Peter Matthiessen — Writer, Activist, Buddhist, Spy — Dies At 86 Matthiessen was a spy, a naturalist, a well-regarded activist and a three-time winner of the National Book Award — for both fiction and nonfiction. He died of acute myeloid leukemia.
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Peter Matthiessen, Co-Founder Of The Paris Review, Dies At 86

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Peter Matthiessen, Co-Founder Of The Paris Review, Dies At 86

Peter Matthiessen, Co-Founder Of The Paris Review, Dies At 86

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The author Peter Matthiessen died yesterday at the age of 86 after a struggle with leukemia. The novelist and naturalist was the only writer to ever win national book awards in both fiction and adult nonfiction. And his life contained many facets beyond writing. He co-founded the Paris Review, but he was also a political activist, world explorer, Buddhist teacher and briefly a spy. His latest work is a novel called "In Paradise," which we heard about yesterday on WEEKEND EDITION. Tom Vitale visited Matthiessen at the author's home on Long Island. Here's his appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In his first nonfiction book, Peter Matthiessen staked out the territory he would revisit the rest of his life, the destruction of nature and natural peoples at the hands of mankind. "Wilderness in America," published in 1959, is a history of the extinction of animal and bird species in North America.

PETER MATTHIESSEN: Species appear, and left behind by a changing earth they disappear forever. And there's a certain solace in the inexorable, but until man, the highest predator evolved, the process of extinction was a slow one. And no species, but man, as far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climactic change, has ever extinguished another.

VITALE: "Wilderness in America" led to a series of assignments from the New Yorker that in turn led to a series of books. Matthiessen traveled to New Guinea in 1961 with Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared and may have been the victim of head hunters. He wrote about trips to Africa, the Himalayas, South America and Antarctica, but he said he never intended to write nonfiction.

MATTHIESSEN: Fiction is my first love and it's the way I began. And frankly, when I began nonfiction, I did it for money.

MCKAY JENKINS: That's kind of like Babe Ruth wanting to be remembered as a pitcher.

VITALE: McKay Jenkins is the author of "The Peter Matthiessen Reader" and several nature books of his own, including "Poison Spring."

JENKINS: Matthiessen is held in such high regard as a nonfiction writer by nonfiction writers that they sometimes say, well, how is it possible that this guy can be such a virtuoso fiction writer and give his equally substantial body of nonfiction work such short shrift because all the rest of us are trying to do what we can to mimic his nonfiction work.

VITALE: Matthiessen was remarkable in a lot of ways. He was born in Manhattan in 1927 to a wealthy family. After a stint in the Navy he attended Yale, where he began writing short stories and where one of his professors recruited him into the CIA. In 1953, Matthiessen co-founded what would become one of the most important literary magazine of the 20th century, the Paris Review, but he did it as a cover for his CIA activities. He said it was the only adventure in his long life he ever regretted.

MATTHIESSEN: I was a spy. When I went in there it was the end of the Cold War. Russia was a big menace out there in the distance. It was considered very patriotic to join the CIA. I didn't know my politics were going to veer leftward and that I would really come to despise the CIA.

VITALE: Matthiessen's politics led to a lifelong career as an activist. He wrote books about union organizer Cesar Chavez, the Native American movement and the disappearing fishermen on Eastern Long Island.

MATTHIESSEN: I go along with Albert Camus, who famously said the responsibility of the writer is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And that's always been kind of my informal motto.

VITALE: For all of his books advocating conservation, Matthiessen saw the destruction of the environment accelerate over his lifetime.

MATTHIESSEN: I can hardly point to a victory we ever won as conservationists that hasn't been overturned, but we won some too. They were long-lasting victories. And if nothing else, we stalled - stalled them off - the developers and exploders.

VITALE: If the victories didn't last, the writing does, says author McKay Jenkins.

JENKINS: Matthiessen didn't like being called a nature writer. That said, I don't think there's a living nature writer that hasn't been profoundly influenced by Matthiessen's work, whether you're talking about Terry Tempest Williams or Barry Lopez or Annie Dillard, I mean, Bill McKibben. You could list any nature writer of any consequence owes a great debt to Matthiessen.

VITALE: After Peter Matthiessen's wife Deborah died of cancer in 1972, he embraced Zen Buddhism and eventually became a priest and teacher. In his 1978 book "The Snow Leopard," Matthiessen wrote about a spiritual journey in the remote mountains of Nepal and the impossibility of capturing experience in words.

MATTHIESSEN: The sun is round. I ring with life and the mountains ring. And when I can hear it, there's a ringing that we share. I understand all this not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed. Knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again another day.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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