Naturalist Peter Matthiessen, an award-winning American author who helped create the Paris Review and brought to life tales from the wilderness centered on his excursions to faraway lands, died Saturday at age 86, his publishing company said.
“Peter passed away this evening,” Riverhead Books said in a statement on its Facebook page. “We are honored to have known him and his beautiful and wild mind.”
Matthiessen died of leukemia, his son told the New York Times, which said his death occurred at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y.
The environmentalist and chronicler of indigenous peoples was the only author to win the National Book Award in both nonfiction and fiction, taking the prize in the first category with his 1978 “The Snow Leopard,” about his travels in Nepal, and in the second with “Shadow Country,” a 2008 collection of stories.
He also won acclaim for a 1965 novel “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and a 1983 book “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” which delved into a 1975 gun battle between FBI agents and American Indian Movement activists.
Matthiessen had been awaiting publication on Tuesday of his latest novel, the Holocaust-themed “In Paradise.”
“The number of people killed in the past century — human beings killing each other is phenomenal, you know?” Matthiessen told National Public Radio in an interview tied to his latest book. “How has civilization — so called — come this far, and people are still designing tools to kill each other?”
Born in New York City, the son of an architect father who often took the family to a country home in Connecticut, he was educated at Yale and the Sorbonne in Paris, the city where in 1953, he founded the influential Paris Review literary magazine along with Harold Humes and George Plimpton.
After leaving Paris cafe culture and moving back to the United States, Matthiessen in the late 1950s began mapping and making journeys to distant frontiers. He put himself on the literary map with nonfiction works such as “Wildlife in America,” “The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle in the South American Wilderness” and “Under the Mountain Wall.”
His travels took him through Alaska, Canada’s Northwest Territories, wilderness areas in South America, Africa and New Guinea.
Matthiessen’s varied life included a stint where he earned a paycheck in espionage.
Years ago, he acknowledged that while in Paris he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, which he said assigned him to keep tabs on communists. He said in a 2008 television interview he used the Paris Review as his cover.
“I was being urged to do something for my country, which appealed to my patriotic thing,” he told the latest edition of New York Times Magazine.
In middle age, he delved into zen Buddhism, which played a role in the writing of “The Snow Leopard,” and he became ordained as a zen priest.