Knut Hamsun (1859-1952)

Knut Hamsun is considered to be the greatest novelist Scandinavia has ever produced. Certainly he is one of the very few Scandinavian writers--along with his fellow Norwegians, the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the novelist Sigrid Undset, and the Swedish playwright August Strindberg--who have acquired a truly international reputation. Hamsun was one of the pioneers of psychological literature and employed techniques such as stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue that would be associated in the twentieth century with Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who used them after Hamsun did. Adept at portraying the "isolated individual"--himself--in the 1890s, Hamsun in his mature years turned his attention to the environment, producing "social novels" that capture the flavor of northern Norway while exposing the ills of industrialized society. Although his sympathy for Nazi Germany cast a pall over his reputation, Hamsun's literary innovations, his versatility, and his mastery of style in his more than thirty-five volumes ensure his place at the top of the Scandinavian Olympus.


Knut Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen in Lom, Gudbrandsdal, on August 4, 1859. When he was four years old his family moved to Hamaroey in Nordland, above the Arctic circle. The family was impoverished and moved because Hamsun's relatively wealthy uncle, who lived in Hamaroey, invited the Pedersens to farm property he owned.

In 1868, at the age of nine, Hamsun was separated from his family and taken to live with this uncle, Hans Olsen, who needed the boy's help at a post office he also ran. Because Hamsun's parents were in debt to Olsen, they could not intervene. Hans Olsen starved and beat his nephew, however, and Hamsun later attributed his chronic nervous difficulties to childhood malnutrition suffered while living with his uncle. Even in his last work, On Overgrown Paths, written at the age of eighty-nine, Hamsun referred to the suffering he endured in his uncle's home.

Hamsun finally escaped to Lom in 1874 and thereafter followed five years of wandering and itinerant work: he was a clerk in stores, a peddler in northern Norway, a shoemaker's apprentice, an assistant to a sheriff, and an elementary school teacher. These experiences provided the background for his fine novels of life in northern Norway.

In 1877 Hamsun published his first book, Den gaadefulde ("The Mysterious One"). The following year a poem, "Et gjensyn" ("A Reunion"), and a second novel, Bjoerger, were published. These early novels were the thinly disguised daydreams of a lonely youth cut off from family and society. The autobiographical nature of the works has been emphasized by Rolf Nyboe Nettum in Konflikt og visjon: Hovedtemaer i Knut Hamsuns foifatterskap, 1890-1912 ("Conflict and Vision: Main Themes in Knut Hamsun's Authorship 1890-1912"), and the links between these early "daydreams" and the great outsider-novels of the 1890s have been exposed by Jan Marstrander in a Norwegian doctoral dissertation, Livskamp og virkelighetsoppfatning i Knut Hamsuns tidligste forfatterskap ("Existential Struggle and the Perception of Reality in Knut Hamsun's Earliest Works").

These early works have little value other than to offer insight into the psychological makeup of the adolescent Hamsun. It is no wonder that a young man who had been cut off from family at an early age, had been deprived of the company of his peers, and had moved from one temporary job to another should come to see himself as an outsider and outcast. His feelings of inferiority resulted from his lack of formal education and his humble position in society. In 1879 he left Nordland for the south, where he worked building roads, nearly starving in Oslo during the winter of 1879 and later during the winter of 1886. These experiences would bear fruit in the autobiographical novel Hunger, Hamsun's first major work.

While a construction worker in the early 1880s, Hamsun read voraciously in local libraries and began to hold literary lectures for small audiences. In 1882 he immigrated to America with dreams of literary success--dreams that were shattered. In America he found hard physical labor and no literary recognition. When a doctor told him he was dying of consumption, he returned, in the fall of 1884, to Norway, where he recovered and published an article on Mark Twain under the name of Knut Pedersen Hamsund. The "d" on the end of his surname was omitted by the printer and thereafter the Norwegian author was known as Knut Hamsun. During the summer of 1886, Hamsun again traveled as a literary lecturer, and in August of that year he returned to America, where he worked as a farm laborer, as a streetcar conductor in Chicago, and as a journalist in Minneapolis. In the summer of 1888, Hamsun left America permanently and settled in Copenhagen, where the first chapters of Hunger were published anonymously in the journal Ny jord. In 1889 Hamsun delivered anti-American lectures before the Students' Association in Copenhagen, and that year his lectures were published as a book, On the Cultural Life of Modern America.

His bitter experiences in America (the spirit of which he later contrasted with the self-sufficient quietism of the Near East) contributed significantly to Hamsun's increasingly reactionary political views. The environmental pollution, noise, and apparent superficiality of industrialized America would become permanent targets of Hamsun's ire in works written after the turn of the century. The importance of Hamsun's years in America for his development as author and citizen has been stressed by Harald S. Naess in Hamsun og Amerika ("Hamsun and America") and in his introductory biography, Knut Hamsun. In the 1920s Hamsun rescinded some of his more virulent comments on America and admitted that he had, in fact, learned much in that country. Naess theorizes that the irony and humor of Hamsun's social novels was learned in America from Mark Twain.

The year 1890 was pivotal for Hamsun. The full novel Hunger was published and made him famous, and an article, "Fra det ubevisste Sjeleliv" ("From the Unconscious Life of the Mind"), in the journal Samtiden presented his literary views. This article foreshadowed literary lectures that Hamsun would hold throughout Norway in 1891, lectures in which he attacked the "four greats" (Henrik Ibsen, Bjoernstjerne Bjoernson, Alexander Kielland, and Jonas Lie) of Norwegian literature and the naturalist literature of the 1880s. Hamsun argued that externals of plot were not important; rather, importance lay in the portrayal of the mind (even the subconscious) of one individual.

In this article Hamsun called for the abandonment of "types" and for the description of the modern, complex individual: "Now what if literature on the whole began to deal a little more with mental states than with engagements and balls and hikes and accidents as such? Then one would, to be sure, have to relinquish creating types, as all have been created before, `characters' whom one meets every day at the fishmarket. . . . But in return . . . we would experience a little more of the secret movements which are unnoticed in the remote places of the soul, the capricious disorder of perception, the delicate life of fantasy held under the magnifying glass, the wandering of these thoughts and feelings out of the blue; motionless, trackless journeys with the brain and the heart, strange activities of the nerves, the whispering of the blood, the pleading of the bones, the entire unconscious life." In the same article, Hamsun describes phenomena that can be experienced by sensitive, impressionable individuals--"a sudden, unnatural staring in to locked kingdoms which open up"--and he stresses the importance of ephemeral sensations: "They are often too fleeting to be seized and held fast, they last a second, a minute, they come and go like blinking lights; but they have made a mark, produced a sensation, before they disappeared." Hamsun refers to such phenomena as "these almost imperceptible Mimosa-like movements of the soul." Having rejected the literature of social criticism of the preceding generation, Hamsun called for a new psychological literature.

In accordance with his stated literary views he produced several great novels during the 1890s: Hunger, 1890; Mysteries, 1892; Pan, 1894; and Victoria, 1898. In these works he attempted to illustrate his literary program. These novels all depict gifted outsiders, most of whom are poets and all of whom bear a striking resemblance to Hamsun himself. These heroes are self-destructive in erotic relationships, unsuccessful at integrating themselves into the community, lacking in family roots, and without prestige or self-esteem. One of them (Tangen of Hunger) flees the site of his suffering, two of them (Nagel of Mysteries and Glahn of Pan) commit suicide, and another, Johannes of Victoria, succeeds as a poet by renouncing love and accepting his isolation.

Hamsun himself can easily be identified in the protagonists of his early works: Hunger is an autobiographical account of experiences suffered in Oslo and Copenhagen; many of Hamsun's short stories are first-person accounts of real-life experiences; letters written by Hamsun parallel Nagel's statements in Mysteries. In fact, Tore Hamsun wrote in his biography of his father that "Nagel . . . is Hamsun himself." The wanderer in the second work of the wanderer trilogy, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings (1909), is even identified as "Knut Pedersen from Nordland." A knowledge of Hamsun's unhappy childhood and years of frustration, struggle, and starvation in Norway, Denmark, and America renders the desperation of such heroes as Tangen, Nagel, and Glahn even more poignant. Nagel calls himself "a stranger to existence" and "a foreigner among my fellow men." Not only are the heroes of the 1890s and the wanderer of the trilogy written in the first decade of the twentieth century outsiders, they are also curiously passive and seem to accept their unhappiness and failure without protest. Nettum has pointed out this self-destructive passivity in Konflikt og visjon, and the theme of the outsider has been thoroughly treated by Jan Marstrander in Det ensomme menneske i Knut Hamsuns diktning ("The Isolated Individual in Knut Hamsun's Fiction").

To portray effectively an individual from the inside out, Hamsun not only employed the technique of interior monologue but also devoted much space in his works of the 1890s to dreams, hallucinations, and descriptions of his protagonists' poetic creations. The action sometimes takes place on various planes of time, as in Pan, which records events that took place years before the central action of the book and ends with an epilogue after the hero's death. Fragments of memory or fantasy interrupt the narrative in many works. The novels of the 1890s were practical applications of Hamsun's views on literature as outlined in the article on the subconscious from 1890 and in the lectures of 1891. His techniques foreshadowed so much that has become standard fare in the twentieth century that Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in the introduction to Robert Bly's translation of Sult ( Hunger): "He [Hamsun] is the father of the modern school of literature in every respect--his subjectiveness, his fragmentarism, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun."

Although the autobiographical wanderer books-- Under the Autumn Star, 1907; A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, 1909; and Look Back on Happiness, 1912--retained the outsider protagonist of the 1890s, Hamsun's work changed after the turn of the century. Instead of endeavoring to penetrate the mind of one individual with whom he identified, Hamsun now began to turn his attention to the outside world. From defense of the outsider he moved to criticism of the environment.

In 1893 he had written two realistic novels, Editor Lynge and Shallow Soil. After the negative reception that Mysteries received in 1892, Hamsun was bitter enough to strike back. Olav Thommesen, the editor of Verdens gang, accused Hamsun of being a charlatan, and Editor Lynge, the story of an unscrupulous, sensation-mongering newspaper editor, is widely considered to be a roman a clef attacking Thommesen. Shallow Soil rails at artists as a whole, portraying them as unprincipled parasites living off the naive businessmen who actually are the creative people.

After the turn of the century, social novels with an omniscient narrator became the norm. Among Hamsun's most popular works in Norway are those set in the northern part of the country, the locale of Hamsun's childhood and adolescence. In these novels Hamsun employs local dialect, irony, and humor. Dreamers appeared in 1904, followed in four years by Benoni and Rosa. Children of the Age was published in 1913 and two years later its sequel, Segelfoss Town, appeared. In 1917 Growth of the Soil came out, followed in the early 1920s by The Women at the Pump and Chapter the Last. Perhaps the most famous of the novels set in northern Norway comprise the August trilogy, published between 1927 and 1933: Vagabonds, August, and The Road Leads On. After those successful, colorful works, there appeared in 1936 a depressing story of the corruption of modern life, The Ring Is Closed, which confirmed a decline in Hamsun's creative powers. His last work, On Overgrown Paths, which appeared in 1949, was provoked by political events and was, like his first important work, Hunger, a first-person autobiographical account of personal suffering.

The reasons for Hamsun's change in focus and style after the turn of the century are numerous, but aging was a prime factor. Throughout his life Hamsun abhorred the aging process; it is perhaps a cruel wrong that he lived to be ninety-two years old. He believed that after the age of fifty, one was no longer a participant in but only a spectator to life. The autobiographical wanderer books, the first of which was written when Hamsun was forty-eight years old, reflect this attitude.

Perhaps because of his own unhappy childhood, Hamsun was always extremely fond of children and a champion of youth. In some of his short stories and sketches depicting scenes from his own childhood, he maintained that no adult ever suffers as much as an impressionable child does. In 1907, Hamsun delivered a lecture entitled "Aerer de unge" ("Honor the Young") at the Norwegian Students' Union in Oslo, in which he argued that the old should voluntarily make way for the young. After all, had not the elder statesmen of the literary establishment (Ibsen, in particular) tried to block Hamsun's path to success? Hamsun himself, once established as a famous author and secure financially, was extremely generous to younger, unknown writers. When in 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, his acceptance speech in Stockholm was a paean to youth; Tore and Marie Hamsun record that the sixty-one-year old author was bitter at not having received such recognition earlier when he was still young.

Throughout his works Hamsun's obsession with age is apparent: repulsive descriptions of senile old men, Mons and Fredrik Mensa, appear in the novel Rosa, and an entire dramatic trilogy of the 1890s--"At the Gates of the Kingdom," 1895; "The Game of Life," 1896; and "Twilight," 1898--laments the loss of youthful idealism and courage. The vital young rebel Kareno of the first play has, by the third play (in which he has reached the dread age of fifty), betrayed his ideals and compromised with the establishment for material comfort. Even more revealing of Hamsun's fears was the play "In the Grip of Life," which appeared in 1910, one year after he had married an actress twenty-three years his junior. The play portrays the moral decline of a fortyish former actress who is married to a senile old man whom she continually betrays. Age caused Hamsun to turn his gaze away from the isolated individual; it is one of the primary factors in the alterations of style which marked his works of the twentieth century.

Other contributing influences on Hamsun's stylistic evolution were the changes in his personal and professional life: he married and became a father, acquired property, established roots, and achieved literary and financial success. Hamsun had married for the first time in 1898, when he was nearly thirty-nine. Having grown up without family and wandered rootlessly over two continents, he was not yet ready for responsibility, and although his first marriage to Bergljot Bech produced a daughter, Victoria, in 1902, the marriage was dissolved in 1906.

In 1909 Hamsun married the young actress Marie Andersen, whom he had met when she was rehearsing the role of Elina in "The Gates to the Kingdom." This marriage lasted until Hamsun's death, although the twenty-three-year age difference and Hamsun's difficult temperament caused frustration and disappointment on both sides. Marie had to give up the theatre when they married, and Hamsun insisted that they move to his farm, Skogheim, in northern Norway. Hamsun, the masterful portrayer of the rootless wanderer and isolated individual, became a family man and gentleman farmer. Thus his focus shifted, and he idealized the farmer, as in Growth of the Soil. In his second marriage he fathered two sons and two daughters. When life in the North proved to be too harsh, Hamsun bought the large farm, Noerholm, in southern Norway in 1918, and this estate remained his home until he died (it is still owned by his son Arild).

In addition to these significant changes in his personal life, Hamsun had achieved prestige and financial security, a clear influence on the stylistic development of his later works. He was no longer the struggling rebel, the outsider attempting to gain entry to the community and trying to establish a relationship with a "proud princess" he could never have. Now he was respected and had the opportunity to voice his opinions with the expectation that they would be heeded. Thus in his social novels, he tends to sermonize.

Still another theory for the change in Hamsun's style focuses upon a possible decline in his creative powers. Anna Sofie Hansen in Hamsun og publikum ("Hamsun and the Public") maintains that the Norwegian author lost his creative surge and, therefore, wrote relatively conventional narrative novels of a panoramic nature; in other words, diligence took the place of inspiration. However, many critics (Marstrander, Naess, Nettum) do not dismiss the later work in this way. The emphasis has shifted, they agree: since Hamsun was no longer a totally isolated individual without family, his need to focus upon himself lessened considerably. But that inspiration abandoned him is debatable; after all, Vagabonds is one of his best novels and yet dates from 1927. Moreover, because his last work returns to the format and atmosphere of his first, that final effort contradicts any possible claim that Hamsun could no longer be inspired.

Hamsun involved himself in psychoanalysis in 1926 when he consulted a psychiatrist in Oslo precisely because he feared that his creative powers had dried up. In this context it is worth noting that Hamsun's early traumas had been exorcised in effective works of art. The short story "Et spoekelse" ("A Ghost") describes an apparition that plagued the young Hamsun. A German psychiatrist, Dr. Eduard Hitschmann, in an article in Imago (1924) interpreted the story as the expression of a castration complex. Furthermore, a Norwegian psychiatrist, Trygve Braatoey in Livets cirkel (1929), discussed Hamsun's "mother fixation" and the difficulties of his heroes in relating to women.

It is clear that Hamsun the outsider feared insanity, and his early heroes of the 1890s suffer most when they are accused of being "crazy." The accusation is made of the hero of Hunger by Ylajali, of Nagel by Dagny Kielland and Kamma in Mysteries, of Glahn by the doctor in Pan, and of Abel by Olga in The Ring Is Closed. Hamsun himself felt most deeply humiliated after the war by his incarceration in the Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo. He wrote in On Overgrown Paths, "I wanted to be in an ordinary prison."

An image that crops up in that final book and that had occurred in the first major work, Hunger, is that of the caged animal. The hero of Hunger does not like to see "animals in cages"; he obviously thinks of himself as such a curiosity to the ordinary, healthy people around him. The world is a zoo and he, like Hamsun himself, is one of the main attractions. During his interment in the Psychiatric Clinic, Hamsun complained that foreigners visited the institution to see "the locked-up animal," as he referred to himself. Similar phrases turn up in Hamsun's letters. He resented the crowds of the curious who would converge on Noerholm to "stare at the animal." Acutely stung by the psychiatrists' verdict of "permanently impaired mental faculties," he wrote his final book to expose the treatment he had received and to refute the doctors' findings. Thorkild Hansen in Prosessen mot Hamsun ("The Trial Against Hamsun") stresses that Hamsun became truly inspired only in times of suffering and adversity as he had in Hunger and in On Overgrown Paths, even though he had written many "uninspired" novels in between.

Knut Hamsun is known not only for his psychological portrayals of outsiders but also for his poetic descriptions of nature. Certainly nature was Hamsun's great consolation as a lonely child, and his early outsider protagonists flee to nature to heal the wounds inflicted on them by others. The hero of Hunger escapes to the forest and the cemetery, as did the young Hamsun. Nagel likewise seeks refuge in the woods, where he fantasizes about being united with nature and the cosmos after his death. He feels "related to every tree in the forest," and Glahn, the hunter, describes himself as "the son of the forest." Johannes of Victoria and the wanderer also spend much time communing with nature, which they and their creator regard as a compassionate force. Yet Hamsun's concept of nature evolved as he acquired roots. Instead of the forest and the wilderness, the ideal becomes the cultivated field, as in Growth of the Soil. Instead of compensation for human companionship, nature becomes evidence of God's miracle--growth. Hamsun's reverence for the soil increased after he himself became a farmer.

Throughout his life, Knut Hamsun represented the dichotomy between the artist and the citizen. In his works he constantly disparaged artistic activity that inevitably alienates the artist from his fellow men, and he glorified the simple life of tilling the soil. Yet Hamsun, even after he achieved financial security and had the opportunity to live a life close to the soil, could not do so. Instead of remaining on his farm, he often abandoned his wife and children to travel to hated cities in order to write more books. A foreman took care of the farm while Hamsun wrote books criticizing the artificiality of city life.

It is obvious that in his most famous tribute to the agricultural life, Growth of the Soil, Hamsun's affinity is not with the idealized pioneer Isak, but with the vagabond Geissler. Geissler's birthplace of Lorn and childhood memories are those of Hamsun and, like Hamsun, Geissler preaches the "correct" way of life but is unable to live it himself. He says to Isak, "I know what's right, but don't do it." And yet, Isak and Aksel Stroem could not succeed in the wilderness without the help of Geissler, who provides them with sophisticated farm machinery, shows them how to irrigate their farms, and protects them against the envious city folk. Geissler is truly the flesh-and-blood character in the book, while Isak seems to be a symbol rather than a real person. Even in the later social novels, an occasional complex character will emerge, such as Edevart in Vagabonds and August. Both Geissler and Edevart may be identified with Hamsun.

The dual (and incompatible) occupations of artist and farmer plagued Hamsun. In letters to his wife he regretted not having been just the boy from the neighboring farm; he often protested to the Norwegian Authors' Organization against being addressed as "Author, Knut Hamsun." He claimed to be "a farmer in Aust Agder." The conflict is represented in symbols and characters from the early works--Nagel is a violinist who pretends to be an agronomist--and finds allegorical expression in the short story "Hemmelig ve" ("Secret Suffering"). Hamsun appears to have been one of those driven in spite of himself to create works of art instead of living in the practical world he extolled.

Knut Hamsun's running feud with industrialization and his advancing age locked him into political views that went from conservative to reactionary. He had always admired Germany and hated England. In 1943 he wrote in Aftenposten, "I am deeply and passionately anti-English, anti-British, and I can't remember that I have ever been different." Before World War II, Hamsun had turned down the Goethe Prize of ten thousand marks from the city of Frankfurt "because I didn't want to reap advantage from being Germany's humble friend in Norway." As a former Nobel Prize winner, he was invited to state his opinions on the worthiness of future candidates, and in 1935 made himself unpopular by lobbying against awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Carl von Ossietzky, a German Jew confined to a concentration camp in Hitler's Germany.

In May, 1940, when German troops entered Norway, Hamsun alienated his countrymen by printing an appeal to his fellow Norwegians in the May 4, 1940, issue of the paper Fritt folk, the organ of the Norwegian Nazi Party: "Norwegians! Throw down your weapons and go back home. The Germans are fighting for all of us." Throughout the war Hamsun continued to write articles in support of the Germans; in 1943 he met Hitler at Berchtesgaden, Austria, and after Hitler's death, when Hamsun knew all was lost, he nevertheless published a paragraph in praise of the fallen German leader.

Despite his affection for Germany, Hamsun did not refuse the many Norwegians who appealed to him during the war to intervene on behalf of their countrymen sentenced to death by the German authorities. Trying to save condemned Norwegians, Hamsun sent countless telegrams to the Nazi government; he appealed personally to Joseph Terboven, the "Gauleiter" for Norway, and was successful in securing the release of prisoners from concentration camps, notably the publisher Harald Grieg and the author Ronald Fangen. Fortunately for Hamsun's reputation, the 1943 interview with Hitler was recorded secretly by the latter's press chief. The purpose of Hamsun's visit to Hitler had been to bring about the removal of the sadistic Terboven. The elderly author became enraged when he realized that the timid interpreter was not translating everything he said, and the interview ended with Hitler in a rage and Hamsun in tears.

Hamsun's attitude before and during World War II has perplexed many of his readers. At first senility and mental deterioration seemed to provide the explanation, but the publication of On Overgrown Paths in 1949 contradicted this theory. An examination of Hamsun's life and work shows that his pro-German, anti-English stance was sincere and constant. During his travels in the Near East and America, Hamsun had encountered arrogant Englishmen who insulted him or ignored him. On the other hand, he had received free passage to America from the German captain of an oceanliner in 1882. From the earliest years of his career the Germans had appreciated his works, and he, in turn, admired German culture.

But perhaps most important of all, England was the ancient power, Germany the new one, healthy and full of vigor. There is a definite link between Hamsun's revulsion for old age and his hatred of England. In Hamsun's mind, England was the oppressive uncle, Germany the struggling, able youth. Sten Sparre Nilson in En oern i uvaer: Knut Hamsun og politikken ("An Eagle in the Storm: Knut Hamsun and Politics") explained the Norwegian writer's Nazi sympathies in terms of his hatred for Uncle Hans, who had oppressed him as a child. This theory is valid but does not tell the entire story. Consider the disappointment Hamsun felt over the "modern Norway" of the twentieth century--the one that persisted in admiring the English, the one which refused to follow Hamsun's example to colonize the northern part of the country, the one that refused to return to the simple life and virtues of the past.

The new Germany, however, seemed to be practicing what Hamsun preached: the peasant was glorified; women were to be modest and to confine themselves to "Kinder, Kueche, Kirche"; physical vigor and manliness were rewarded; education became secondary to physical labor; national customs were religiously elevated; and a sense of national solidarity and superiority was sought. How much Knut Hamsun knew about Nazi ideology is unclear, but he certainly knew that the Germans were the opposite of the English with their democracy, a system which had treated him, a spiritual aristocrat, unkindly. He knew that the Germans admired him, and it appeared that they agreed with him that civilization was evil and that closeness to the soil was tantamount to virtue.

When the war was over, Hamsun, his wife, and his two sons were arrested; Hamsun was incarcerated first in a hospital, then in an old folks' home, and finally in the Oslo Psychiatric Clinic. The worst experience was the stay in the clinic, where Hamsun, already deaf and almost blind, was subjected to interrogation and forced to write innumerable answers in failing light. There is no doubt that this experience undermined his health. As he stated bitterly in On Overgrown Paths, "I was a healthy human being; I was turned into jelly."

When Hamsun's case was repeatedly postponed, he wrote the prosecutor general asking to be brought to trial. He felt that, given the chance to speak in public, he would be cleared. In fact, when Hamsun was finally tried, the judge did acquit him, but the two lay judges, who were farmers from Hamsun's district, found him guilty, and their majority opinion decided the case. On Overgrown Paths, written in 1948 and published the following year, makes clear that Hamsun was not begging for sympathy: "I'm not defending myself at all. I am presenting this as an explanation, as information." He said that although he respected the law, he esteemed his own conscience more.

After the Norwegian Supreme Court upheld the verdict in 1948, Hamsun put down his pen for good. The last few years of his life were spent in isolation once again (because of his deafness and increasing blindness) on his now crumbling estate of Noerholm, where he died on February 19, 1952. On Overgrown Paths, his last work, had been proof of Hamsun's stubbornness and ability to remain true to himself. In it he had declared, "I am who I am." Once again, at the very end of his life, he found himself isolated from family and countrymen, penniless, and attempting to explain himself to a hostile world.

Knut Hamsun's early literary theories and method of writing can be seen as a type of self-justification. Since he was obsessed with self, he rejected the outward-directed naturalist literature of the preceding generation. He criticized the literary establishment for being concerned with social criticism; only the individual counted, he felt. Since he was an isolated, unrecognized person of considerable gifts, he was determined to create the in-depth portrayal of such a person. Perhaps he called for a "new" literature because he himself was not capable of producing the "old" literature at the time of his breakthrough in the 1890s. His attitude toward the actual production of literature was clearly the traditional romantic one: inspiration engulfs the poet from without and makes him simply a recording instrument. According to a letter Hamsun wrote in 1908 to his German translator, Heinrich Goebel, the Norwegian author experienced inspiration as did his fictional progeny (the writer in Hunger, the composer Holmsen in Children of the Age, the painter in the short story "Solens soenn" ["Son of the Sun"]): "Every poet knows that poems come into existence under the relative pressure of mood. A sound hums inside of you, you see colors before your eyes, you feel something flowing inside you."

Certainly the manner in which his ideas came to him influenced Hamsun's views on literature. At first he advocated what he could do, but after the turn of the century he learned to compose works in the old "realistic" style, because the frustration and intensity of his youth had in large part evaporated. Given his early experiences of inspiration and considering the beauty of his prose poetry in Pan, it is ironic that Hamsun's poems--collected in Det vilde kor ("The Wild Chorus"), 1904--were unsuccessful and notably uninspired. His verse play "Munken Vendt" ("Friar Vendt") of 1902 had fared no better.

The exaggerated sense of the individual, of the self, is a defiance against others who do not understand or accept. Hamsun's innovations in literature may have resulted from his need for self-assertion. The sense of not fitting in sometimes produces a destructive rage, a desire to punish or get even. Therefore Hamsun attacked Ibsen and the older "greats," he called for an end to literary conventions (this would make way for uneducated newcomers like himself), he wrote on America as he did, he--the failed playwright--rejected drama as a literary form, he--the autodidact--was anti-intellectual and an enemy of formal education, and he found himself even more isolated politically.

The intensity of his individualism was such that it dictated Hamsun's literary views, was repeatedly mirrored in his best works, and doomed him to isolation from family, society, and nation. The need to reaffirm one's individuality makes itself seen in Knut Hamsun's literary theories and production as well as in his own life.


From: "Knut Hamsun." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2009.


  • Further Reading


    • Berendsohn, Walter A., Knut Hamsun: Das unbaendige Ich und die menschliche Gemeinschaft, Albert Langen, 1929.
    • Braatoey, Trygve, Livets cirkel, Cappelen, 1954.
    • Brynildsen, Aasmund, Svermeren og hans deinon, Dreyer, 1973.
    • Giersing, Morton, John Thobo Carlson, and Michael Westergaard-Nielsen, Det reaktionaere oproer: Om fascismen Knut Hamsuns forfatterskab, GMT, 1975.
    • Gustafson, Alrik, Six Scandinavian Novelists, Princeton University Press, 1967.
    • Hamsun, Tore, Knut Hamsun, Gyldendal, 1959.
    • Hansen, Anna Sofie, Hamsun og publikum, Berlingske Forlag, 1980.
    • Hansen, Thorkild, Prosessen mot Hamsun, Gyldendal, 1978.
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    • Marstrander, Jan, Det ensomme menneske i Knut Hamsuns diktning: Betraktninger omkring Mysterier og et motiv, Det Norske Studentersamfunds kulturutvalg, 1959.
    • Marstrander, Jan, Livskamp og virkelighetsoepfatning i Knut Hamsuns tidligste forfatterskap, [University of Oslo], 1982.
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    • Nettum, Rolf Nyboe, Konflikt og visjon: Hovedtemaer i Knut Hamsuns forfatterskap, 1890-1912, Gyldendal, 1970.
    • Nilson, Sten Sparre, En oern i uvaer: Knut Hamsun og politikken, Gyldendal, 1960.
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