No Company Man 

Peter Matthiessen gets around.

For Wildlife in America (1959), he visited every wildlife refuge in the United States.

The subtitle of Oomigmak (1967) records another itinerary: The Expedition to the Musk Ox Island in the Bering Sea.

For Sand Rivers (1981), Matthiessen trekked across the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. For The Snow Leopard (1978), he traveled to Tibet in search of bharal, a rare blue sheep. For The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (2001), he traveled with cranes in India, Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, Africa, western Europe, Wisconsin, Nebraska, the Gulf Coast, and Florida.

End of the Earth (2003) recounts a voyage to Antarctica. Other expeditions have taken him to Alaska, the Canadian Northwest, Peru, New Guinea, and Nicaragua.

Matthiessen comes to San Antonio on March 22. He will speak, under the auspices of Gemini Ink, at 7 p.m. at the Charline McCombs Empire Theater and at noon on March 23 at a luncheon at the Pearl Stable.

When Matthiessen spoke with me by phone from his home in Sagaponack, on Long Island, New York, I was naturally curious to learn whether there is any spot on the planet that the 79-year-old naturalist still longed to visit. He named St. Petersburg, Lapland, Madagascar, and parts of Scandinavia — “where my forebears came from.”

While George Plimpton, his late friend and co-editor of the Paris Review, was creating participatory nonfiction describing  comically brief stints in professional football, golf, baseball, hockey, and boxing, Matthiessen was writing environmental prose based on his own journeys to wild places throughout the world. He is a passionate defender of the earth’s fragile systems. “We are really digging ourselves into a very deep hole,” he declared, “and we’re not changing fast enough.”

Matthiessen denounced the exploitation of natural resources for selfish gain. “How dare a private company take water from a community?” he asked. “The whole corporate attitude has got to go. Look at Exxon and its incredible profits, while other people are going without basic necessities. Look at New Orleans.”

Look at Matthiessen’s fiction to realize the continuity of concerns with his nonfiction. For all its acclaim (a National Book Award, among other honors), he has described his nonfiction as “a livelihood, my way of making a living so I could write fiction.” Set in a South American rain forest, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965) portrays an indigenous culture destroyed by contact with intruders. Far Tortuga (1975) might be described as Moby-Dick transposed to a turtle-catching boat in the Caribbean. In his trilogy about the Everglades, Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999), Matthiessen tells the story of a legendary, controversial figure in southwest Florida.

The author read from Bone by Bone during his last appearance in San Antonio, in 1999, as the inaugural speaker in Gemini Ink’s Autograph Series, but stated on the phone that he has not yet decided what to read during this visit. However, he has still not exorcised the formidable ghost of E. J. Watson; he is currently reworking the Everglades material into a single volume.          

Matthiessen has also won acclaim as a champion of social justice. Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (1970) is a sympathetic portrait of the farm-workers’ leader, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and Indian Country (1984) examine American Indians as victims of indifference and hostility. So it came as a shock to find Matthiessen — a gentle teacher of Zen, indeed a Buddhist priest — accused, in a January article in The New York Times, of having worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to its author, Celia McGee, Matthiessen appears on camera in Doc, a new documentary about Harold “Doc” Humes, one of the co-founders, with Matthiessen and Plimpton, of the Paris Review, and “admits publicly for the first time that he was a young C.I.A. recruit at the time he helped start the magazine, and used it as his cover.”

In fact, The New York Times outed Matthiessen in December 1977 as a former employee of the notorious spy agency, but like a snow leopard suddenly visible on the horizon, the subject was impossible to ignore. “I’m sorry you had to bring it up,” said Matthiessen. “I’m sorry because it has been causing me so much trouble.” He noted that his history with the Agency, now “a symbol of everything that is bad about the United States,” has hurt his credibility with the American Indians and Third-World people he has worked with.

Yes, he acknowledged, he had worked for the CIA. “I’m not ashamed, but I’m a little bit embarrassed.” Early in the Cold War, when Stalin’s Soviet Union seemed to most Americans to pose a clear and present danger, “nobody would have thought it strange,” he said, that he contributed to the espionage organization, which had just evolved out of the wartime OSS.

Like many of the characters in The Good Shepherd, the Robert De Niro film that Matthiessen said he had not seen, and like James Angleton and William F. Buckley, he was recruited out of Yale, where he received a B.A. in 1950. From 1951-53, he was a CIA field agent based in Paris. But, he noted, he eventually ceased to be a dedicated Company man: “They couldn’t trust me anymore.” And he couldn’t continue on the CIA payroll. “I quit right on the job.”            

Winning hearts and minds was a high priority of American policy during the bitter struggle with the Soviet Union, and the CIA actively nurtured the non-Communist left as an alternative to Kremlin influence. Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an entity established to funnel funding, several cultural institutions were covertly supported as a way of strengthening — and controlling — Western voices. In The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (2000), Frances Stonor Saunders claims that some of the most prominent magazines in the United States and Europe, including Daedalus, Encounter, Preuves, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Partisan Review, and The New Republic, were secretly subsidized by the United States government. The Paris Review, which began in the French capital before moving to New York in 1973 and is to this day one of the most respected of all literary journals, was, according to some accounts, another.

Without denying his own relationship to the CIA, Matthiessen insists that the Paris Review was not a front and that its funding came entirely from its editors. Indeed, anyone who examines the magazine over the years would have to wonder exactly how its contents served the interests of the CIA. It advances no discernible ideology except artistic distinction, and it can only be that, in a very general sense, the existence of a first-rate literary magazine served to advertise the advantages of a free society. But for that purpose, the National Endowment for the Arts — not created until 1965 — would have been a more appropriate benefactor than the CIA.

Matthiessen, who served a two-year term as Official State Author of New York and was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, was disturbed to think that all his accomplishments as a novelist, naturalist, and advocate of human rights would be eclipsed by the Company he worked for more than 50 years ago. “If you write about that,” he said, “it is the only thing they will ask me about in San Antonio.”


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