Others in the fiction category included Marilynne Robinson for "Home," a companion novel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead"; Aleksandar Hemon for "The Lazarus Project"; and debut authors Salvatore Scibona ("The End") and Rachel Kushner ("Telex From Cuba").
Among the nonfiction finalists were Jane Mayer for "The Dark Side," an investigation into the war against terrorism, and Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." Richard Howard and Mark Doty were nominees for poetry, while Laurie Halse Anderson was cited for young people's literature.
Winners, each of whom receive $10,000, will be announced Nov. 19 at a ceremony hosted by author-performance artist Eric Bogosian. Honorary prizes will be given to author Maxine Hong Kingston and publisher Barney Rosset.
Matthiessen, long known as an environmentalist, travel writer and spiritualist, is among the oldest writers to receive a fiction nomination. He won a National Book Award in 1979 for his nonfiction "The Snow Leopard," and in the 1950s was a founder of the Paris Review. His other novels include "Far Tortuga," "Race Rock" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," adapted into a feature film of the same name.
Matthiessen worked for years condensing and reorganizing "Killing Mr. Watson," "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone" - three novels about a community in Florida's Everglades at the turn of the 20th century and the predatory planter, E.J. Watson, who becomes the most feared, and famous resident. The original material was so thoroughly changed that Matthiessen - and the award judges, apparently - considered "Shadow Country" a new book.
"It wasn't meant to be three books," he said in a 2004 interview. "I think the end pieces are very strong, but the middle section, while in my view had the best material, was too long. I didn't like it, so I wanted to do it properly."
Robinson's nomination for "Home" comes four years after National Book Award judges snubbed "Gilead," a novel that received stronger reviews than her current release. Both books are set in rural Iowa in the 1950s and tell of an aging minister and his family.
A few major names were left off this year's list: Philip Roth, John Updike, Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Besides Mayer and Gordon-Reed, the nonfiction finalists were Jim Sheeler's "Final Salute," Joan Wickersham's "The Suicide Index" and Drew Gilpin Faust's Civil War history, "This Republic of Suffering."
In poetry, the nominees were Frank Bidart, for "Watching the Spring Festival"; Doty, "Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems"; Reginald Gibbons' "Creatures of a Day"; Howard's "Without Saying"; and Patricia Smith, for "Blood Dazzler."
The young people's literature finalists were Anderson's "Chains," Kathi Appelt's "The Underneath," Judy Blundell's "What I Saw and How I Lied," E. Lockhart's "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" and Tim Tharp, for "The Spectacular Now."
Founded in 1950, the awards are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers numerous educational and literary programs.
By Hillel Italie