and his innovation with language. Peter wrote more than thirty books; his ambitious new novel, In Paradise, was published the week of his passing.
All of his work was serious and full of learning, though he was much more the prankster than that makes him sound. His birder name was Curlew, or the long-billed shorebird that amused him so. He loved his laughs and a glass of wine and anything, really, that lifted his blood. He ran the Bear Trap Canyon of the Madison River, shooting Class V rapids when he was eighty-two. His many friends who knew him on the water, or anywhere in nature, saw the transience of what is untamed and beautiful just by watching Peter scan the sky for more birds.
Peter lived in the house where he died for fifty-six years, on six acres of wild garden and bird-thronged sanctuary thick with varied and magnificent trees and more than a thousand tulips and daffodils brought up each year by his wife Maria. On the porch was a great, clean skull of a finback whale Peter had salvaged from the surf a quarter mile away. On a bookshelf in the small study off the upstairs bedroom where he slept was his collection of the Review, every issue arranged in careful order.
His Zendo, where he taught and led services, was in a converted stable, appropriately simple with a small, cleared yard with a centered Japanese maple and a small statue of Buddha in one corner. On the other side of the house, in the direction of the ocean, was his writing shed, as it was called, where he worked every day he was not on the road—much bigger than a shed, rather a high-ceilinged cottage itself, but really an extension of his solitary travel that few guests ever saw. Above his desk was this from Ikkyū, the iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist priest, poet, and calligrapher:
Having no destination,
I am never lost.
Peter was buried on a clear, sharp day with a slight wind off the ocean in the tiny cemetery in Sagaponack, his grave marked by rocks and feathers and shells.