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Peter Matthiessen, award-winning writer, has died at 86

April 05, 2014|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • Writer Peter Matthiessen in 2004 at home in Sagaponack, N.Y., where he died Saturday. He was 86.
Writer Peter Matthiessen in 2004 at home in Sagaponack, N.Y., where he died… (Ed Betz / Associated Press )

National Book Award-winning writer Peter Matthiessen died Saturday at age 86, his publisher Riverhead has announced. His death, after a long illness, came just days before his latest novel will be published.

Matthiessen's particularly long writing career stretched 60 years, from the 1954 novel "Race Rock" to "In Paradise," coming Tuesday. He was also a co-founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review. His notable books include the novels "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" (1965) and "Far Tortuga" (1974), the nonfiction work "The Snow Leopard" (1978) and the omnibus novel "Shadow Country," which won the 2008 National Book Award for fiction.

He is the only author to have won the National Book Award more than once, and he did so in both fiction and nonfiction.

“Peter was a force of nature, relentlessly curious, persistent, demanding — of himself and others,” his literary agent, Neil Olson, said in a statement. “But he was also funny, deeply wise and compassionate.”

Matthiessen was born in Manhattan to a wealthy family and served in the Navy in World War II. After the war, he attended Yale University and saw his first short story published in The Atlantic the year he graduated. He had spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris and hoped to return there to write. He did so, but not before being recruited by the CIA, something that was only publicly shared in recent years.

In Paris in 1953, Matthiessen co-founded The Paris Review with Harold "Doc" Humes, George Plimpton, William Styron and Thomas Guinzburg.

“I used The Paris Review as a cover, there’s no question of that,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “But the CIA had nothing to do with Paris Review.”

Matthiessen published three novels and then began writing nonfiction about the natural environment, traveling the world to write about endangered species for the New Yorker. That pursuit led to "The Snow Leopard," his National Book Award-winning work of nonfiction, a journal of following a naturalist in pursuit of the rare cat in the Himalayas after the death of his second wife.

His drive to explore the natural world and write about it was also the source of a very different narrative, "Far Tortuga," the stylistically innovative novel of turtle hunters in the Cayman Islands with dialog written in dialect.

Other nonfiction books include  the far-flung "Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia," "The Cloud Forest" about traveling in South America, "Under the Mountain Wall" about a tribe in New Guinea, and "The Tree Where Man Was Born" and "Shadows of Africa," both about Africa.

His 1983 book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" was most likely his most controversial. Focused on the conviction of Leonard Peltier in shooting two FBI agents in South Dakota in 1975 -- Matthiessen was convinced of his innocence -- and mistreatment of Native American activists, the book was the subject of lawsuits from an FBI agent and former South Dakota governor. The suits were dismissed in 1990.

The National Book Award-winning "Shadow Country," about Florida Everglades outlaw pioneer Edgar Watson, was an expansion and restructuring of three previous novels: "Killing Mr. Watson," "Lost Man’s River" and "Bone by Bone." Accepting the award, he said he didn't think anyone would publish the new book. "The first three, when they came out, which I wasn't satisfied with, I had to redo. I didn't think anybody would do it. They weren't going to sell this.... I thought this was a real loser." The book was published -- "bravely," Matthiessen said -- by Modern Library.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters, two sons, two stepdaughters and six grandchildren.

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