Peter Matthiessen has been creating some of this century’s finest English language prose – both works of imagination and observation – for more than 40 years. As a co-founder of the influential Paris Review, in the early 1950s, Matthiessen staked out a claim, at the outset of his career, among the avant garde. Yet, then and now, his artistic achievements, both novels and nonfiction, particularly his beautifully crafted excursions into the world of nature, have pushed ahead the boundaries of literature with a natural, often understated style.
The stories Matthiessen has told over the years draw from his wide range of experiences in and among some of the world’s most remote people and places. Whether in Africa or Central America or Nepal or in the world of Caribbean turtle fisherman, Matthiessen has participated, observed and brought back tales which remind us that life in all of its many forms is a wondrous thing. Never overtly religious in a traditional sense, Matthiessen’s books, nonetheless, reverberate with a certain spiritual quality which separates good from truly great literature.
Like so many writers in this century, who know and appreciate our natural world, our environment, Matthiessen is truly an undisputed advocate for all that is still wild and an enemy of the wanton despoliation of our planet. His message as environmentalist, however, is never served up cold. Matthiessen’s books tend to bring the reader around to his way of thinking with quiet subtlety.
Born is New York City, Matthiessen has not forgotten that urban dwellers are here to stay but are capable of greater sensitivity to the world beyond their capable of greater sensitivity to the world beyond their cities. A committed Zen Buddhist, Matthiessen seems as comfortable in Central Park as in Central Asia.
This prolific writer has published seven novels and, at last count, 13 books of non-fiction. His name is not known to every TV talk show viewer. But among a wide-ranging cross-section of mature readers he is widely admired and among his following of devotees, he is a true literary giant. Among his peers, he is a "writer’s writer." William Styron calls him an "original and powerful artist…(who) has immeasurably enlarged our consciousness."
In short, the Helmerich prize is being awarded this year to a man whose life and art are truly distinguished.