Jul 29, 2014

Weekend Read: Peter Matthiessen Profiled in NYT Magazine

Weekend Read: Peter Matthiessen Profiled in NYT Magazine

There’s a wonderful profile of Peter Matthiessen, novelist, naturalist and Zen priest, who lives in Sagaponack in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Matthiessen, 86, has been sick with leukemia for the past 15 months has a wide ranging conversation with contributing editor Jeff Himmelman.

As Himmelman writes, “Though Matthiessen is not as well known as some other names of his generation, you would be hard-pressed to find a greater life in American letters over the last half-century. He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and fiction.  . .”

Matthiessen is perhaps best known on the East End for “Men’s Lives,” the elegiac tale of the lobstermen and surfmen and the Accabonac culture of the early 1960s. It was written in 1986 and Matthiessen had already been living on the South Fork for nearly 30 years. 

The profile traces Matthiessen’s roots back to his ancestors who were Friesen whalers, through his youth. “I was always in trouble, constantly in trouble. I was combating the world.” Matthiessen says.

He attended St. Bernards, Hotchkiss and Yale and found himself married to “the most beautiful woman in Paris,” Patsy Southgate. The couple settled in Paris and soon found friends among the ex-pat community including William Styron and Terry Southern.

Along the way, Matthiessen had begun his first novel, but he said he had no way to pay for it and found himself recruited to the CIA. “I was being urged to do something for my country, which appealed to my patriotic thing. I thought it was an ideal situation. And they also told me I would hardly have to do any work at all, that I would have plenty of time for my own.”

In addition to writing and spying, Matthiessen and his literary friends came up with an idea for a literary journal and so, with the aid of George Plimpton, who was to become its first editor, The Paris Review was born.

“Matthiessen’s double life would come to an end in 1953," Himmelman writes, "and Matthiessen and his wife settled in Sagaponack. He worked as a commercial fisherman and writer and says these years were the happiest of his life."

Over the next 15 years Matthiessen produced four novels and six books of non-fiction. He became a Zen priest, divorced his first wife, was widowed by his second and became the father of three children. He lives with his third wife, Maria.

“(I) watched as he said goodbye to a guest,” Himmelman writes in closing, “as the guest was at the door, he good-naturedly offered optimistic advice about radical experimental measures that Matthiessen might take. Matthiessen smiled and said: “I don’t want to hang on to life quite that hard. It’s part of my Zen training.”

You can read the entire profile here.

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