‘I was so angry,’ Peter Matthiessen said late in his life of his early days as a writer. ‘I was constantly in a contest … with my father.’ He’d grown up rich in Connecticut and New York, attended Yale, but found himself in ‘combat with the world’ for reasons he couldn’t understand; his early novels reflect this. In Race Rock (1954), a young man quits his father’s Wall Street firm and retreats to the family’s New England home, where he wanders aimlessly before taking part in a drunken game of Russian roulette that kills a childhood friend. In Partisans (1955), the son of a US diplomat also resists entering the family trade, under the sway of what’s called in the book only ‘the Party’, and sets off to track down a hero from the Spanish Civil War who’s gone into hiding. Matthiessen’s filial ambivalence may have been complicated by the fact that he’d joined the CIA, where his main job was spying on potential members of the Communist Party among literary expatriates in France. In 1953, he’d founded the Paris Review in part as a front for that work, a detail he kept from George Plimpton for years. His third novel, Raditzer (1961), depicts yet another young man of means resisting paternal influence: Charles Stark foregoes joining his father’s law firm to enlist in the navy just as the war is ending. Shipping out to the Pacific, he falls under the inexplicable sway of the title character, a social outcast worthy of Camus.
These three short books – published in quick succession and long out of print – are about men waiting to be called up to the war or recently returned home from it, men for whom the war has rendered absurd the complacencies of American life. They bear a familial resemblance to Dangling Man and The Victim (the novels Saul Bellow wrote before the urban immigrant outpouring of Augie March) and to Barbary Shore and The Deer Park (the novels Norman Mailer wrote between his initial success with the more conventional war novel The Naked and the Dead and his emergence as a hipster prophet). Like Bellow and Mailer, Matthiessen eventually escaped the GI existentialist mode, in his case not into the American city or the performance of ego but into travel and nature writing and the negation of self through the practice of Zen Buddhism.
By the time Raditzer appeared, Matthiessen had already published Wildlife in America, a study now widely considered a founding document of the modern conservation movement. (Even this had an odd paternal reflection: Matthiessen’s father had abandoned his architectural practice to become a trustee of the Audubon Society.) But his non-fiction writing career began in earnest in 1961 with the publication of The Cloud Forest, an account of his extensive exploration of South America. It was the first of six travel books funded by and serialised in the New Yorker over the next few decades. During this time, Matthiessen also did what he called ‘advocacy’ writing: books about Cesar Chavez, American Indian leaders and the imperilled commercial fisherman of Long Island, all written to raise political awareness about their subjects.
The travel books made Matthiessen’s reputation, but he seemed later almost to regret them. In 1999, he told the Paris Review that he was ‘a fiction writer who also writes non-fiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places’. His travel writing, he said, was done to support his young family. He was more dismissive of the advocacy works: ‘From a literary point of view, they came from the wrong place.’ He’d begun as a fiction writer, he insisted, and that’s what he remained.
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