The term "Renaissance Man" is sometimes applied too lightly, but in the case of Peter Matthiessen it is particularly apt. At age 81, Matthiessen has spent a lifetime pursuing his considerable literary, environmental, spiritual and social justice ambitions.
In the process he became co-founder of the Paris Review; author of some 30 books (including "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," "The Snow Leopard" and "Shadow Country"); the only person to win two National Book Awards for fiction and nonfiction; explorer, activist and advocacy journalist; Buddhist monk and impassioned chronicler of the vanishing natural world.
Matthiessen's life and the impact of his remarkable body of work are the subject of "Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries," a one-hour documentary by Pittsburgh producer/writer/director Jeff Sewald in conjunction with WQED.
The film will have its Pittsburgh premiere tonight at 7 at Chatham University's Eddy Theater, with an appearance by Matthiessen and Sewald (a few seats may still be available, first-come first-served). It will air nationwide on PBS television April 24 at 10 p.m.
The Chatham showing is linked to the school's most famous graduate, Rachel Carson (1929), whose 1962 book "Silent Spring" is often credited with launching the modern environmental movement. Matthiessen's "Wildlife in America," the first comprehensive history of American wildlife, predated "Silent Spring" by three years. Even that early work has an elegaic quality to it, with Matthiessen chronicling the fate of the original creatures of this continent from the time of the white man's arrival in the New World.
The film, narrated by Glenn Close, features interviews with Matthiessen, his friends, fellow literary figures and family members. They draw a portrait of a driven, disciplined man who knows how to enjoy life, but whose family often suffered from his long absences and single-mindedness.
One eye-opening passage involves the author's hard-fought defense of a libel lawsuit over his 1983 book "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse." The book was suppressed for eight years after the governor of South Dakota sued everyone from the publisher down to the booksellers. Matthiessen's eventual, and very expensive, First Amendment victory (the lawsuit was dismissed on appeal) essentially saved the practice of advocacy journalism.
"One of the reasons I made the film was to make Peter's life and works better known to readers," said Sewald. "I don't want to see great literary artists fade away. I have two boys now, and I would like them to know that something existed before their iPods."
Sewald said he was captivated by "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" when he read it in college.
"Here was this man who had lived in tribal New Guinea and the Amazon basin in the early '60s. As a 20-year-old guy, I thought there couldn't be a cooler life than that, to be a great writer and tremendous adventurer. As I started to get into documentary film when I was living in New York, I always had this in the back of my mind."
Sewald, who wrote music reviews for the Post-Gazette in the mid-1980s, met Matthiessen at several speeches and learned meditation with his Zen group. Eventually he approached him about the film and Matthiessen agreed.
The filmmaker worked on the documentary in fits and starts over three years, alternately shooting footage and raising money. Getting the finished product down to 60 minutes was a challenge, he said.
"Peter's led a very complicated life. Three marriages, writing fiction and nonfiction, adventure travel, advocacy journalism, the Paris Review. His interest in Native American issues is legendary.
"Any one of these things would have been a life for most people. Peter did them all. His passion has never let up, and he's still incredibly vigorous.
"Nobody uses their energy better than he does," Sewald added. "Zen has helped him focus and get the most out of each day. He does not have a cell phone, e-mail or answering machine. You just have to know when he's liable to be around."
Sally Kalson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1610.