Peter Matthiessen was the last great heroic American writer, I think. He was also the writer who made me need to write. I first read him on a family vacation, in 1993. My mom was recovering from an operation to remove a brain tumor and she had trouble reading. I read Far Tortuga aloud to her. I like to think it helped, somehow.
When I first heard Matthiessen was publishing a new novel, perhaps his last, I immediately launched a campaign to try to meet and talk to the man. I spoke to him two months before he passed away. He was still in the fog of chemotherapy but he was strong, encyclopedic, wise, playful, kind. The experience changed me.
Today, the world is too easily available on the internet. Too many writers access the world virtually. The writing is bland and the worldview is narrow. Literature is suffering. The life and work of Peter Matthiessen teaches us there’s no substitute for actual engagement with the world. Don’t travel to Rwanda or Mozambique online, go there. Don’t google-research your books, live them. That’s the example Matthiessen set. That’s how we should honor him.
People and writers of America and distant lands: Read, study, celebrate, discuss, debate, emulate the books Peter Matthiessen wrote, the life he lived.
You can read the tribute I wrote and our interview, one of his last, sadly, at Los Angeles Review of Books.