Apology to Peter Matthiessen

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen. Modern Library. 912 pp. $18.00.

For some years—having read a few things avidly—I avoided the work of Peter Matthiessen. I devoured his book of Zen Journals, Nine-Headed Dragon River, which featured some of the most important figures of American Zen, read it two or three times. I also loved my first reading of The Snow Leopard, an award-winning travel book which also traced a spiritual journey.

But I couldn’t get out of my mind as I read that book that Matthiessen had left an eight year old son whose mother had just died to take a perilous journey where he himself might be killed. I didn’t see how he could do that. My meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg, had led a meditation retreat that Matthiessen had attended, and said the man pompously maintained the Zen forms despite the fact that he was at a vipassana center. And in Nine-Headed Dragon River Matthiessen had seemed obsessed with achievement, the kensho that kept eluding him (like the snow leopard he never saw). He seemed naïve and misguided.

He may—in his defense—have written that book too early in his practice to put it in perspective. He certainly wasn’t the first person to cling to Zen forms while sitting at the Insight Meditation Society; I’d done whole retreats with people who sat in robes. And it was Pico Iyer—in an introduction to a later edition of The Snow Leopard—who reconciled me to the incident with his son.

He compared Matthiessen’s leaving his son to the Buddha’s leaving his own family, and while that might be a little over the top, it gave me some sympathy for the man. I’ve always thought the Buddha left home because there was no other way to answer the questions that tormented him. Perhaps—in some way I didn’t understand—Matthiessen felt the same way. Iyer also pointed out that Matthiessen hadn’t let himself off the hook. He wrote about leaving his son, and his own difficult feelings about it, in the text. He could have avoided mentioning it. He didn’t try to make himself look good.

But the real mistake I made—many readers may make this one—was to think of him as primarily a nonfiction writer. His list of nonfiction dwarfs his fiction. His most famous books for most of his career were nonfiction. I didn’t until recently see the Paris Review interview in which he insisted that he was a fiction writer; he wrote nonfiction to finance the fiction. When Shadow Country, his assemblage of the Watson trilogy into a single volume, was given the National Book Award, I assumed it was more a career award than a prize for a particular book.

I was utterly wrong. I now see Shadow Country as one of the great works of American literature, up there with the best work of Melville and Faulkner. I don’t know that Matthiessen himself achieves that stature, but this book does. I was astonished as I began it, stunned at the quality of writing and the wealth of detail. I actually began again, realizing I’d been sliding over detail that would prove important. My astonishment continued through 912 pages of closely written small print.

I had identified Matthiessen as part of the Brahmin group that founded The Paris Review, people who came from money, dabbled in the ex-pat lifestyle, were a little above it all. He attended Hotchkiss and Yale, a pedigree that seemed suspicious for this book. How could he know anything about the criminal class?

Fortunately I had a friend, an e-mail pen pal, writer, artist, and serious reader named John Justice with whom I shared book recommendations. When I expressed my hesitation at Shadow Country, he spoke up for the book and the man.

“As you know PM writes like an angel.  He also seems to have been a demon researcher for this trilogy about hard work, hard people, & rough goings-on in the south westerner corner of Florida over a period of years in, I believe, the early 20th century.  I like books with specifics about how people live, what they eat, the work they do, the things look & smell & taste in their lives.  And he really drew me into the world of Mister Watson.”

He got that right. Matthiessen originally wrote a 1500 page manuscript that his publisher thought far too long, and wanted to publish as three separate novels. The larger work split up conveniently into sections: the story as told by a variety of bystanders and actors; the story of one of Watson’s sons, who tried to discover the truth about his father, and the story as told by Watson himself. Matthiessen revised the three parts so they would work as separate novels, and published them through the nineties in that way.

The Paris Review interview took place around the time the third novel came out, and Matthiessen admitted he was still attached to the way he had originally conceived the book. He was going to spend a year putting it back together, even if it wound up just sitting in a drawer. He actually spent six years, cutting things, rewriting, creating in effect a new work. That a man would do all that work on a book that had, essentially, already been published was astonishing to me. That he didn’t care if it sat in a drawer compelled my admiration.

But what astounded me was the portrait Matthiessen drew of Florida in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in a place not at all far from where my family used to travel, the Everglades on the west coast, below Naples. Not only were there alligators, rattlesnakes, all kinds of bugs and vermin, mosquitoes in profusion (someone in the book asserts that the mosquitoes were the worst of the horrors; they could take so much blood from a cow that it would die, drive men literally out of their minds by attacking them), but the people who lived there were the lowest of the low, those who had fled every other place. Florida was like the Wild West, including the fact that there were a number of cattle ranchers. And the desperado who was the worst, feared and hated by his neighbors to the point that they came together and spontaneously murdered him—the coroner took out more than 30 bullets—was Mr. Watson. (That fact is not a spoiler. The killing takes place in the first chapter, and the first novel of the original trilogy was Killing Mr. Watson.)

Hotchkiss and Yale or not, Matthiessen gets into these people’s lives; he knows how they eat, how they dress, how (dreadful) they smell, how they live. There are decent people and sympathetic characters but plenty of pond scum as well. When we finally get Watson’s story from the man himself, even he is sympathetic, at least for a while, but once he begins to kill—in order to break up a minor labor strike—he’s unable to stop. Since I’ve made all the other outlandish comparisons, I might as well say that, for a story of how one murder leads inexorably to another, how the stain of killing never comes off, I found this story more convincing than anything else I’ve read, Macbeth and Crime and Punishment included. Lady Macbeth is a monster. Mr. Watson is one of us.

As John Justice mentioned, the amount of research that went into the book was phenomenal. But then to make that material your own, so you can write it from the inside out, is a remarkable achievement. As much as any book written in my lifetime, I feel Shadow Country deserves a place in the American canon.

Matthiessen’s whole career prepared him to write this book. While buying time to write the fiction he really wanted to do, he spent years writing nonfiction about exotic places, traveling to and also researching them. The Tree Where Man Was Born, for instance, is an idiosyncratic journey into East Africa where the flora, fauna, and way of life were entirely foreign. I can’t remember when I’ve read a book that had so many words I didn’t know the meaning of, so many flowers and animals I’d never seen, and couldn’t picture. His research about the place effortlessly informs the writing; it never intrudes.

The Snow Leopard does the same thing for what seems a capricious trip to the Himalayas (which was nevertheless, somehow, an act of mourning for his recently dead wife, a spiritual pilgrimage). Matthiessen had a remarkable ability to walk into a new landscape and really see it, but he also packed his book with information about Buddhism that I have read nowhere else, despite twenty plus years of reading on the subject. It is as important and interesting a book on Buddhism as it is about the journey, actually a better book on Buddhism than Nine-Headed Dragon River.

Somehow all of Matthiessen’s obsessions, all his training, all his skill as an author came together in Shadow Country, which occupied his life off and on for twenty years. It is a fitting cap to his career and a summation of it, published when he was 81.