The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin holds the papers of Peter Matthiessen, winner of the 59th annual National Book Award.
Matthiessen won for “Shadow Country,” a reworking of his trilogy released in the 1990s about the Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer Edgar J. Watson. In this edition, the three stories in the trilogy are published in one volume with rewritten passages, a compressed narrative and more strongly developed supporting characters.
Matthiessen recently wrote to the Ransom Center about “Shadow Country.”
“A work of art, someone famously said, is never finished, it is simply abandoned,” he said. “How true! How true! as elderly ladies in my childhood were wont to write beside favorite passages in the margins of novels taken from the library. But where is the point of abandonment? After 30 years spent on the two stages (a trilogy now distilled into one long novel) of my most recent book, I was dismayed to find upon opening the finished product at long last that it was still unfinished. I could still spot extra adverbs and see places where prose could be sharpened. But would I keep those little changes, seen next day? Probably not. For me, that is the test. So until my system is rid of this book, I will do my best not to look at it again.”
Matthiessen, 81, also received the National Book Award in 1979 for his nonfiction book “The Snow Leopard.” Matthiessen co-founded the Paris Review, and he is the author of nearly 200 articles and essays, two dozen short stories and eight novels.
The Center’s collection of Matthiessen’s material was acquired in 1995 and reflects Matthiessen’s 40-year career as novelist, naturalist, explorer, nature writer and environmentalist. Many of his works are represented, ranging from fiction and non-fiction to magazine articles, and contributions to the works of others. The collection provides numerous typescript drafts, galleys, page proofs, holograph notebooks, scrapbooks, correspondence, articles, reviews, slides and photographs.
The Center obtained additional Matthiessen material in 1998, 2003 and 2008. The Ransom Center holds papers related to “The Snow Leopard” and the original trilogy, which was published under the titles “Killing Mister Watson,” “Lost Man’s River” and “Bone by Bone.” Of the 79 archival boxes in the collection of his materials that have been processed, 25 are devoted to the trilogy.
The most recent addition to his papers includes materials related to his reworked “Shadow Country,” but these materials are not yet processed. The new materials reflect the work that went into the rewriting of the three volumes over the course of more than four years, ranging from a seven-page outline of the three books to various paperback copies of the original books that Matthiessen heavily marked up, to complete manuscript drafts with extensive corrections and changes.
The award was announced Nov. 18 in New York City. The awards, founded in 1950, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers numerous educational and literary programs.
Visit the Ransom Center Web site to learn more about Matthiessen’s papers.