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Peter Matthiessen ’50,
writer and activist, dies at 86

Peter Matthiessen ’50 was a prep school kid from New York City who served in World War II before coming to Yale. He was a fisherman, a CIA operative, a Zen priest, a political activist, a Daily Themes instructor "both kind and candid."

Above all, Matthiessen was a writer. Before his death on April 5 at age 86, he became the only writer to win the National Book Award for both fiction (Shadow Country) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard).

"He disdained being labeled a nature writer, and he was, of course, much more than that," writes Roger Cohn ’73, editor of the online magazine Yale Environment 360. "But few authors have ever written as beautifully about nature or captured so well the essence of fully experiencing the natural world."

Matthiessen's love of nature began in childhood, when his family had "a wonderful piece of property in Connecticut, back up in the hills," he said in 1989. "My brother and I were both very interested in snakes and birds."

That interest continued at Yale: "I was an English major, but I took courses in biology and ornithology. . . . with a friend, I did a column for the Yale Daily News on hunting and fishing."

Best-known for his nonfiction, Matthiessen told numerous interviewers that fiction was his first love.

"I started writing short stories while I was at Yale, and I was still there when my first short story, 'Sadie' . . . won the Atlantic Prize, which was very useful because I came back there to teach writing my first year out of college," he told the Missouri Review.

"I didn’t last very long as a teacher, just one term, but the publication was a big help." (That was the Daily Themes class that John Downey ’51, a former Connecticut judge and ex-CIA officer, recalled as the one Yale course he'll never forget.)

Writing wasn't the only thing Downey shared with his instructor. "A Yale professor named Norman Holmes Pearson" recruited the young Matthiessen into the CIA, which sent him to Paris. There he helped launch The Paris Review as a cover, he later acknowledged, for his spy activities.

One Paris Review cofounder was George Plimpton, a childhood friend. Another was Tom Guinzberg ’50.

"A Marine veteran awarded the Purple Heart for his service in World War Two, Tom Guinzburg met Peter Matthiessen at Yale, where they roomed together and where Guinzburg served as the managing editor of the Yale Daily News," the Review website says. "Guinzburg was handpicked as the first managing editor of the Review ... until, that is, 'he became paralyzed with love for Francine du Plessix, now Gray, and was unable to proceed.'” (Guinzberg had a fallback, though: Viking Press, the publishing house founded by his father.)

Matthiessen returned to New York after a couple years, settling on Long Island. Married with children, he "wasn’t making a living" writing fiction, so he worked as a commercial fisherman. And eventually, approached the New Yorker with a nonfiction proposal.

"Everybody was writing about civilized places, but the wild places were being destroyed," he told the Missouri Review. "To my amazement," the magazine agreed to send him around the world "to look at some of these places and write about them."

Over the decades, Matthiessen published more than 30 books, ranging from Tanzania to Tierra del Fuego, South Dakota to Nepal. His final effort, a novel, was released posthumously today. Its title: In Paradise.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Peter Matthiessen, books
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