Peter Matthiessen died on April 5, 2014 exactly seventeen years to the day after Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997. Both men played significant roles in my life, one more closely and intimately than the other, but both equally impacting.
As an avid reader in the 5th or 6th grade I acquired, and read, a copy of Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark (1971). I was enthralled. That initiated a period of serious interest in the oceans, in sea creatures, in sharks. My classmate, Clarence West, and I spent hours drawing sharks and undersea divers and reefs and strange ocean life like the mola mola and the manta ray. And that interest in the ocean expanded into an interest in all wild things. Later came the yen to travel and traveling brought me to Peter Matthiessen’s wonderful travel narrative, The Tree Where Man Was Born. I read that and fell in love with the idea of traveling overland through Africa (something that, 40 years later, I realize that I will never do).
Though I’m born and raised in New England, my family had relatives in the west and during many summers we would travel to Minnesota and Montana to visit relatives. Not only that but my mother was a lifetime student of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (formerly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”) so a sense of western-ness and American Indians and the Great Plains was in my being from early on.
I came of age politically in the early 1980s. Nicaragua and anti-nuclear power were my issues of choice. And then there was In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983) and the subsequent libel suits against Matthiessen and Viking Press and the book’s suppression. I read the book and became obsessed with the case of Leonard Peltier. That is a saga of injustice that continues to this day and I’m sad thinking about Leonard Peltier in his jail cell in Leavenworth, KS thinking about Peter Matthiessen dying, PM his great advocate and defender, now gone.
I met Allen Ginsberg in the early 80s and we became lovers briefly, and good friends before and after, and stayed that way until he died. We traveled together to the Ruben Dario Poetry Festival in Managua, Nicaragua, 1986 (an experience about which I’ve compiled/written a book, Nicaragua Beat: Allen Ginsberg and the Sandinista Revolution, that remains unpublished). In October of 1986, Peter Matthiessen, and his lawyer, Martin Garbus, gave a talk at the PEN Club in New York about the libel cases brought against Crazy Horse. Allen Ginsberg and I went together, and I recorded the conversation. I still have the transcript of that event, it’s never been published.
In the months preceding that event I attempted to meet with Peter Matthiessen and we exchanged letters. Actually, I sent letters and he replied hastily on post cards. I told him I was a journalist who wanted to write about the Crazy Horse case and Leonard Peltier and that I was a friend of Allen Ginsberg’s and that I didn’t want much of his time, just an hour or two or three.
In the end, we were never able to arrange a time for the two of us to sit down and talk. We did speak face to face after the PEN Club talk on October 8, 1986, and we did exchange subsequent postal communication, but that was the extent of our contact.
Though I typed up the transcript of the PEN talk, I never placed it anywhere and never wrote the long piece I’d intended to. Still, I’m grateful for having met Peter Matthiessen and corresponded with him, albeit briefly. Everything about him struck me as genuine, compassionate, straight forward, empathetic, generous. I’ve read many of his books since first devouring Blue Meridian. The Snow Leopard, I can honestly say, helped form my world view and my understanding of psychedelics and eastern spirituality in dramatic and everlasting ways. The Snow Leopard opened up for me the idea that a travel book could also be a deeply personal narrative, a journey inward as well as outward, a confession, a marauding questioning of reality, a pure-spirited observation of Now.
So when a close friend emailed me and told me that Peter Matthiessen had died, memories of my brief interaction with him came to mind, and I dug into my archives in search of documents or correspondence related to my attempt to write about him. Below are two postcards from him, replies to letters I sent asking about Leonard Peltier and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and wondering if or when we could meet. To his credit, he treated me with respect and cordiality and replied personally to my missives despite being exceedingly busy with more important matters than my youthful self.
|First postcard from Peter Matthiessen to me, 23 May, 1986|
|Text of May 23, 1986 card|
Dear Patrick Warner
Thank you for your
kind letter. I’m afraid
I’m too far behind
schedule to answer these
questions properly in a
letter, but perhaps we
could meet in the fall.
I’ll be teaching at Yale,
but still be in NYC
once in a while
|Second Postcard from Peter Matthiessen,
September 26, 1986
|Text of card from Peter Matthiessen, Sept 26, 1986|
Dear Patrick – I’m afraid I
arrive at Yale Tues noon and
depart Wed afternoon, with 2
long seminars, ..?.. papers, +
student interviews – I have
very little time, as you suspected.
Might be better to arrange a date
in Dec in NYC, sorry – Best