Peter Matthiessen: Biography & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
This lesson focuses on the naturalist author Peter Matthiessen, his life, and his writing. Read the lesson to learn about his award winning books, The Snow Leopard and Shadow Country, then test yourself with the quiz!

Peter Matthiessen: Nature's Biggest Advocate

Have you ever seen a sunset over the ocean and experienced the light slowly being swallowed up by the sea? Have you stood atop a mountain, where you can see for miles an expanse of water, woods and sky? If you have, you know what it is like to see natural beauty that may be hard to put into words. Peter Matthiessen was a naturalist writer who incorporated the places he visited and the scenery he encountered into both his non-fiction and fiction work. His work has been nominated for various literary prizes and is a lasting testament to natural beauty.


Peter Matthiessen was born into an affluent family in New York in 1927. He was the middle child and grew up in a building that overlooked Central Park. Here, he formed a life-long friend, noted journalist and author, George Plimpton; the two lived in the same building and went to primary school together. Matthiessen attended Hotchkiss prep school before entering the Navy in 1945, serving in Hawaii for a short time. He then attended university at Yale, where he later taught classes. Matthiessen tried his hand at writing novels and sent some of his work to a publisher, who was less than encouraging.

At this point, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) came knocking. After being recruited by one of his professors, Matthiessen was selected to go over to France to gather intelligence for the United States. During his stay, he established The Paris Review, a literary magazine that he worked on with his old friend George Plimpton. Here, he also wrote his first novel, Race Rock, which he published after he returned to the United States. Matthiessen also returned as a married man: He and Patsy Southgate wed in 1951 and, after returning back to the States, had two children. That marriage ended in divorce, and Matthiessen began to travel all over the world as a journalist to explore different cultures and natural environments.

He returned from his travels in 1958 and married Deborah Love in 1963. She introduced him to Zen Buddhism and gave Matthiessen two children. Love died of cancer in 1972, and in his grief, Matthiessen took off traveling the next year, heading to Nepal to find spiritual meaning. He continued to write, publishing some of his best-known work in the next few years. He remarried in 1980 to Maria Eckhart and wrote until his death. Matthiessen passed away in 2014 as a result of his battle with leukemia.

Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen

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