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Novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen dead at 86

Despite his literary pedigree and awards in fiction, Matthiessen was most popularly known as a nature writer.

By Brooks Hays
Novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen dead at 86
Peter Matthiessen speaking at the Miami Book Fair International in 1991. (CC/MDCarchives)

SAGAPONACK, N.Y., April 6 (UPI) -- Peter Matthiessen, the only writer to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction, died at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y., on Saturday -- the end of a year-long battle with leukemia. He was 86 years old.

Matthiessen is the author of 11 novels, the last of which, In Paradise, is due out later this year. He also wrote some two dozen works of non-fiction.

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In 1953, he helped found the literary magazine The Paris Review along with writers Harold L. Humes, Thomas Guinzburg, Donald Hall and George Plimpton, a childhood friend. While founding the magazine, Matthiessen was simultaneously working as a spy for the CIA -- one of the only things in his lifetime he claimed to regret.

Matthiessen published his first novel, Race Rock, in 1954. Five years later, he published his first non-fiction book, Wildlife in America, which chronicled tales of species that had gone extinct as a consequence of human presence. It was one of the first books to discuss climate change.

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In 1973, Matthiessen followed field biologist George Schaller to Nepal's Himalayas on a field expedition. The trip inspired The Snow Leopard, published in 1978. It won the National Book Award for "Contemporary Thought" in 1979. The paperback version won the National Book Award for "General Non-Fiction" the following year. These accolades helped cement Matthiessen as one of the preeminent naturalists in American letters.

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Matthiessen's fiction was also well-regarded by audiences and critics, as well as his peers. He regularly socialized with other literary heavyweights in New York City and on Long Island, including William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut and E. L. Doctorow.

Despite his literary pedigree and awards in fiction, Matthiessen was most popularly known as a nature writer.

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"Matthiessen didn't like being called a nature writer," literary critic McKay Jenkins told NPR. "That said, I don't think there's a living nature writer that hasn't been profoundly influenced by Matthiessen's work."

Matthiessen, a devoted Zen Buddhist, said his role as a fiction writer was to give a voice to those who couldn't speak for themselves. But he often referred to environmentalism as his highest calling.

"I can hardly point to a victory that we ever won as conservationists that hasn't been overturned," he said. "But we won some, too — there were long-lasting victories. And if nothing else, we stalled — stalled them off, the developers and exploiters."

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[NPR] [The New York Times]

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