The only writer to win the U.S. National Book Award in the fiction AND nonfiction categories, Peter Matthiessen, has died of leukemia at his home on Long Island.
Among the acts in his storied life was co-founding the Paris Review, a literary magazine that, along with tons of publishing firsts has maintained a series of interviews “Writers at Work,” which Joe David Bellamy, in his book, Literary Luxuries has called, “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world.”
Peter Matthiessen was, in many ways, the most normal of ‘famous’ men. As I write this I can look at two full shelves of books authored by Mr. Matthiessen, many of them signed when I met him for the first time at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in 1983. When one of my colleagues, who did not bring his books along, asked if he might send them to Long Island to be signed, Matthiessen said “sure” and wrote out his home address on a slip of paper. After the books were sent and signed they were mailed back to Philadelphia. Accompanying them was a note saying the wife was a bit unhappy that their home address had been given out to a stranger and could that original “slip of paper please be torn up and thrown away?” How many famous names can you think of who would kindly write out their home address for you? (The handwritten piece of paper was duly tossed but, today, would be a nice memento stapled to that returned note!)
Peter Matthiessen was, also, the most observant, clear-sighted and questioning of men; traits enhanced, no doubt, by his Zen practice. He always thought of himself as a fiction writer first and foremost, continually grappling with many of the central concerns of our existence. Additionally, he brought this focus to his great non-fiction, the works I treasure most. He seemed to think of these books, however, as his trade-craft, workman-like, earth-bound output with fiction being his artisanal craft on a higher plane that might, in fact, break free of the plain and soar.
And, now, today, he has joined that body of marvelous work.
R.I.P. Peter Mathiessen (22 May 1927 – 5 April 2014).