In 2008, at age 81, Matthiessen received the National Book Award for Fiction for Shadow Country, a one-volume, 890-page revision of his three novels set in frontier Florida that had been published in the 1990s. According to critic Michael Dirda, "No one writes more lyrically [than Matthiessen] about animals or describes more movingly the spiritual experience of mountaintops, savannas, and the sea."
Matthiessen was treated for acute leukemia for more than a year. His death came as he awaited publication of his final novel, In Paradise on April 8.
Matthiessen was born in New York City to Erard A. and Elizabeth (Carey) Matthiessen. Erard, an architect, joined the Navy during World War II and helped design gunnery training devices. Later, he gave up architecture to become a spokesman and fundraiser for the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. The well-to-do family lived in both New York City and Connecticut where, along with his brother, Matthiessen developed a love of animals that influenced his future work as a wildlife writer and naturalist. He attended St. Bernard's School, the Hotchkiss School, and — after briefly serving in the U.S. Navy (1945–47) – Yale University (B.A., 1950), with his junior year spent at the Sorbonne. At Yale, he majored in English, published short stories (one of which won the prestigious Atlantic Prize), and studied zoology. Marrying and resolving to undertake a writer’s career, he soon moved back to Paris, where he associated with other expatriate American writers such as William Styron, James Baldwin and Irwin Shaw. There, in 1953, he became one of the founders, along with Harold L. Humes, Thomas Guinzburg, Donald Hall, and George Plimpton, of the literary magazine The Paris Review. As revealed in a 2006 film, he was working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the time, using the Review as his cover. In a 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, Matthiessen stated that he "invented The Paris Review as cover" for his CIA activities. He completed his novel Partisans while employed by the CIA. He returned to the U.S. in 1954, leaving Plimpton (a childhood friend) in charge of the Review. Matthiessen divorced in 1956 and began traveling extensively.
In 1959, Matthiessen published the first edition of Wildlife in America, a history of the extinction and endangerment of animal and bird species as a consequence of human settlement, throughout North American history, and of the human effort to protect endangered species.
In 1965, Matthiessen published At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel about a group of American missionaries and their encounter with a South American indigenous tribe. The book was adapted into the film of the same name in 1991. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. His work on oceanographic research, Blue Meridian, with photographer Peter A. Lake, documented the making of the film Blue Water, White Death (1971), directed by Peter Gimbel and Jim Lipscomb.
Late in 1973 Matthiessen joined field biologist George Schaller on an expedition in the Himalaya Mountains, which was the basis for The Snow Leopard (1978), his double-award-winner. Interested in the Wounded Knee Incident and the 1976 trial and conviction of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist, Matthiessen wrote a non-fiction account, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983).
In 2008, Matthiessen revisited his trilogy of Florida novels published during the 1990s: Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999), inspired by the frontier years of South Florida and the death of planter Edgar J. Watson shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910. He revised and edited the three books, which had originated as one 1,500-page manuscript, which eventually yielded the award-winning single-volume Shadow Country.
While Matthiessen is celebrated for his mastery of both fiction and non-fiction, he has always considered himself first and foremost a writer of novels, saying, "Like anything that one makes well with one’s own hands, writing good nonfiction prose can be profoundly satisfying. Yet after a day of arranging my research, my set of facts, I feel stale and drained, whereas I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy."
Shortly after the 1983 publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen and his publisher Viking Penguin were sued for libel by David Price, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, and William J. Janklow, the former South Dakota governor. The plaintiffs sought over $49 million in damages; Janklow also sued to have all copies of the book withdrawn from bookstores. After four years of litigation, Federal District Court Judge Diana E. Murphy dismissed Price's lawsuit, upholding Matthiessen's right "to publish an entirely one-sided view of people and events." In the Janklow case, a South Dakota court also ruled for Matthiessen. Both cases were appealed. In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear Price's arguments, effectively ending his appeal. The South Dakota Supreme Court dismissed Janklow's case the same year. With the lawsuits concluded, the paperback edition of the book was finally published in 1992.
After graduating from Yale in 1950, Matthiessen became engaged to Patsy Southgate, a Smith graduate whose father had been the chief of protocol in Roosevelt’s White House. Southgate was famously attractive and energetic. Matthiessen and Southgate had two children together. They divorced in 1956.
In 1963 he married the writer Deborah Love. In his book The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen reported having had a somewhat tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with his wife Deborah, culminating in a deep commitment to each other made shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer. Matthiessen and Deborah practiced Zen Buddhism. She died in New York City near the end of 1972.
In September of the following year came the field trip to Himalayan Nepal. Matthiessen later became a Buddhist priest of the White Plum Asanga. Before practicing Zen, Matthiessen was an early pioneer of LSD. He said his Buddhism evolved fairly naturally from his drug experiences. He argued that it was unfortunate that LSD had become outlawed over time, given its potentially beneficial effects as a spiritual and therapeutic tool (when administered with the right care and attention) and was critical of a figure such as Timothy Leary in terms of the long-term reputation of the drug.
In 1980, Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart, born in Tanzania, in a Zen ceremony on Long Island, New York. They lived in Sagaponack, New York. Eckhart is the mother of Serial host and Executive Producer Sarah Koenig, who was 10 or 11 years old at the time of the marriage.
In 2005, Matthiessen, along with Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin, was hailed in The Land's Wild Music by Mark Tredinnick, which analyzed how the landscape nourished and developed Matthiessen's writing.
Matthiessen was diagnosed with leukemia in late 2012. He died at his home in Sagaponack on April 5, 2014, aged 86.1979 National Book Award, Contemporary Thought, for The Snow Leopard
1980 National Book Award, General Non-Fiction (paperback), for The Snow Leopard
1993 Helmerich Award, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.
1995–97, designated the State Author of New York
2000 6th annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities
2008 National Book Award, Fiction, for Shadow Country
2010 Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression
2010 William Dean Howells Medal, for Shadow Country
Race Rock (1954)
At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)
Far Tortuga (1975)
On the River Styx and Other Stories (1989)
The Watson trilogy
Killing Mister Watson (1990)
Lost Man's River (1997)
Bone by Bone (1999)
Shadow Country: a new rendering of the Watson legend (2008)
In Paradise (2014)
Wildlife in America (1959)
The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961)
Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age (1962)
"The Atlantic Coast", a chapter in The American Heritage Book of Natural Wonders (1963)
The Shorebirds of North America (1967)
Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1969)
Blue Meridian. The Search for the Great White Shark (1971).
The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972)
The Snow Leopard (1978)
Sand Rivers, with photographer Hugo van Lawick. Aurum Press, London 1981, ISBN 0-906053-22-6.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) ISBN 0-14-014456-0.
Indian Country (1984).
Nine-headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969–1982 (1986).
Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork (1986).
African Silences (1991).
Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia (1992).
East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of Mustang (1995).
The Peter Matthiessen Reader: Nonfiction, 1959–1961 (2000).
Tigers in the Snow (2000).
The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes (2001).
End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica (2003).