Tompkins, Ptolemy 1962(?)–

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Tompkins, Ptolemy 1962(?)–

(Ptolemy Christian Tompkins)

PERSONAL: Born c. 1962, in Washington, DC; son of Peter (a journalist, editor, and writer) and Jerree Lee Talbot (Smith) Tompkins. Education: Attended Vassar College, early 1980s.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.

CAREER: Writer and illustrator.



This Tree Grows Out of Hell: Mesoamerica and the Search for the Magical Body, HarperCollins (San Francisco, CA), 1990.

Color the Ancient Forest (juvenile), Living Planet Press (Venice, CA), 1991.

(Editor) Patrick Bowe, Gardens in Central Europe, photographs by Nicolas Sapieha, Scala Books (New York, NY), 1991.

The Monkey in Art, Sotheby's Books (New York, NY), 1994.

(With Nicolas Sapieha) A Dog Lover's Collection, Scala Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age (autobiography), Avon (New York, NY), 1997.

The Beaten Path: Field Notes on Getting Wise in a Wisdom-crazy World, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.

Tompkins's works have been translated into Spanish.


Big Cats, Little Cats, Living Planet Press (Venice, CA), 1991.

Bartleby Nash, Mother Nature's Greatest Hits: The Top 40 Wonders of the Animal World, Living Planet Press (Venice, CA), 1991.

SIDELIGHTS: Ptolemy Tompkins has written and illustrated a variety of nonfiction works about the natural world of plants and animals, and he has illustrated a number of titles for young audiences as well. He wrote the book Color the Ancient Forest for the Wilderness Society, and illustrated the World Wildlife Fund's Mother Nature's Greatest Hits: The Top 40 Wonders of the Animal World by Bartleby Nash.

Tompkins's autobiography, Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age, traces his life as the son of guru Peter Tompkins, author of the cult best-seller, The Secret Life of Plants and other works. A Kirkus Reviews critic observed that Paradise Fever "is best in its details, from a young person's perspective, of the brave new world Tompkins, Sr., tried to create." This "new world" included Peter Tompkins's communal living with a wide variety of people and his extramarital affairs, including a mistress who remained a permanent fixture in the household. In an effort to deal with the lifestyle his father created, Ptolemy Tompkins turned to alcohol and other drugs. Reviewing Paradise Fever, a Publishers Weekly critic noted that "Tompkins's writing is vivid throughout, but particularly so in describing daily life caught in the viselike grip of addiction."

In Paradise Fever Tompkins recalls: "From the very beginning, my father's books dealt with secrets of one sort or another—with things hidden, ignored, unspoken, or outright denied by the world at large." The culmination, Tompkins revealed, came "in 1973—after several years of especially intensive research" when "my father and his friend Christopher Bird finished writing The Secret Life of Plants, a book which made the claim that plants were conscious beings capable of communicating with humans. Plants were such spiritually evolved organisms, my father argued, that if we listened to them attentively they could teach us how to live more happily and harmoniously on earth—so harmoniously that our frayed and tired planet could be transformed into a new Eden."

Tompkins also explains in his autobiography that "by the mid-1970s, my father had become a kind of walking, talking, concatenation of his revelation-hungry way of thinking, as well as the experimental lifestyle that tended to go along with it." He reminisces: "Bearded, bald, and with a perpetually intense and preoccupied expression on his face (as a child I suspected that he must have lost his hair from thinking too much), my father was in appearance and in character perfectly suited for his role as unveiler of the dawning age. With little in the way of conscious calculation," Tompkins continues, "he became the definitive model of the Fringe Investigator: the mysteriously authoritative figure with whitening beard, khaki bush jacket, and unfazably open mind who was forever lurking on the outer edges of accepted science and conventional thinking." He concludes of his father: "From Peter Tompkins, you could always count on learning that the impossible wasn't really impossible."

Tompkins did not foreswear the religious and metaphysical elements he had been exposed to, and his life still contained a search for knowledge. In The Beaten Path: Field Notes on Getting Wise in a Wisdom-crazy World Tompkins describes his search for wisdom through popular books, religious experience, and various forms of physical and spiritual exploration. A student at Vassar in the early 1980s, Tompkins dropped out of school to pursue his spiritual course. He traveled to various places around the world, including Colombia and the American West, all with his family's approval. Tompkins explains how he looked to famed spiritual works such as the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad-Ghita; how he delved into the writings of mystics and teachers such as Carlos Castaneda, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts; and how the experience of Buddhism was not the mind-expanding experience he expected it to be.

Tompkins found, to his dismay, that many of the gurus he had known and followed were actually shallow and, in some cases, fraudulent, and that their teachings were not guaranteed roadmaps to wisdom. He describes his mounting frustration at remaining "unenlightened" and relates the conclusion he ultimately reaches: acquiring wisdom is a process, not an end result. Writing in Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman called the book a "charmingly offhanded and refreshingly critical memoir," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer described it as "witty" and "provocative."



Tompkins, Ptolemy, Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age, Avon (New York, NY), 1997.


Booklist, August, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of The Beaten Path: Field Notes on Getting Wise in a Wisdom-crazy World, p. 2058.

Entertainment Weekly, October 24, 1997, Margot Mifflin, review of Paradise Fever, p. 60.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1997, review of Paradise Fever; June 1, 2001, review of The Beaten Path, p. 792.

Publishers Weekly, October 6, 1997, review of Paradise Fever, p. 66; August 6, 2001, review of The Beaten Path, p. 81.