Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Log 420 April 6 2014: Death of a giant among writers: Peter Matthiessen left behind a body of work that I hope will be read forever

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (book)
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Peter Matthiessen in the WNYC studios...
Peter Matthiessen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: F.B.I. photograph of agents' car afte...
English: F.B.I. photograph of agents' car after the shootout at Pine Ridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Killing Mister Watson (Panther)...
Cover of Killing Mister Watson (Panther)

One of the writers I have most admired has just died. Peter Matthiessen was a giant not only among American writers, but among all writers in the English language.  For many years I have wondered why he was never granted the Nobel Prize for literature, of which he was a master in both fiction and non-fictional books.
Perhaps a clue to this was given in a moving tribute to him written this weekend by Leonard Peltier, the long-imprisoned victim of a miscarriage of justice arising from the events around the fiasco in Pine Ridge reservation in Dakota in  1973. Known among native people as the Wounded Knee incident, it arose from an occupation of part of the huge Pine Ridge reservation, known far and wide for its corruption,  by the radicals of the American Indian Movement. Two FBI agents were killed during this imbroglio, and Peltier was convicted of their murder (with, it has to be said, Canadian cooperation). Matthiessen wrote a book, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse in defense of Peltier, who said that because of the book the FBI targetted Matthiessen.
Peltier wrote:
 “F.B.I.  first tried to ruin his career by filing false, multi-million-dollar libel suits against him and his publishing company, also effectively BANNING the book during the lawsuits.  When that did not work, they threatened his life and the lives of his family. In true warrior form, Peter told them to get off of his property. Peter told me ‘Sure I was concerned,’ but his beliefs in the Constitution and his belief in America were stronger than any fear they could put on him. Others who were threatened and became afraid, burned thousands and thousands of copies  of our book; yes!… in modern times they burned In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
Governor Bill Janklow threatened all of the book stores in South Dakota to BAN the book.”
Peltier wrote of Matheissen:
“Man, I thought he was going to live forever. Peter was one-of-a-kind. Truly --ONE that will go down in history. He fought for the poor and the weary, the sick, and anyone who had problems that were brought to his attention. He took time from his own life to try to help them in whatever way he could. He  ALWAYS gave freely when someone needed anything, fought for those who were being mistreated. I mean, this man's life was like a movie script.  Not to mention the great books he wrote. Some of them are mind blowing.  This man had the kind of talent that we may never see again.”
The New York Times, just before he died, published an interesting interview of  Matthiessen this weekend, but without mentioning his book in favour of Leonard Peltier.
The writer mentioned as two of his greatest books the environmental-spiritual account of his trip into the Himalayas in search of The Snow Leopard,  which basically was an account of his devotion to Zen Buddhism, a religion to which he devoted much of his life. This, of course was a non-fiction book, and was generally regarded as his master work (although it is the one book of his that I was not especially impressed by, perhaps because of my distaste for all religions).
The novel the New York Times writer regarded as a masterwork was the fascinating  Far Tortuga, an account of a trip made down the coast of Honduras to catch turtles, written in a dialect of the people living in that part of the world (in itself an amazing feat), and a book that provided me as its  reader with all sorts of difficulties, until, halfway through, I found  myself irrevocably caught up in its story, in the characters, in their tale.  Just one of the amazing works of fiction written by Matthiessen. His first novel, an attack on the Christian fundamentalist missionaries who have penetrated the tribes of the Amazon forest, was called At Play in the Fields of the Lord  and is a very funny book that succeeds in denouncing the missionaries and their evil works while at the same time making fun of them.
I was surprised that the Times article did not menton his wonderful trilogy, Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999).
The three books deal with the killing of an early settler deep in the Florida Everglades an event that is described from three different points of view. As in  other of his books, he makes no concessions to the reader. His books as a general rule  were  quite difficult to get into, and required attention and persistence, but the detail, the depth of understanding he showed of  human nature and human motivations more than rewarded the considerable effort a reader had to put into them. I believe that later he worked on reducing these three great novels to one huge 800-page epic called Shadow Country, a new rendering of the Watson legend (2008).
Another of his books that I have recommended to many of my friends is called Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962).  As an anthropologist he visited a valley in New Guinea a mere two years after its inhabitants had first been contacted by the outside world, and his account of the habits of life, the beliefs, the wars and peace-making conducted by these people reads more like a novel than a scientific study, but is an enthralling read from cover to cover, giving one plenty of food for thought about the true nature of homo sapiens. As a search of his works reveals, he  wrote extensively on the environment of some of the most precious places on Earth ---  wildlife in America, the South American  wilderness, the Atlantic coast, Baikal, Sacred Sea of  Siberia and End of the Earth: Antarctica.  He also devoted much of his life to exposing the dangers to noble creatures that humankind is threatening, as his book titles testify: Shorebirds of America, the Search for the Great White Shark, and Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes.
His Buddhism itself was informed by a deep concern for Nature, as reflected in the title of his Zen journals, 1969-1982: Nine-headed Dragon River.

In a world in which men and women  seem to be so unconscious of the effects of  their actions on other creatures, we can scarcely afford to lose a man like Peter Matthiessen. And I for one deeply mourn his passing, while wishing I could live up to his example in my own small life.
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1 comment:

  1. Too bad an otherwise brilliant author fell for the ruse of an unrepentant cop-killing sociopath. Peter was never on the receiving end of Leonard's terrible moments, never having probed that dark chasm where a loaded gun in a woman's mouth was called "truth serum:"
    "Leonard Peltier...was given the responsibility of confronting Anna Mae Aquash with the spreading rumors that she was also an informer; he handled this in his own easygoing way."
    In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, p. 147, 1983 edition.