Peter Matthiessen, Author, Explorer, Zen Priest, Dead at 86

Peter Matthiessen, photographed in 1984 Rameshwar Das

Peter Matthiessen, one of the leading figures of American literature and a man whom many on the South Fork thought of as one of their own, died yesterday at his house in Sagaponack. He was 86. The cause was acute leukemia, his son Alex Matthiessen told The New York Times.

For many here, Peter Matthiessen seemed to live in several worlds. There was his long career as a novelist, paralleled by that of a naturalist and writer of nonfiction. There was the zendo he led on his Sagaponack property. He had once been an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. And in the minds of people outside those circles, he was known as a champion of this area's baymen, the fishermen with whom he worked side by side in earlier years.

Mr. Matthiessen's death came on the eve of publication of his 33rd book, "In Paradise," a novel and Holocaust remembrance that centers on a Zen group's meditation retreat at Auschwitz in 1996.

He was awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 2008 for "Shadow Country," a reworking of his Watson trilogy of novels, which were published in the 1990s. A much earlier novel, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," had been nominated in 1966 but did not win.

"The Snow Leopard," a highly personal account of an expedition in the Himalayas and of a spiritual journey following the death of his second wife, Deborah Love, was considered one of his finest books. It won the 1979 National Book Award in the contemporary thought category.

Locally, Mr. Matthiessen was perhaps best known for "Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork," which amounted to an elegy for a fading way of life centered on South Fork waters. The book began as a photographic project for which Mr. Matthiessen was asked to write accompanying text. It was a natural choice. Starting in 1954, he spent three years working as a commercial fisherman, and was able to draw on ties from that time in writing "Men's Lives," which was published in 1986 by Random House. The book was adapted into a play by Joseph Pintauro that debuted at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor in 1992.

Unlike many writers who could only report about life of some of East Hampton's earliest families from the outside, Mr. Matthiessen could write with the confidence of someone who had worked alongside their members. His baptism of sorts to the ways of Bonac came from Ted Lester, whose ocean haulseine crew he joined. This put Mr. Matthiessen at the center of what was known as Poseyville, a community of neighbors, many related to one another that then, as now, was the hub of the baymen's way of life.

Mr. Matthiessen, who lived in Springs during this time, called himself a seasonal fishermen in deference to those men and the few women who were on the water year round. Still, it was hard, dangerous work. In "Men's Lives" he described an April day on the ocean helping to rescue two men from another crew who had nearly been lost in pounding, 40-degree surf.

His arrival with his first wife, Patsy Southgate, on the South Fork closed a vastly different chapter of Mr. Matthiessen's broad and varied life. As a Yale graduate about 1950, he was recruited by the C.I.A. and dispatched to Paris, where he was to report back on the activities of other Americans living there. He started The Paris Review in 1953, which, he said in a 2008 interview in The New York Times, provided him with a cover for his covert work.

His first novel, "Race Rock," appeared in 1954, after Mr. Matthiessen and Ms. Southgate and their first child, Luke, had left Paris for what was then the quiet and bucolic South Fork. Two more novels followed, then "Wildlife in America," a species-by-species account of North America's disappearing animals.

After Mr. Matthiessen and Ms. Southgate divorced, he married Ms. Love and bought a six-acre property in Sagaponack. It was there that he built the Ocean Zendo, becoming a Zen monk in 1981 and a Zen priest in 1990, leading others in the practice on his path toward becoming a roshi, or master. He recounted these explorations into Zen in "Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, 1969-1985."

The roster of his books is perhaps unparalleled by another other contemporary writer for its breadth. It includes "Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea" from 1962, "The Tree Where Man Was Born" from 1972, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and "Far Tortuga" from 1975.

His nonfiction account of the F.B.I.'s aggressive response to events on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," was published by Viking Press in 1983 but was withdrawn from circulation amid libel lawsuits from an F.B.I. agent and the then-governor of South Dakota, Bill Janklow. The suits were eventually dismissed.

Mr. Matthiessen was born in Manhattan on May 22, 1927, to Erard A. Matthiessen and the former Elizabeth Carey. He grew up there and in family houses on Fishers Island and in Connecticut. He graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut in 1945, going into the Navy and being stationed in Pearl Harbor. He then went to Yale.

In 1980, he married the former Maria Eckhart, a poet and onetime magazine editor. During the four decades of their relationship, Mrs. Matthiessen supported his prolific creative output by playing the traditional role of the great artist's formidable wife, running a household that was a gathering place for their many friends in the arts and letters, and lifting from Mr. Matthiessen's shoulders the mundane chores of the quotidien world. She survives him. He is also survived by a son and daughter, Luke and Sara Carey Matthiessen, from his marriage to Ms. Southgate; a son and daughter, Alex and Rue Matthiessen, from his marriage to Ms. Love; two stepdaughters, Antonia and Sarah Koenig, and six grandchildren.

As of Sunday morning, a private Buddhist gathering was to be held in his memory at the zendo adjacent to his house. A private family gathering was expected to follow within the week.

Memorial donations have been suggested to the Ocean Zendo, P.O. Box 392, Sagaponack 11962.
 

Peter Matthiessen at a fund-raiser he gave with his wife, Maria, in 1990 to fund a documentary about Leonard Peltier, one of the subjects of his book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse." George Plimpton, a friend with whom he launched The Paris Review, can be seen at far right.Doug Kuntz
Finest kind. Peter Matthiessen took a break during an Amagansett book party in 1986 to celebrate "Men's Lives" for a clam shucked by Stuart Vorpahl.Russell Drumm