Peter Matthiessen in the World, 1927-2014

Peter Matthiessen’s novel In Paradise will be published April 8, three days after his death.

Peter Matthiessen at his house in Sagaponack, New York, in 2004.

Peter Matthiessen, one of America's great writers, died on April 5, after a long life of explorations, adventures, varied literary labors, and service to good causes, and a couple years of quiet struggle against leukemia.

He was 86, at home in Sagaponak, New York, with his wife Maria as well as other family and close friends nearby.

He never stopped working, except when the final illness made work impossible, and his newest book, In Paradise, a novel of Auschwitz, will be published April 8.

In Paradise is a fitting final addition to Matthiessen's oeuvre, in that it combines moral seriousness and imagination grounded in the world with elegance of expression and a willingness to take risk.

He transcended literary categories, much as his older friend Robert Penn Warren had done, embracing the realization that a serious writer need not be just one kind of writer. Matthiessen wrote both fiction and nonfiction, and though he won high recognition for both, he considered fiction the greater art.

His book The Snow Leopard (1978), a meditative travel journal of a foot trek in the Himalaya following the death of his second wife, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. It's his most famous book, probably his most successful, but it wasn't his favorite.

His novel Shadow Country (2008), which is a reshaped and abridged (to a mere 892 pages) version of his Florida trilogy that began with Killing Mr. Watson (1990), won the National Book Award for fiction. This honor tickled him—not least because, in reshaping three published books into a new fictional entity and offering it afresh, against the advice of some of his literary friends, he had again taken risk and been vindicated.

He is the only author ever to win the National Book Award in both those categories.

His 1975 novel Far Tortuga, written in the opaque but musical patois of Caribbean turtle fishermen, challenging and rewarding to read, was no great success at the time, by critical or commercial measures, but remained a special favorite to Matthiessen.

His collection of short fiction, On the River Styx and Other Stories (1989), ends with a long story titled "Lumumba Lives," which leaves the real Patrice Lumumba (Congo's murdered leader) offstage while charting the anguished reentry to American life of a returned CIA agent. It draws on Matthiessen's own brief, distasteful period of service as a CIA agent in Paris during the early 1950s, which he spoke about frankly later in life.

He published, in all, 11 books of fiction and about 20 books of nonfiction, including a portrait of Caesar Chavez and his farmworkers movement, a work on the Leonard Peltier case, a book on commercial fishermen of the Atlantic coast, several books on fauna and landscape in Africa and Asia, and Wildlife in America (1959), all of which reflected his engagement with the realms of nature and of people, his passionate concerns with social justice and conservation. No activist in America has ever argued a brief with more grace and elegance than Peter Matthiessen.

He was gracious and elegant also in person, a slim and very handsome man whose face only got better with the runnels of age and wisdom.

For decades he practiced and taught Zen, sincerely and arduously, though he might sometimes joke over a martini that he violated its strictures "on an almost daily basis."

He was complicated, gentle, intelligent, funny, and deeply curious.

He was a superb friend and, for more than a few of us who have followed him down some of the many literary paths he traveled, he was like the best of all possible elder brothers.

You could well school yourself as a young American writer, in the early 21st century, by reading and then rereading the works of Peter Matthiessen. But of course he wasn't just a writer's writer; he was for all readers. He was for the world.

There's good news on this sad occasion: He's gone, but the books remain.