Peter Matthiessen is gone

Peter Matthiessen (May 22, 1927 – April 5, 2014) died today.

I admired him greatly.

This week I’ve been composing a three postings, and they’re all in the loose, undisciplined going-everywhere state that means they’re not close to being ready. One of them exists only in my head. I think about it while I’m walking or when I wake in the night (as I increasingly do) and can’t get back to sleep.

One of them I’ve called “Full Disclosure,” and it’s going to look at the real me as opposed to the not-me anthropologist I write about, Elliot Lyman.

Another one’s probably going to be called “Walking Ailali to Auki, Pi’ihonua to Keauhaka,” although that’s a pretty awkward title.

The one that’s still in my head will be about “ethnographic” novels — what that means, what I think about the concept, and which ones I think are wonderful and which ones (most of them) are stinkers.

Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, sets the standard for an ethnographic novel even though I don’t believe it’s ever been billed as one. But it is. Yes, Far Tortuga is amazing, but At Play in the Fields of the Lord has everything — all varieties of insider and outsiders, all sorts of others, every sort of misunderstanding, evil, love, hope. If it seems a little sixties-ish, well, that’s when it was written. As best I remember, I read it in my leaf house on Bougainville, while I was doing fieldwork.

I’m not going to connect Matthiessen’s death to the walking post, but it connects well enough to the Full Disclosure post, and obviously to the ethnographic novel one.

If you read his obituaries and other articles about him (the New York Times today has a nice selection) you’ll learn that he participated in an innovative Harvard / Peabody Museum research project in Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaya). I knew one of the other participants (Karl Heider) well enough, another one (Bob Gardiner) very slightly, and Matthiessen and Michael Rockefeller not at all.

I was going to talk about my life in graduate school — just the outlines, really, but that takes me to Harvard and the Peabody Museum and gets the connection going.

Matthiessen, Heider, Gardiner, and Rockefeller were all back in Cambridge the year before I entered graduate school at Harvard, but by the time I got there, only Heider and Gardiner were around.

I don’t remember who came up with the concept of the Dugum Dani expedition. There was a lot of talk about the expedition around the Peabody and among the new grad students. What’s been important to me, all these years, was the concept. It was multi-disciplinary: an ethnographer (Heider), a film maker (Gardiner), a writer (Matthiessen) and a still photographer (Rockefeller) all working together to create a portrait of the Dani.

I was just out of Stanford where in my junior and senior years I had discovered creative writing. The writers Ed McClanahan and Blair Fuller tried — gently — to get me to take a shot at being a writer. I was tempted, but this was 1964 and I knew that if I weren’t in graduate school I’d likely be drafted and would end up as a foot soldier in Viet Nam. And I certainly was attracted to anthropology, and I got accepted at Harvard, so I went out there instead.

What that crowd was doing was exciting to me, although in 1964 I had none of the tools I’d need to duplicate what they did, except a start as a fiction writer. By 1966 I had a solid backing in still photography, including darkroom work. This was extra-curricular work, considering that I was there to get a PhD in anthropology. Then I learned a little bit about 16mm film, although I never had a movie camera. But as the resident photography nerd among the grad students, I chose and tested a 16mm Beaulieu for another student headed for the field. Of course this was pre-video.

In 1969 I went off to Bougainville to do fieldwork, bag of Nikon Fs and lenses in hand, not to mention notebooks, a typewriter, and novels (including At Play in the Fields of the Lord).

I can’t say when I first thought it might be possible for me to do what those four guys did among the Dani. Certainly it wasn’t then, although there are hints in my field notes:

June 9th, 1969: I think if I would write a novel about this place that would be good. This conflict of cultures shit always makes for good novels.


June 3rd, 1969: All the colors around here are green/brown. The only exception to this earthy-colored world is when it rains and everything becomes silver. Maybe if I make a movie I can exploit these characteristic color universes. Somehow, to me, the blue sky never catches my attention, but I’m continually delighted at the shades of brown and green, but brown most of all. I can look out the window now and not see a single thing which isn’t green, brown, or yellow, except the comb of the rooster.

I never got a movie camera but I came back with thousands of black and white negatives and color slides, and enough material for a PhD thesis. A bit more than a year later, I returned to Nagovisi for another period of fieldwork. I remember thinking about writing something, from time to time, but I never did. I did write an academic monograph and a paper and a couple of book chapters (some with co-authors), but I wrote no fiction or poetry between 1964 and the late 1980s. After the mid-seventies, I did very little photography.

It was probably well into the 1990s — after I restarted my writing and had started using video and had the startling experience, while on my only trip to Europe, of having my photographic eye suddenly return — that I explicitly gave myself a similar goal for the Nagovisi people: ethnography, video, still photography, literature.

And all along, I’ve been reading Matthiessen. I thought, He did all these different things; maybe I can too.

Maybe. We’ll see.

Thank you, Peter Matthiessen.

2 thoughts on “Peter Matthiessen is gone

  1. David Tarbet says:

    I need a new book to read. Maybe I’ll get a copy of the Matthiessen novel you like so much. Matthiessen’s life seems stranger to me than it would to you. Each of you has traveled to New Guinea, a place I can only try to imagine with the help of your book, A Red Woman Was Crying. But the difference that I feel is more social than geographic. He started in a world of wealth and privilege that remains more remote to me than New Guinea. (‘Though I’ve been around the fringes of it for years.) He cultivated many skills ably and finally seems to have relied on his talents more than his background of connections. But there is still to me an “otherness” to him greater, perhaps, than I would feel with the Nagovisi.

  2. Carol Flynn says:

    Mathiessen always seemed like a golden boy to me, the one who got out alive–far luckier than Rockefeller. I never thought of AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD as an ethnographic novel. If you say that it is, I will take your word for it and read the novel. This is because I have read A RED WOMAN WAS CRYING, your collection of short stories that sets the gold standard. I love the way RED WOMAN flips ethnographic assumptions by making the anthropologist himself the object of speculation. His wise and wily Nagovisi associates are insatiably curious about what makes him tick, and become in the process sophisticated anthropologists. The layers of investigation are complexly linked together, and create fully developed characters. The Nagovisi and the Hawaiian born anthropologist come to a know each “other” in a radically satisfying way.


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