Hamsun, Knut (4 August 1859 - 19 February 1952)

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Knut Hamsun (4 August 1859 - 19 February 1952)

Harald Næss
University of Wisconsin–Madison

1920 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Hamsun: Banquet Speech






This entry was expanded by Næss from his Hamsun entry in DLB 297: Twentieth-Century Norwegian Writers.

BOOKS: Den Gaadefulde: En Kjærlighedshistorie fra Nordland, as Kn. Pedersen (Tromsø: Urdal, 1877);

Bjørger: Fortælling, as Knud Pedersen Hamsund (Bodø: A. F. Knudsen, 1878; Brooklyn, N.Y.: Knudsen Printing and Publishing, 1925);

Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1889); edited and translated by Barbara Morgridge as The Cultural Life of Modern America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969);

Lars Oftedal: Udkast (Bergen: Mons Litlere, 1889);

Sult (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1890); translated by George Egerton (pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne) as Hunger (London: Smithers, 1899; New York: Knopf, 1920);

Mysterier: Roman (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1892); translated by Arthur G. Chater as Mysteries (New York: Knopf, 1927);

Redaktør Lynge: Roman (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1893);

Ny ford: Roman (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1893); translated by Carl Christian Hyllested as Shallow Soil (New York: Scribners, 1914);

Pan: Af Løjtnant Thomas Glahns Papirer (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1894); translated by W. W. Worster as Pan (London: Gyldendal, 1920; New York: Knopf, 1921);

Ved Rigets Port: Forspil (Copenhagen: Philipsen, 1895);

Livets Spil (Copenhagen: Det Nordiske Forlag, 1896);

Siesta: Skitser (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1897)–includes “Ringen,” translated by Hanna Astrup Larsen as “The Ring,” in Told in Norway, edited by Larsen (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1927), pp. 133–134; and “En ganske almindelig Flue,” translated by Hallberg Hallmundsson as “Just an Ordinary Fly of Average Size,” in his An Anthology of Scandinavian Literature: From the Viking Age to the Twentieth Century (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1965), pp. 144–148;

Aftenrøde: Slutningsspil (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1898);

Victoria: En Kærligheds Historie (Christiania: Cammermeyer, 1898); translated by Chater as Victoria: A Love Story (London: Gyldendal, 1923);

Munken Vendt: Brigantinens Saga, 1 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1902);

I Æventyrland: Oplevet og drømt i Kaukasien (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1903); translated by Sverre Lyngstad as In Wonderland (Brooklyn, N.Y: IG, 2004);

Dronning Tamara: Skuespil i tre Aktar (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1903);

Kratskog: Historier og Skitser (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1903)–includes “Kærlighedens Slaver,” translated by James W. McFarlane as “Slaves of Love,” in Slaves of Love and Other Stories, edited by McFarlane and Janet Garton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 30–36; “Sachæus,” translated by Sverre Arestad as “Zachaeus,” in Short Stories from, Norway 1850–1900, edited by Henning K. Sehmsdorf, WITS: Wisconsin Introductions to Scandinavia II, no. 3 (Madison: Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986), pp. 89–99; and “Rædsel” and “Paa Prærien,” translated by Arestad as “Fear” and “On the Praerie,” Norwegian-American Studies, 24 (1970): 166–179;

Det vilde Kor: Digte (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1904)–includes “Skjærgaardsø,” translated by Martin S. Allwood as “Island off the Coast,” in 20th Century Scandinavian Poetry, edited by Allwood (Mullsjö, Sweden: Marston Hill, 1950), pp. 119–120;

Sværmere: Roman (Copenhagen & Christiania: Gyldendal, 1904); translated by Worster as Dreamers (New York: Knopf, 1921); translation republished as Mothwise (London: Gyldendal, 1921);

Stridende Liv: Skildringer fra Vesten og Østen (Copenhagen & Christiana: Gyldendal, 1905)–includes “Paa Blaamandsø,” translated by Worster as “On the Island,” Dial, 75 (1923): 209–224; and “Vagabonds Dager” and “Kvindeseir,” translated by Arestad as “Vagabond Days” and “Feminine Victory,” Norwegian-American Studies, 24 (1970): 155–166;

Under Høststjærnen: En Vandrers Fortælling (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1906); translated by Worster as “Under the Autumn Star,” in Wanderers (New York: Knopf, 1922; London: Gyldendal, 1922);

Benoni: Roman (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1908); translated by Chater (New York: Knopf, 1925);

Rosa: Af Student Parelius’ Papirer (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1908); translated by Chater as Rosa (New York: Knopf, 1926);

En Vandrer spiller med Sordin (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1909); translated by Worster as “A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings,” in Wanderers;

Livet ivold: Skuespil i fire Akter (Christiania & Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1910); translated by Graham Rawson and Tristan Rawson as In the Grip of Life (New York: Knopf, 1924; London: Gyldendal, 1924);

Den sidste Glæde: Skildringer (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1912); translated by Paula Wiking as Look Back on Happiness (New York: Coward-McCann, 1940);

Børn av Tiden: Roman (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1913); translated by J. S. Scott as Children of the Age (New York: Knopf, 1924; London: Gyldendal, 1924);

Segelfoss By, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1915); translated by Scott as Segeffoss Town (New York: Knopf, 1925);

Markens Grøde: Roman, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1917); translated by Worster as Growth of the Soil (London: Gyldendal, 1920; New York: Knopf, 1921);

Konerne ved Vandposten: Roman, 2 volumes (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1920); translated by Chater as The Women at the Pump, 1 volume (New York: Knopf, 1928);

Siste Kapitel: Roman, 2 volumes (Christiania: Gyldendal, 1923); translated by Chater as Chapter the Last, 1 volume (New York: Knopf, 1929; London: Knopf, 1930);

Landstrykere: Roman, 2 volumes (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1927); translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft as Vagabonds, 1 volume (New York: Coward-McCann, 1930);

August: Roman, 2 volumes (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1930); translated by Gay-Tifft as August, 1 volume (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931);

Men Livet lever: Roman, 2 volumes (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1933); translated by Gay-Tifft as The Road Leads On, 1 volume (New York: Coward-McCann, 1934);

Ringen sluttet: Roman, 2 volumes (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1936); translated by Gay-Tifft as The Ring Is Closed, 1 volume (New York: Coward-McCann, 1937);

Artikler, edited by Francis Bull (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1939)–includes “Festina lente,” originally published in English as “What Is Progress?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 30 December 1928;

Paa gjengrodde Stier (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1949); translated by Carl L. Anderson as On Over-grown Paths (New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1967); translation republished as On Overgrown Paths (London: MacGibbon &Kee, 1968);

Paa Turné: Tre foredrag om litteratur, edited by Tore Hamsun (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1960);

Livsfragmenter: Ni noveller, edited by Lars Frode Larsen (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1988); translated by Tiina Nunnally as Night Roamers and Other Stories (Seattle: Fjord Press, 1992)–comprises “Night Roamers,” “My Traveling Companion,” “Small Town Life,” “On Tour,” “Sin,” “Around Christmas,” “Bad Days,” “At the Clinic,” and “A Fragment of Life”;

Over havet: Artikler, reisebrev, edited by Larsen (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1990);

Hamsuns polemiske skrifter, edited by Gunvald Hermundstad (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1998);

En Fløite lød i mit Blod: Nye dikt, edited by Larsen (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2003);

Livets røst: Noveller i utvalg, edited by Larsen and Ingar Sletten Kolloen (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2003).

Collection: Samlede verker, 15 volumes (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1954–1956).

Editions in English: Pan, translated by James W. McFarlane (London: Artemis Press, 1955; New York: Noonday Press, 1956);

Hunger, translated by Robert Bly, introduction by Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967);

Victoria: A Love Story, translated by Oliver Stallybrass (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969; London: Souvenir Press, 1974);

Mysteries, translated by Jerry Bothmer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971; London: Souvenir Press, 1973);

The Wanderer, translated by Oliver Stallybrass and Gunnvor Stallybrass (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975);

The Women at the Pump, translated by Oliver Stallybrass and Gunnvor Stallybrass (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978);

Wayfarers, translated by McFarlane (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980);

Dreamers, translated by Tom Geddes (New York: New Directions, 1996);

Hunger, translated by Sverre Lyngstad (Edinburgh: Rebel Inc, 1996);

Rosa, translated by Lyngstad (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1997);

Tales of Love and Loss, translated by Robert Ferguson (London: Souvenir Press, E & A, 1997);

Pan: From the Papers of Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, translated and edited by Lyngstad (New York: Penguin, 1998);

On Overgrown Paths, translated by Lyngstad (Copenhagen & Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999);

Mysteries, translated by Lyngstad (New York: Penguin, 2001);

Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essays and Stories, 1885–1949, translated and edited by Richard Nelson Current (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003);

The Last Joy, translated by Lyngstad (Copenhagen & Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003);

Victoria, translated by Lyngstad (New York: Penguin, 2005).

Knut Hamsun is Norway’s best-known novelist and one of the major world writers of modern times. He is commonly ranked immediately below the four great names of Scandinavian literature: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Henrik Ibsen, and August Strindberg. His works are available in more than thirty languages, and he has won many admirers among European and American men of letters. Germany’s Thomas Mann saw in Hamsun a direct descendant of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche; the Russians celebrated him for his dramatic works; Arthur Koestler praised his tender love stories; and H. G. Wells lauded his powerful prose epic, Markens Grøde (1917; translated as Growth of the Soil, 1920), for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke with admiration of Hamsun’s modern subjectivism, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, and his lyricism, and Hamsun has been recognized as a precursor of European modernism whose literary techniques anticipate Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. Despite its often sordid details and tragic tone, the typical Hamsun novel has humor, charm, love of life, and, above all, a joy in nature that can be appreciated by readers everywhere.

The fourth of seven children, Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen on 4 August 1859 in Gudbrandsdalen; scholars disagree as to whether Lom or the neighboring community of Vågå was his actual birthplace. The valley is the heart of Norway, known both for its scenic beauty and for its acclaimed artists and cultural achievements; two of Norway’s best twentieth-century poets, Olav Aukrust and Tor Jonsson, came from Lom. His father, Peder Pedersen, was an itinerant tailor from Vågå; his mother, Tora Olsdatter Garmotraedet Pedersen, came from an old and respected Lorn family, although her immediate relatives had recently come down in the world. When Knut was four, the family moved six hundred miles north to the island of Hamarøy in Nordland, where Knut’s maternal uncle Hans Olsen, a shopkeeper, librarian, and postmaster, had acquired a farm called “Hamsund,” from which Knut Pedersen later took his pseudonym; Peder Pedersen took over the management of the farm. Northern Norway, with its midnight summer sun and its snow-clad peaks rising out of the ocean, is even more a fairyland than Gudbrandsdalen. At that time it was mostly populated by poor fishermen and smallholders; in a few large estates along the coast wealthy merchants plied their trade, imitating the life of the bourgeoisie of Christiania (which became Oslo in 1925) and enjoying the privileges of nobility elsewhere. Although Knut Pedersen never became a genuine Nordlander, he studied the mannerisms and language of his northern neighbors and used this material in his later work.

To repay a debt Olsen claimed they owed him, Knut’s parents had him work for his uncle, a hard taskmaster with no understanding of children. These years with his uncle have been explored by psychoanalysts and by critics trying to explain Hamsun’s hatred of England: they claim that Hamsun associated his uncle with “the old colonial power, England,” while seeing himself as “young Germany, asking for Lebensraum [living space].” Pedersen received no education beyond grade school, and after his confirmation he spent five years working variously as a peddler, a shoemaker’s apprentice, a bailiff’s assistant, and a schoolteacher. These experiences served him well in his writing career, which began with the publication of a novella, Den Gaadefulde: En Kjærlighedshistorie fra Nordland (1877, The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway).

Pedersen’s next book, the novel Bjørger (1878), published under the pseudonym Knud Pedersen Hamsund, was written in imitation of the style of Bjøernstjerne Bjøernson, who had tried to revive the old Icelandic saga narrative in his rustic novels. This melodramatic story of the young poet Bjøerger’s love of a woman named Laura is significant mainly as a study for Hamsun’s later novel Victoria: En Kærligheds Historic (1898; translated as Victoria: A Love Story, 1923).

With the help of a loan from the Nordland merchant Erasmus B. K. Zahl, Pedersen spent the summer of 1879 in southern Norway, where he completed the novel “Frida”; it was rejected by Frederik Hegel, the director and owner of the Gyldendal publishing firm in Copenhagen, and the manuscript was lost. After a brief attempt to become an actor in 1880, Pedersen worked as a member of a road construction crew north of Christiania. There he made the acquaintance of people who were willing to pay for his transportation to the United States, where he hoped to establish himself as a poet in the Norwegian immigrant community. Before leaving for the United States, Pedersen sought the advice of Bjørnson, who had made a lecture tour of the Midwest in 1880–1881 at the invitation of Rasmus Anderson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Unlike many Scandinavian visitors to the New World, Bjørnson was enthusiastic about the democratic experiment being conducted there, and he suggested that Hamsun contact Anderson. When he arrived in Madison in February 1882, however, Pedersen did not receive the help for which he had hoped. In the following months he worked on farms around Elroy, Wisconsin, where his older brother Peter had settled, and at a store in town. He also gave lectures on literary topics. In December 1882 he inscribed what has come to be known as his “Elroy Manifesto” in a friend’s autograph book: “My life is a peaceless flight through all the land, my religion is the moral of the wildest naturalism but my world is the aesthetical literatur [sic].”

In early 1884 Pedersen moved to Madelia, Minnesota, where he met and became the secretary of the Norwegian poet and Unitarian minister Kristofer Janson. In Janson’s home in Minneapolis he found a good library and a stimulating literary milieu; Janson’s wife, Drude, a frustrated artist, fell in love with the young writer. In the late spring of 1884 he was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis. He wanted to return to Norway to die, and friends again paid for his passage. In August he arrived in Christiania, where his disease was rediagnosed as bronchitis. He was advised to move inland, where he could benefit from the mountain air.

Pedersen spent the next year and a half working as a postal clerk in Valdres, in the mountains midway between Christiania and Bergen. He acquired the final version of his name when a printer accidentally left the d off of Hamsund in the byline of an article he wrote on Mark Twain that appeared in the Ny illustreret Tidende on 22 and 29 March and 4 April 1885. Hamsun praises Twain’s ability to “bruse op med Latter og Larm–og slaa” (to work up the audience with laughter and noise–and then suddenly to strike). A lecture tour to the small towns of eastern Norway ended in disappointment when he realized that more profitable work would be needed to keep him alive. He was often without food and sometimes had to spend the night in a shack or at the police station; he used the experiences in his first great novel, Sult (1890; translated as Hunger, 1899). In July 1886 he fled from his creditors and returned to the United States. He was determined to make enough money to pay his debts so that he could return to Norway and live on his writing.

Hamsun worked on the construction of a cable-car line in Chicago; in the fall he was employed as a conductor on the Halsted Line and later on the Cottage Line. He was unable to save any money, however, and in the end he appealed to the meatpacking magnate Philip Armour. Touched by the helpless tone of Hamsun’s letter, Armour paid for him to join his friends in Minneapolis. During the summer of 1887 Hamsun worked on one of the bonanza farms in North Dakota (bonanza farms were farms of three thousand or more acres that were built on land granted by the federal government for the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad and sold off after the railroad company went bankrupt in 1872). In the fall he returned to Minneapolis.

In the winter of 1887–1888 Hamsun presented a series of lectures at Dania Hall in Minneapolis on the French writers Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola and the new Scandinavian realist writers Bjørnson, Ibsen, Jonas Lie, Janson, Alexander L. Kielland, and Strindberg. His final lecture, “Estetiske Tanker–Livet i Minneapolis” (Aesthetic Reflections-Life in Minneapolis), delivered in March, was an amusing assessment of American cultural life.

Hamsun left the United States in the summer of 1888. On the way to New York he sold an article, “August Strindberg,” to the Chicago weekly America; said to be the first ever published in English on the Swedish writer, it appeared on 20 December. Hamsun praises the dramatist for “his rude force” and elaborates on Strindberg’s notion of a new kind of hero: split and complex, both good and bad, subtly differentiated in his nature, and ever changing in his actions.

When Hamsun’s ship docked in Christiania, the memory of the miserable time he had spent in the city two years earlier was so painful that he did not go ashore but traveled on to Copenhagen. In Denmark he once more lived in poverty; yet, he wrote to a friend in the United States, “How I find this country agreeable! I assure you, the whole existence–way of life–here is in deep harmony with my temperament, my nature. Here is Europe, and I am a European, thank God!”

In the fall of 1888 Hamsun published in the Danish periodical Ny Jord (New Earth) an article on Janson and a chapter of what became Sult; the latter made him famous almost overnight. He was invited to the homes of well-known literati and lectured at the Student Union of the University of Copenhagen on his experiences in America; the lectures were published in April 1889 as Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (translated as The Cultural Life of Modern America, 1969). Hamsun attacks the American obsession with profit, growth, and speed and denounces democracy because it leads to isolationism and provincialism and does not further the arts. In his treatment of American literature Hamsun omits Twain and calls Walt Whitman a barbarian and Ralph Waldo Emerson a poor philosopher. Reviewing the book in the Minneapolis newspaper Budstikken for 17 June 1889, Janson wrote of Hamsun: “jeg har aldrig truffet paa noget Menneske som har havt den sygelige Lidenskab for æsstetisk Skjønhed som ham, hvis hele Aandsretning har været saa behersket af denne Lidenskab som ham” (I have never met anyone who has had as morbid a passion for aesthetic beauty as he and whose whole way of thinking has been to such an extent dominated by that passion).

Although Hamsun, after his second return from the United States, used every opportunity to ridicule the Americans, his colleagues in Scandinavia looked on him as an American–an epithet often applied to him during the early 1890s was “Yankee.” His need to be in the news and his compulsion to attack the old and clear ground for the young, for instance, were seen as American characteristics. Georg Brandes, in his 28 April 1889 review of Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv in the newspaper Verdens Gang, found that Hamsun’s constant hunting for effect was an American feature of his style.

In his article “Fra det ubevidste SJæleliv” (From the Unconscious Life of the Mind), published in the journal Samtiden in 1890, Hamsun launched his idea of a new literature:

Hvad nu om Literaturen i det hele taget begyndte at beskæftige sig lidt mer med sjælelige Tilstande, end med Forlovelser og Baller og Landture og Ulykkeshændelser som saadan? Man maatte da ganske vist give Afkald paa at skrive “Typer,”–som allesammen er skrevne før,–“Karakterer,”–som man træffer hver Dag paa Fisketorvet. Men... til Gengæld... fik vi erfare lidt om de hemmelige Bevægelser, som bedrives upaaagtet paa de afsides Steder i Sjælen, den Fornemmelsernes uberegnelige Uorden, det delikate Fantasiliv holdt under Luppen, disse Tankens og Følelsernes Vandringer i det blaa, skridtløse, sporløse Rejser med Hjærnen og Hjærtet, sælsomme Nervevirksomheder, Blodets Hvisken, Benpibernes Bøn, hele det ubevidste Sjæleliv.

(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 in 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 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 bone, the entire unconscious life.)

For those who wondered what he meant by “the whispering of the blood,” Hamsun provided an answer six months later with the appearance of Sult, one of his two most widely known novels–Markens Grøde being the other–and, some critics have argued, his best.

Sult includes the central elements of the author’s later fiction–a tragic love story, poetic rendering of natural scenery, shockingly realistic detail–and is related in a manner that reveals the fluctuations of a youthful temperament; but the book also features a combination of humor, exuberance, hope, and despair that was never fully repeated by the mature Hamsun. It is also more directly autobiographical than anything Hamsun wrote before his memoir, Paa gjengrodde Stier (1949; translated as On Over-grown Paths, 1967): the unnamed hero’s address, Tomtegaten no. 11, was Hamsun’s during his stay in Christiania in 1880; like the protagonist, Hamsun lived in a shack in Møllergaten and spent a night at the police station; and the hero’s final escape on a Russian ship bound for Leith, Scotland, resembles Hamsun’s flight to the United States in 1886. The use of a first-person narrator is unusual in a novel of the naturalistic period.

Hamsun claimed in an 1890 letter to the Swedish writer Gustaf af Geijerstam that with regard to the plot of Sult he was playing on one string: the four parts that make up the novel are much alike in mood and content. A young man searches unsuccessfully for food, lodging, and part-time work in a big, unfriendly city where he wishes to try his luck as a writer; in parts 1, 2, and 4 he is saved from catastrophe–by a newspaper editor who buys an article, by an old friend who has some money to spare, and, at the end, by taking a job on a ship and sailing away from the city. The novel describes an experiment in living on the most elemental level: how to support the body–with food, rest, and sex–so that it, in turn, can support an exceptional mind. The experiment is unsuccessful, and the protagonist’s body and mind are finally at the point of breaking down. The reader, however, follows his course with undivided attention, fascinated alternately by the interplay of crass realism in the description of his physical decline and the astounding turns of his vivid imagination.

Even within the continuous flow of scenes in the novel it is possible to discern a certain structuring of events. The first part offers the general pattern: the search for food, money, and work. Part 2, describing a night spent in a cell at the city jail, marks the first low point in the protagonist’s misery and shows how easily hunger pains are overshadowed by the fear of death when he has an intense attack of claustrophobia after the lights are shut off and he is left in total darkness. Part 3 includes the climax, the expectation and excitement of two meetings with a woman he fantastically refers to as Ylajali. In part 4 he loses Ylajali, destroys his manuscript, and gives up the experiment.

The novel develops on a single course of steady decline. This development is reinforced by the change of season from fall to winter; the protagonist’s move from the upscale west to the poor east side of Christiania; his drop in social status from being in the company of the intellectual elite of the city when Ylajali first sees him at the theater to having even servants laugh at him; and, finally, his moral fall when he accepts unearned money. Although in part 4 the protagonist does not suffer from a lack of food, as he does in the earlier sections, the reader has learned by now that there are worse pains than hunger. The ugliness of his surroundings, and particularly his own inability to produce beauty in any form, finally leave the hero without hope.

Ibsen’s statement that “at dikte er at se” (to be a poet is to see) applies to the hero to an extraordinary degree: under the influence of hunger, in mental states that today might be called psychedelic, he registers objects and events with the fidelity of the most sensitive camera: “Intet undgik min opmærksomhet, jeg var klar og åndsnærværende, alle ting strømmet ind på mig med en skinnende tydelighet som om det plutselig var blit et stserkt lys omkring mig” (Nothing escaped my eyes. I was sharp and my brain was very much alive, everything poured in toward me with a staggering distinctness as if a strong light had fallen on everything around me). But he is not always a mere medium: by creating special conditions, he can make his mental “camera” yield impressions that are dreamlike or grotesque.

The protagonist is an aesthete: the sight of an invalid, a toothless woman, or an old man strikes him with a revulsion that he tries unsuccessfully to counteract with his daydreams of beauty: Ylajali, elevated to a princess reclining on a bed of yellow roses. In his desperate fight to preserve his life he cannot avoid reminders of death: they are fearful in the prison scene, grotesque in the newspaper advertisement for shrouds, and peaceful in the many graveyard scenes in the book. He continually playacts: he simulates to confuse his enemy, the Christiania bourgeoisie; he pretends to be experiencing life, whereas he is, in fact, a voyeur, deriving vicarious pleasures and pains–except for his hunger pangs–from observing others.

The hero’s real antagonist is Christiania, “denne forunderlige by som ingen forlater før han har fåt mærker av den” (that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him), and in Sult it assumes a personality as in few other Norwegian novels. Actually, there is little description of the city–only glimpses from the hero’s endless walks in the streets, one or two drab interiors, an occasional view from a window, and a lyrical snapshot in the harbor quarter, where the sea shines like mother-of-pearl. This highly accomplished impressionism gives way, when hunger affects the protagonist, to expressionism: inanimate objects assume personalities; people become animals; and incidents become symbols. He experiences his shoes as old friends, as a soft, whispering sound coming toward him; the fall roses seem to take on a fever, their petals a strange and unnatural flush; silent couples and noisy groups on Karl Johan Street remind him of mating times, of a warm swamp, and of cats copulating with high-pitched shrieks.

Sult can be read as an example of Scandinavian naturalism of the 1880s; for stark realism, some of its scenes were long unsurpassed in Norwegian literature. But the book also marks the end of the naturalistic period. The hero is finally felled by inner and outer circumstances; but in his attempt to overcome the weakness of his body, he scores a victory for the free human spirit. Even more than its hero, however, the style of Sult brought something new to Nordic literature. The old Romantic rhetoric, with its emphasis on color and rhythm, comes to life as it had not done previously: the sentence “jeg... frisket op døde punkter med et farvefuldt ord hist og her” (I... tried to liven up the dead points with a colorful word) applies not only to the hero of Sult but also to Hamsun’s composition of the novel, as does the newspaper editor’s comment on the hero’s writing: “Der er altid for megen feber” (There’s always too much fever).

What makes Sult different from Hamsun’s other “rhetorical” books, such as Pan: Af Løjtnant Thomas Glahns Papirer (1894, Pan: From the Papers of Lieutenant Thomas Glahn; translated as Pan, 1920), however, is its humor, which gives a special irony to scenes that would otherwise be merely pathetic or theatrical. The “Russian” quality of Sult–the gray, ultimately resigned despair that appears in Dostoevsky’s work–has often been pointed out, but equally important is a sense of absurdity in the style of Twain. Hamsun never again quite achieved this balance of naturalism and Romanticism, of humor and despair.

In the summer of 1890 Hamsun settled in the tiny town of Lillesand on the south coast of Norway to work on his next book, planned to be a collection of weird stories. In the article “Smaabyliv” (Small-Town Life), published in the newspaper Bergens Tidende on 9 August and collected in his Kratskog: Historier og Skitser (1903, Brushwood: Stories and Sketches), he ridicules the town, although from his letters one can see that he was attracted by its young ladies and intrigued by his housemate, Grøgaard, a destitute creature of good family background. After a few weeks in Lillesand, Hamsun abandoned his plans for a volume of stories and began writing the novel Mysterier (1892; translated as Mysteries, 1927). Johan Nilsen Nagel, a disillusioned young agronomist traveling along the south coast of Norway on a steamer, is struck by the idyllic appearance of a small town and decides to try life there. He falls in love with Dagny Kielland, a woman of exceptional charm and beauty. Like all of the inhabitants of the town, who are puzzled by his curious dress–he wears a bright yellow suit–and odd behavior, she finds him interesting; but she is engaged to a naval officer who is away at sea. He then proposes to a spinster, Martha Gude, with whom he hopes to live a simple cotter’s life. But Dagny prevents the union, and he drowns himself. At the end Dagny and Martha walk arm in arm and comment on the unusual qualities of the departed protagonist.

Nagel is, indeed, an enigmatic man; he exemplifies Hamsun’s own desire to become a myth, a subject for storytellers. In a letter dated 10 October 1890 to the Bergen critic Bolette Pavels Larsen, Hamsun describes his ambition “at kunne dukke op anonymt, uventet, med pludselig Virkning, Gang paa Gang, ved hver Bog med pludselig Virkning, og saa dukke under igen–til nsste Gang” (to pop up anonymously, unexpectedly, with sudden effect, time after time, each book having its own sudden effect, and then to dive down again–until the next time). The theme is central in Hamsun’s first novella, Den Gaadefulde, as well as in Mysterier.

Although the point of view in Mysterier is consistently that of the protagonist, it achieves the greater distance of a third-person narrative. It is also more of a social novel in that Nagel, unlike the isolated protagonist of Sult, acquires friends and acquaintances with whom he discusses politics and poetry. Finally, Mysterier differs from Sult in the many tales told by Nagel; they are fully incorporated into the text, although they may have originated as some of the stories Hamsun had planned to publish after Sult.

In Sult the hero is plagued by a sort of double: a crippled man who walks in front of him and stops when he stops. In Mysterier this motif is developed into a central theme, with the character Grøgård reflecting certain qualities of the protagonist, Nagel. Grøgård, also known as Minutten (the Midget), is the village idiot; he will dance in the market square for anyone who gives him a penny. Nagel befriends the man and pays him to keep him from debasing himself by his ridiculous performance but at the same time watches him carefully as if he were a criminal. Minutten seems to be a good and humble man; as a disciple of Nietzsche, Nagel takes this appearance to mean that he is covering up some secret crime. Nagel never catches Minutten red-handed, but in the end he is proven right: Minutten, the reader learns, is, in fact, guilty of a secret crime against Martha. More significant is the way in which Minutten represents another side of the hero–not the proud elitist Nagel/Hamsun but the provocative humbug Nagel/Hamsun, who will do anything to be in the news. Nagel speaks of his dream of “en gjærning på jorden, noget som kunde ‘tælle,’ nogen bedrifter som kjøtæterne kunde korse sig over” (accomplishing something in this world–something meaningful that would make the carnivores all sit up and take notice). This mission may have been to create a new nobility, as proposed by Nietzsche, or, on a lower level, to instill pride in people such as Minutten. In the latter regard, his defeat becomes total when, toward the end of the novel, he sees Minutten once more playing the buffoon in the market square.

In a 20 October 1918 interview in Verdens Gang Hamsun criticized Mysterier:

Nei, nei. Det er ingen god bok. Der er altfor meget snak og ikke nok liv. Og alle de meninger som jeg lar mine personer uttale i “Mysterier,” om Ibsen og Bjørnson og Tolstoj og de franske forfattere, alt det er bare ord.

(No, no, that’s not a good book. There is too much talk and not enough life. And then all the opinions I allow my characters to pronounce in Mysteries, on Ibsen, Bjørnson and Tolstoy and the French authors, all that’s only words.)

Nevertheless, though it is not one of Hamsun’s popular novels, it has always been a favorite among discriminating readers, probably because it includes so much of what they admire in his works: a love story, beautifully wrought language, and, particularly, the odd tales and actions of its quintessential Hamsun hero, Johan Nilsen Nagel.

Hamsun spent the years 1893 to 1896 in Paris, associating with Strindberg and other writers and working on two plays. He did not learn French, as he had hoped to do, and the stay had no apparent influence on his work. He had chosen the city as the stronghold of culture and intellectuality, but, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he decided that human beings are not meant to be crowded together in anthills: “Jeg hører skogene og ensomheten til” (I belong to the forests and the solitude), he wrote in Pan, which he began in Paris and completed in Norway’s southernmost city, Christiansand. The novel, however, is mostly set in northern Norway, the region of his childhood.

Pan is the diary of retired army lieutenant Thomas Glahn, who in 1857 receives a letter from a woman named Edvarda; it contains two green feathers he had presented to her when he spent the summer in northern Norway two years previously. Glahn goes on to recount the events of that time in his diary.

A city dweller of good family background and education, Glahn is driven by a melancholy weariness of the world to travel to Sirilund in northern Norway, where he seeks unspoiled nature. He rents a forest hut from the ruler of the district, Ferdinand Mack, a rich and powerful merchant. Mack’s twenty-year-old daughter, Edvarda, despises her father, although she is willing to consider the suitors he brings to their home, including a lame doctor and an old Finnish baron who is also a pedantic natural scientist. Glahn and Edvarda fall in love: during a picnic on an island Edvarda exclaims, quite unabashedly, “Det er løitnant Glahn jeg vil ha. Jeg gider ikke løpe efter nogen anden” (I want Lieutenant Glahn. I don’t care to run after anyone else).

As so often in Hamsun’s novels, the climax of the romance is reached fairly soon–only a third of the way through the novel–as Glahn and Edvarda’s intense happiness dissolves in misunderstanding and acrimony followed by painful and prolonged scenes of love-hate. Glahn comforts himself with the blacksmith’s wife, Eva, “en ung pike med et hvitt uldtørklæ om hodet, hun hadde meget mørkt hår” (a young girl with a white woolen scarf, she had very dark hair). Later he learns that she is Mack’s mistress. Age–he is forty-six–has not reduced Mack’s sexual prowess or his inclination to jealousy and hatred. When Eva gives him up for Glahn, he burns down Glahn’s hut in the woods. Mack’s style, including his poise and sharp intelligence, is reminiscent of an Eastern potentate’s, and Glahn respects him as a worthy antagonist.

Edvarda, meanwhile, is seen more and more in the company of the Finnish baron. At a ball Glahn, pretending to whisper something to the baron, spits in his ear. When Edvarda hears of Glahn’s meetings with Eva, her love is reawakened by jealousy; she comes back to him wearing a white scarf like that of her rival. But it is too late: Glahn’s cruel treatment by the fickle Edvarda has made him deaf to her confession of love.

As in Sult, the development of the love story is accompanied by a seasonal movement, but here the progression of the seasons, and in particular the arrival of the fall, with its first killing frost–the so-called jernnetter (iron nights)–pushes the pitch of Hamsun’s prose to heights it never reached before or after. Glahn is always aroused by nature, and his language assumes its rhythms. The long, involved periods of a discursive style, with its many subordinate clauses, are replaced by short sentences, either completely without conjunctions or else studded with them.

When the baron sets out to return to Finland, Glahn gives him a good-riddance salute by blasting a cliff and sending boulders crashing into the sea as his ship passes by. Mack, knowing of the plan, has set Eva to work tarring a boat on the beach below. Glahn, who is becoming mentally unbalanced, knows that Mack has spied on his blasting project, and he has seen Eva at the foot of the mountain; yet, although he was formerly astute in reading all manner of signs, he takes no heed, and Eva is killed by the falling rocks.

When Glahn is about to leave in the autumn, Edvarda asks to keep his dog, Aesop, in memory of him. Fearing that she will mistreat the animal–and out of spite–he shoots it and sends her the body. Edvarda later marries the baron.

In the midst of all this melodrama, with the faithful maiden brutally killed, the proud heroine married off to a wizened scientist, and the hero slowly losing his mind, Hamsun’s joy in life is still manifest. Pan owes its Norwegian popularity less to its tale of passion than to Glahn’s eloquent declarations of his love of nature: “En skål for den miskundelige stilhet på jorderik, for stjærnene og for halvmånen, ja for dem og den!” (A toast to the merciful stillness over the earth, to the stars and the crescent moon, yes to it and to them!).

Pan ends with an epilogue, “Glahns Død” (Glahn’s Death), which Hamsun first published in Samtiden a year before the novel appeared. The epilogue is purported to have been written in 1859 by a hunting companion of Glahn’s in India. Glahn receives another letter from Edvarda, saying that she is now a widow and is free to marry him. Glahn dresses as if for a wedding, then provokes the narrator into shooting him to death.

Hamsun’s next novel, Victoria, published in 1898, was advertised by its English publisher as “one of the great love stories of world literature.” The sweetest of Hamsun’s books, it was once considered a suitable confirmation present in Norway. The atmosphere is relatively harmonious, reflecting Hamsun’s happiness after his marriage to the twenty-five-year-old divorcée Bergljot Beck in May 1898 and their honeymoon with old friends in Valdres. Johannes and Victoria are childhood lovers; but she is the daughter of an estate owner whose home is referred to as “Slottet” (The Palace), while he is the son of a neighboring tenant farmer and miller. When they grow up, Victoria’s father needs a rich son-in-law to save his estate, and Victoria sacrifices her happiness and becomes engaged to the wealthy but unattractive Otto. Johannes, meanwhile, becomes a writer. Otto dies, leaving Victoria free to marry Johannes, but he has become engaged to Camilla. After their engagement Johannes has less time for Camilla than for the books he is writing, and she leaves him for another man. Meanwhile, Victoria has died of tuberculosis. At the end of the novel Johannes reads a long letter from Victoria that explains that she always loved only him but had to give him up when her father implored her to save the family honor. As in the epilogue to Pan, then, the point of view changes at the end of the novel; but here it is striking that Hamsun–known for his sexist attitudes–lets a woman have the last word. Like Mysterier, Victoria includes several stories that are woven into the text. Furthermore, it describes Johannes’s methods of writing, which presumably were Hamsun’s own.

After the scrupulous realism of Sult, a reduction of detail has clearly taken place in Victoria: the reader is not told Johannes’s, Victoria’s, or Otto’s last name (Camilla’s last name–Seier–is mentioned once); their parents are referred to simply as the miller and the castle master, respectively; other characters are known only as the tutor, the mother in blue, the mother in black, the lord, the lady, and similar designations. The subtle psychology Hamsun used in “Fra det ubevidste Sjæleliv” has given way to tale, allegory, mood, color, and ornament–a lighter and more sentimental kind of literature that Hamsun himself, in a 24 December 1898 letter to Brandes, called “intet andet end lit Lyrik” (nothing but a little poetry); and at the time he wrote the novel, he described poetry in a 23 August 1898 letter to Gerda Welhaven as “den eneste Digtning, som ikke er baade pretenties og intetsigende, men bare intetsigende” (the only form of writing that is not both pretentious and inconsequential but merely inconsequential). Victoria lacks the power of Hamsun’s other great novels of the 1890s, but it is still the quintessential Hamsun love story: with nothing really new to say, the author has stated his case more simply, clearly, and economically than in his earlier works. In the words of Johannes: “Og kjasrligheten blev verdens ophav og verdens hersker; men alle dens veier er fulde av blomster og blod, blomster og blod” (Love is creation’s source, creation’s ruler; but all love’s ways are strewn with blossoms and blood, blossoms and blood).

In 1899 Hamsun traveled in Finland, Russia, and the Near East. After his return he spent most of his wife’s fortune at a casino in Ostende; later he was known for his wild parties at Bernina, a restaurant in Copenhagen. Hamsun, who contributed the poem “Bjørnson på hans 70 års fødselsdag” (Bjørnson on his 70th Birthday) to a festschrift honoring the older writer in 1902, slowly came to realize that Bjørnson had drawn strength from his family life and his country home. He tried to salvage his marriage by designing and building a home for his wife and their daughter, Victoria, born on 15 August 1902, near Christiania; but it was too late, and they were divorced in 1906. In 1909 he married a twenty-eight-year-old actress, Marie Andersen, who had grown up on a farm; two years later they bought and moved to the farm Skogheim at Hamarøy in northern Norway. Tore, Arild, and Ellinor, the first three of their four children, were born there on 6 March 1912, 3 May 1914, and 23 October 1915, respectively. The fourth child, Cecilia, was born on 13 May 1917 in Larvik, where the family lived from May 1917 until October 1918, when they moved to Nørholm, a farm near Grimstad.

During these years Hamsun published the plays Munken Vendt: Brigantinens Saga, 1 (1902, The Monk Vendt: Saga of the Brigantine), Dronning Tamara: Skuespil i tre Akter (1903, Queen Tamara), and Livet ivold (1910; translated as In the Grip of Life, 1924); the travel book I Æventyrland: Oplevet og drømt i Kaukasien (1903, In a Wondrous Land: My Life and Dreams in Caucasia; translated as In Wonderland, 2004); two collections of short stories, Kratskog in 1903 and Stridende Liv: Skildringer fra Vesten og Østen (1905, Struggling Life: Tales from the East and the West); a book of verse, Det vilde Kor (1904, The Wild Chorus); and six novels. Although Hamsun’s plays–he ultimately wrote six–were well received in Russia, where they supplied him with a steady income for years, they have never had lasting success elsewhere. His book of verse combines unusual rhythms and a pleasing singability but is otherwise unremarkable.

Hamsun’s fame rests on his novels, of which he wrote two series during these years. Both series are different from anything he had done earlier. Sværmere (1904; translated as Dreamers, 1921, and as Mothwise, 1921), Benoni (1908; translated, 1925), and Rosa: Af Student Parelius’ Papirer (1908; translated, 1926) have the same setting as Pan– northern Norway and the house of Mack–but the heroes are upstart businessmen or inventors who win the “princess.” In these novels tragedy gives way to humor, and psychology to the simple typology and plot development of the fairy tale; the emphasis is on local color, including dialect. In the Wanderer trilogy– Under Høststjærnen: En Vandrers Fortælling (1906; translated as “Under the Autumn Star,” 1922), En Vandrer spiller med Sordin (1909; translated as “A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings,” 1922), and Den sidste Glæde: Skildringer (1912; translated as Look Back on Happiness, 1940)–the enigmatic-man theme of Mysterier is repeated in a new manner: this time the hero is not an agronomist in a striking yellow suit, like Nagel, but a middle-aged writer dressed as a tramp. He is looking for work as a jack-of-all-trades but does not really need the money: he is a refugee from the wasting café life of big cities hoping to find new inspiration in the country. Furthermore, his name is not an aristocratic Nagel or Glahn but the prosaic Pedersen, Hamsun’s own birth name. A humorous low style replaces the high melodrama of Mysterier and Pan: Pedersen digs ditches, cuts cordwood, and makes love to the minister’s wife in the barn. Nevertheless, the Wanderer books differ from the folksy Benoni novels in their sentimentality. During a church service Pedersen is overcome with emotion, and he loves the wife of his employer, Captain Falkenberg, with a hopeless, never-ending passion. Finally, he acts as a god in disguise, helping the farmers with good advice and serving as a matchmaker for a neurotic city girl, whom he marries off to a healthy farm boy.

Volumes one and two of the Wanderer trilogy are minor masterworks, mixing realism and romanticism in their prose. The final novel is more didactic, although its prose sometimes breaks into poetry. In the last chapter Hamsun addresses gainfully employed women with his typically sexist attitudes. The chapter reads like a reprimanding letter to his wife, who, Hamsun thought, missed the city and deplored the fact that, as a farmer’s wife, her liberal-arts education was being wasted. Actually, she was the farmer of the two; he was the footloose, neurotic artist taking on the guise of Rousseau and seeing humanity’s only salvation in a return to nature and the soil. Despite the years he had spent in cities–Christiania, Chicago, Minneapolis, Copenhagen, Paris, and Helsinki–Hamsun’s urban experience was superficial. He was drawn reluctantly to cities by their cultural attractions, but he had no understanding of their importance as places for emigrants from the countryside to find work and security. Rather, cities were like anthills, as he writes in the novel Konerne ved Vandposten (1920; translated as The Women at the Pump, 1928): “Alle mennesker er op tat med sit, de krysser hverandres veier, de puffer hveran-dre tilside, stundom går de over hverandre. Det kan ikke VEere anderledes, stundom går de over hverandre” (Everyone busy with his own affairs, crossing each other’s path, elbowing each other aside, sometimes even trampling on each other. That’s the way it is, sometimes they even trample on each other).

The novels Børn av Tiden (1913; translated as Children of the Age, 1924) and Segelfoss By (1915; translated as Segelfoss Town, 1925) chronicle the industrialization of the Segelfoss estate, a former feudal community in northern Norway owned by the generous but arrogant Lieutenant Willatz Holmsen III. The enterprising Tobias Holmengrå, who has worked himself up from nothing, returns to the area, buys up most of Holmsen’s land little by little, harnesses the waterfall, and builds a mill. After selling or mortgaging most of his property, Holmsen finds an old family treasure, pays his debts, and dies a proud and honest man–the closest thing to a conventional hero in all of Hamsun’s work. In the second novel the urban development is completed. A lawyer and a doctor move in; a newspaper is established; traveling salesmen begin to visit the town; and at the end a touring theater group arrives. Both novels feature dozens of characters, multiple plotlines, much local color, and humorous dialogue. Hamsun has little sympathy for his city dwellers, particularly the university-trained emigrants from southern Norway, but the satire is good-humored rather than bitter.

On 16 January 1915 Hamsun took a harsh stand in a discussion in the Christiania newspaper Morgenbladet of unwed parents who kill their newborns out of shame: “En slik Mor og en slik Barnefar er haapløse, hæmg dem!” (Such a mother and such a father are hopeless, hang them!). But two years later, in Markens Grøde, his sympathy with two women who commit infanticide is striking. Isak Sellanraa, “en født bærer, en pram gjennom skogene” (a lumbering barge of a man), establishes a homestead in northern Norway. He tells passersby that he needs a woman to help him, and soon Inger arrives from the next parish. She has a harelip but is a hard worker, and, even more important, she owns a cow. Isak and Inger have two sons: Eleseus and Sivert; when their third child is a girl with a harelip, Inger, recalling what she has suffered because of her disfigurement, kills the baby. The grave is discovered, and Inger goes to prison for six years. She returns a different person: she has learned reading, writing, and dressmaking; she likes to have people around and even dances with some newly arrived telegraph workers; and she urges Eleseus to accept an engineer’s offer of an office job in town. This decision turns out to be costly for the parents: corrupted by town life, Eleseus spends his time and their money on useless pursuits, grows restless, and finally immigrates to America and is never heard from again.

A subplot in the novel concerns another settler, Axel, and his housekeeper, Barbro, in a darker and more realistic variation on Isak and Inger’s story. Axel is less generous and good-humored than Isak, and Barbro is a less remorseful child murderer than Inger. Yet, even for Barbro there is hope: a life in the countryside, close to nature, can heal all wounds.

Geissler, the bailiff, is a curious character. He is a benefactor to Isak, helping with the latter’s home-steading and discovering and buying a copper lode on Isak’s property; but by bringing miners and industry to the area he ultimately destroys the rural community. He tells Sivert: “Vær tilfreds! dere har alt å leve av, alt å leve for, alt å tro på, dere fødes og frembringer, dere er de nødvendige på jorden.... Fra slægt til slægt er dere til i lutter avl, og når dere dør tar den nye avl til. Det er det som menes med det evige liv” (You be content! You’ve everything to live on, everything to live for, everything to believe in, being born and bringing forth, you are the needful on earth.... Generation to generation, breeding ever anew; and when you die, the new stock goes on. That’s the meaning of eternal life).

Hamsun had no real understanding of peasants, but in the years before World War I he had come to look on farming as the only workable compromise between the dangers of untamed nature and the corruptions of the city, and he wanted to make his new message simple, beautiful, and free from doubt. Hence, despite its many dark scenes and seemingly worthless characters, Markens Grøde has the outline structure and the optimism of myth and fairy tale, rather than the close-up perspective and resignation of true realism. Wells wrote of Markens Grøde: “I am not usually lavish with my praise, but indeed the book impresses me as among the very greatest novels I have ever read. It is wholly beautiful; it is saturated with wisdom and humor and tenderness.”

The 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Hamsun for this novel. Hamsun’s name had been suggested by his friend, Norwegian art historian Harry Fett, in 1918; but not until 1920 did a majority of the Swedish Academy’s members, led by its secretary, the poet Erik Axel Karlifeldt, select Hamsun. His name was well known in Germany and the Mediterranean countries, and his candidacy was well received at home and abroad. The prize led to increased recognition, particularly in England and America, where most of Hamsun’s work had not yet been available in translation. Hamsun spent the prize money on his new farm, Norholm, and on the education of his children. However, he was also a generous donor, in particular supporting young artists.

Readers who had expected a permanent change in Hamsun’s writing after Markens Grøde were surprised by the pessimism and openly anti-English tone of his next novel: Konerne ved Vandposten was published in 1920, after Hamsun’s favorite country–Germany-had been defeated. In the novel one character declares, “Engelskmanden har sin egen religion her i verden og retfærdiggjør den på fuldt engelsk måte. Han undertvinger folk efter folk, tar selvstændigheten fra dem, kastrerer dem og gjør dem tykke og stille. Så en dag sier engelskmanden: Lat os nu ifølge Skriften Være retfærdige! Og så gir han kastraterne noget som han kalder selvstyre” (The Englishman enslaves one people after another, takes their independence from them, castrates them, makes them fat and placid. Then one day the Englishman says: Let us now be righteous according to the Scriptures. And so he gives the eunuchs something he calls self-government). Hamsun’s next novel, Siste Kapitel (1923; translated as Chapter the Last, 1929), is similar to his Den sidste Glæde: the earlier work takes place at a mountain resort, the later one at a mountain sanatorium, and both novels concern the slow transformation of a neurotic city woman into a happy farmwife and mother. Siste Kapitel is, however, almost totally free of the didacticism that mars the earlier book.

Suffering from writer’s block, in 1926 Hamsun became one of the first Norwegians to undergo psychoanalysis. Toward the end of the following year he completed his longest novel, Landstrykere (1927; translated as Vagabonds, 1930), the first part of a trilogy that also includes August (1930; translated, 1931) and Men Livet lever (1933; translated as The Road Leads On, 1934). In Landstrykere, Edevart Andersen is born in the 1850s in Polden in northern Norway and grows up to be a big, strong farm boy. He meets the sailor August, two years older than he, and the two begin a vagabond existence that involves enterprises ranging from modest peddling in the countryside to daring and imaginative business projects that sometimes reap handsome rewards. Edevart falls in love with a married woman, Lovise Magrete; the description of their first meeting at her farm is one of the most touching scenes in all of Hamsun’s works. She asks Edevart for money so that she can go to America with her family; she later returns without her husband, but the once happy and industrious Lovise Magrete has acquired the restlessness of the New World. Edevart marries her, and they spend several years on small farms in the United States. In the second part of the trilogy, August, they return to Polden; but Lovise Magrete misses her children in the United States. Edevart decides to follow her but perishes in a storm while sailing out to catch the ship and board it at sea. In the meantime, August has carried on with his enterprises, including a tobacco plantation and a herring-meal factory. In part 3 of the trilogy, Men Livet lever, he begins raising sheep in the grand style he knows from his days on the Argentine pampas. One day, in a tight spot on his newly constructed mountain road, his thousand sheep are frightened by an automobile and plunge off a nine-hundred-foot precipice, bearing August along in their midst. The novel ends: “Et hav av sau blev sjømandens grav” (An ocean of sheep was the sailor’s death). On 14 March 1930 Hamsun wrote to his wife about August: “Det hele er et Angrep paa Industrien. Det er jo all right nok, men om jeg har greid det rent dikterisk, det er det det spøost om” (It is an attack on industry. Now, that is all right, but whether I have managed it from a literary point of view is another matter).

In 1934 Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist whom the Nazis had placed in a concentration camp, was proposed by some Norwegians as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Hamsun attacked the proposal as an insult to Germany; in response, the Norwegian Authors Union issued a statement deploring the fact that “den mest berømte blant nålevende norske forfattere, fri, velhavende, og i enhver henseende betrygget, går til angrep på en mann som sitter i tysk konsentrasjonsleir ene og alene fordi han har sine meningers ubetingede mot, og med sitt liv går inn for dem” (the most famous among living Norwegian authors, free, prosperous, and in every respect secure, attacks a man imprisoned in a German concentration camp only because he has the courage of his convictions and defends them with his life).

In his old age Hamsun became increasingly reactionary and authoritarian; but he was able to side with the young in their struggles against the older generation in his last novel, the unfinished Ringen sluttet (1936; translated as The Ring Is Closed, 1937). Abel Brodersen lives at the lighthouse near a small southern Norwegian coastal town; his father is a niggardly old former sea captain turned lighthouse keeper, and his mother is an alcoholic. Rejected by Olga, the pharmacist’s daughter, he goes to sea. Returning after his parents’ deaths, he exhausts his inheritance and then lives in a shack with little to eat. He is, however, quick-witted, skillful, and courageous: he is the only person in town willing to risk his life to save a fellow citizen, and the reader is told that “i al hans ringhet var han ikke uten karakter. Det var noget. Han hadde en Guds likegyldighet for hvordan det gik. Det var noget . . . en suveramitet hos ham” (in the depths of his obscurity, he was not lacking in character. He possessed a sublime indifference toward all conditions he encountered. It rendered him independent–a sovereign in his own way). The reader gradually learns that during Abel’s absence he had married an American woman with a French-sounding name, Angele, with whom he had lived in Green Ridge, Kentucky, until he shot her after finding her with Lawrence, his best friend; Lawrence had been convicted of the crime and sent to the electric chair. The novel ends with Abel leaving again for the United States. Hamsun’s son Tore says in his 1959 biography that his father had intended to have Abel confess his crime.

Abel’s defeatist attitude was not accepted by Norwegians in the optimistic and enterprising 1930s; they regarded him as something close to an animal. The hero of Hamsun’s last novel is what today would be called a hippie; such a character would be just as out of place in the oil-rich Norway of the early twenty-first century as he would have been at the time the novel was published.

Hamsun’s novels had been discovered by the Germans in the 1890s, and from Germany their fame had spread to the Mediterranean countries and to the Middle and Far East. After receiving the Nobel Prize, he won a name for himself in the English-speaking world. By 1939 his works had appeared in more than thirty languages. If he had not survived his eightieth birthday that year, he would have died as the most popular of Norway’s great writers. But during the German occupation of Norway from 1940 until 1945 Hamsun produced propaganda for the Nazis. He also, however, tried to help Norwegians who had been imprisoned by the occupation forces. In January 1941 he met with Joseph Ter-boven, the Reichskommissar for Norway, and pleaded successfully for the release of one of the writers, Ronald Fangen. In an article published in the newspaper Fritt Folk (Free People) on 20 February 1943 titled “Nu igjen-!” (Now Once More–!) Hamsun described letters he had received from people whose sons had been sentenced to death for resisting the Nazis; he deplored not only the fact that the men had sided with England but that they were young and had to die. In June 1943 Hamsun met Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden in Germany. According to Thorkild Hansen’s Prosessen mot Hamsun (1959, The Hamsun Trial), Hamsun criticized Terboven: “Reichskommissars metoder passer ikke hos oss, hans Preusserei er uantakelig hos oss, og så henrettelsene–vi gider ikke mer!” (The methods of the Reichskommissar are not appropriate in our country. His Prussian manner is not acceptable to us, and then these executions–it’s enough!). Hamsun began to weep; Hitler asked the interpreter to calm the old novelist and left the meeting.

On 7 May 1945 Hamsun published an obituary of Hitler in the newspaper Aftenposten in which he described the German dictator as “en Kriger for Men-neskeheden og en Forkynder av Evangeliet om Ret for alle Nasjoner” (a warrior for mankind and a preacher of the gospel of rights for all nations). He explained the eulogy to his son Tore as an example of his wish to be consistent to the end. Three weeks after the obituary appeared, Hamsun and his wife were interned at Nørholm. After another three weeks Hamsun was transferred to the Grimstad hospital, where he was interrogated by the magistrate on two occasions. Hamsun did not deny his sympathy for Germany, but he said that he did not consider himself guilty of treason, because his conscience told him that he had worked for his country. After three months at Grimstad, he was sent to an old-age home near Landvik. As a result of the hearings before the magistrate Hamsun was indicted under a new law that made membership in the Nasjonal Samling (Norwegian Nazi Party) punishable with imprisonment or fines up to one million Norwegian crowns. Though it was never proved that Hamsun had been a member of Nasjonal Samling, Nørholm was confiscated, and Hamsun was arrested.

In October 1945 Hamsun was moved to a psychiatric clinic in Oslo, where he was examined by Gabriel Langfeldt and Ørnulv Ødegård. In February 1946, after what Hamsun later described as four terrible months in the psychiatric clinic, he was returned to the old-age home at Landvik. Langfeldt and Ødegård signed a report declaring that they did not believe Hamsun to be insane then or to have been insane at the time of his offensive actions; but they considered him “en person med varig svekkede sjelsevner” (a person with permanently impaired mental faculties). Two weeks later, the attorney general announced that although Hamsun must be considered responsible for his actions since he was not insane, the government did not wish to bring a criminal case against him because of his mental impairment and because he was practically deaf. The Directorate for Reparations, however, was pursuing a civil case against him.

Hamsun’s case was finally heard in December 1947. In a speech to the court he contended that he had written his wartime articles to save Norwegian lives; he had also, he said, sent many telegrams to Ter-boven and to Hitler asking for clemency. The judges, however, found that although Hamsun had not technically been a member of the Nasjonal Samling, he had supported the enemy throughout the war–a transgres sion that was all the more serious because of the novelist’s prestige in Norway. He was sentenced to pay a fine of 425,000 crowns, 85 percent of what the court determined to be his net worth.

Two years later Hamsun published a brilliant and moving account of his trial, Paa gjengrodde Stier, which was well received by critics and made readers wonder what Langfeldt and Ødegård had meant by “permanently impaired mental faculties.” A 175-page chronicle of contemporary events and impressions without chapter divisions, Paa gjengrodde Stier lacks the intensity and artistic form of Hamsun’s earlier work; but the chief compositional device of Sult–the protagonist’s gradual displacement from the pleasures of the Palace Gardens to the slums behind the East Station–is repeated in Hamsun’s depiction of the various places in which he was confined. What seems at first to be a day-to-day account of trivial events suddenly reveals the great novelist’s sense of scene and dialogue, of humor and pathos, as he forces the reader to confront the question of whether he deserved this treatment.

Paa gjengrodde Stier also shows Hamsun’s Renaissance mind at work as he inspects new and old buildings, criticizes carpentry and vocabulary, and deplores the new spelling of Norwegian–the country had had three spelling reforms in Hamsun’s lifetime–as well as the lack of old-fashioned respect in modern forms of greeting. And there are scenes that show some of Hamsun’s former ecstasy over the mysteries of nature, as when he looks at the Nørholm inlet and sees the moon “klavre op fra havet som en maneter våt av guld” (coming up from the sea like a jellyfish dripping with gold). Although written by an old man living in isolation, Paa gjengrodde Stier exudes a warmth that reminded Norwegian readers of what they owed this once beloved writer and led many of them to ask whether the old sinner could not have been treated more leniently.

In 1950 Hamsun broke down and cried at the news that the Gyldendal publishing house would begin republishing his books: his worst punishment had been his total neglect by readers and scholars during the first years after the war. Since Hamsun’s death on 19 February 1952, an increasing number of books and articles on his life and works have appeared in many countries. A useful guide is Arvid Østby bibliography (1972), though it is now somewhat dated. Of critical approaches to Hamsun’s early work, James W. McFarlane’s article in PMLA (1956) is a pioneering essay, followed several years later by Rolf Nyboe Net-tum’s dissertation from 1970. Interesting and important are also Olaf Øyslebø’s examination of Knut Hamsun’s literary style (1964) and Atle Kittang’s analysis of Hamsun’s “novels of disillusion” (1984).

Hamsun’s early life and career is the subject of Lars Frode Larsen’s impressive three-volume history (1998–2002), while Hamsun’s wartime support of Germany and his postwar trial for aiding the enemy is treated in Hansen’s massive and well-written account. Hamsun’s political views and his wartime articles were also examined by Sten Sparre Nilson (1960).

After the war, Marie Hamsun published two interesting volumes (1953, 1959) on her more than forty years as Hamsun’s wife, while her oldest son, Tore, published a biography of his father–the first to cover Hamsun’s life from birth to death–in 1952. More objective is Robert Ferguson’s Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, originally published in English in 1987. So far, the most detailed account of Hamsun’s life from cradle to grave is Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s two-volume biography (2003–2004), volume one covering the first sixty-seven years of the writer’s life and volume two the remaining twenty-six.

Knut Hamsun’s reputation derives from two main sources. For critics it is his position in the forefront of literary modernism. His manic-depressive heroes, his elitism, his emphasis on the unconscious life of the mind, and his stream-of-consciousness techniques make him a pioneer in the development of twentieth-century European writing. His popular appeal, on the other hand, results from the melodrama of his love stories and, above all–and particularly for Norwegian readers–from the central place of nature in his work: his idealization of the simple life, his emphasis on trivsel (a pan-Scandinavian word denoting well-being and peace of mind), and his insistence that industry and materialism do not hold promise for the future. Ultimately, however, Hamsun’s appeal is universal. He is the only Norwegian writer besides Ibsen and Sigrid Undset who belongs to world literature.


Selected Letters, 2 volumes, edited by Harald Næss and James W. McFarlane (Norwich, U.K.: Norvik Press, 1990, 1998);

Knut Hamsuns brev, 7 volumes, edited by Næss (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1994–2001).


Arvid Østby, Knut Hamsun: En bibliografi (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1972).


Einar Skavlan, Knut Hamsun (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1929);

Tore Hamsun, Knut Hamsun: Min far (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1952); revised as Knut Hamsun (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1959);

Marie Hamsun, Regnbuen (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1953);

Marie Hamsun, Under gullregnen (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1959);

Thorkild Hansen, Prosessen mot Hamsun (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1959);

Harald Næss, Knut Hamsun og Amerika (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1969);

Sigrid Stray, Min klient Knut Hamsun (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1979);

Robert Ferguson, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987);

Øystein Rottem, Hamsuns liv i bilder (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1996);

Lars Frode Larsen, Den unge Hamsun: 1859–1888 (Oslo: Schibsted, 1998);

Larsen, Radikaleren Hamsun ved gjennombruddet: 1888–1891 (Oslo: Schibsted, 2001);

Larsen, Tilværelsens udlænding: Hamsun ved gjennombruddet (1891–1893) (Oslo: Schibsted, 2002);

Ingar Sletten Kolloen, Hamsun: Svermeren (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2003);

Kolloen, Hamsun: Erobreren (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2004);

Jørgen Haugan, Solgudens fall: Knut Hamsun–en littercer biografi (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2004).


Walter Baumgartner, Knut Hamsun (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1997);

Walter Berendsohn, Knut Hamsun (Munich: Albert Langen, 1929);

Trygve Braatøy, Livets cirkel (Oslo: Cappelen, 1929);

Knut Brynhildsvoll, Sult, sprell og Altmulig: Alte und neue Studien zu Knut Hamsuns antipsychologischer Romankunst (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1998);

Aasmund Brynildsen, Svermeren og hans demon (Oslo: Dreyer, 1973);

Ståle Dingstad, Hamsuns strategier: Realisme, humor, kynisme (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2003);

Alrik Gustafson, Six Scandinavian Novelists (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1940);

Martin Humpál, The Roots of Modernist Narrative: Knut Hamsun’s Novels Hunger, Mysteries and Pan (Oslo: Solum, 1999);

Peter Kierkegaard, Knut Hamsun som modernist (Copenhagen: Medusa, 1975);

Atle Kittang, Luft, vind, ingenting (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1984);

Nils Magne Knutsen, Makt–avmakt: En studie av Hamsuns Benoni og Rosa (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1975);

John Landquist, Knut Hamsun (Tübingen: Fischer, 1927);

Leo Lowenthal, Literature and the Image of Man (Boston: Beacon, 1957);

Sverre Lyngstad, Knut Hamsun, Novelist: A Critical Assessment (New York & Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005);

Jan F. Marstrander, Det ensomme menneske i Knut Hamsuns diktning (Oslo: Det norske studentersamfunds kulturutvalg, 1959);

Marstrander, Livskamp og virkelighetsoppfatning: Knut Hamsuns forfatterskap frem mot gjennombruddet (1877–1887), edited by Lars Frode Larsen (Oslo: ProArk, 1993);

James W. McFarlane, “The Whisper of the Blood,” PMLA, 71 (1956): 563–594;

Martin Nag, Geniet Knut Hamsun–en norsk Dostojewskij (Oslo: Solum, 1998);

Rolf Nyboe Nettum, Konflikt og visjon (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1970);

Sten Sparre Nilson, En ørn i uvær: Knut Hamsun og politikken (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1960);

Gregory Nybø, Knut Hamsuns Mysterier (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1969);

Harald Næss, Knut Hamsun (Boston: Twayne, 1984);

Ronald Popperwell, “Critical Attitudes to Knut Hamsun,” Scandinavica, 9 (1970): 1–23;

Alan Powers, Front Cover: Great Book Jackets and Cover Design (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2001);

Øystein Rottem, Guddommelig galskap (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1998);

Rottem, Hamsun og fantasiens triumf (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2002);

Rottem, Knut Hamsuns Landstrykere: en ideologikritisk analyse (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1978);

Henning Sehmsdorf, “Knut Hamsun’s Pan,” Edda (1974): 345–393;

James Allen Simpson, Knut Hamsuns Landstrykere, translated by Jan F. Marstrander (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1973);

Jørgen Tiemroth, Illusionens vej (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1974);

Rolf Vige, Knut Hamsuns Pan (Oslo: Universitetsfor-laget,1963);

H. G. Wells, The Salvaging of Civilization (London: Cassell, 1921), p. 124;

Joseph Wiehr, “Knut Hamsun: His Personality and His Outlook upon Life,” Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, 3, nos. 1–2 (1921–1922): 1–129;

Olaf Øyslebø, Knut Hamsun gjennom stilen (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1964).


Most of Knut Hamsun’s manuscripts and other papers are in the Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library) in Oslo. Other large collections are at the University Library in Bergen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The Royal Library) in Copenhagen, and the Puskinskij Dom (Pushkin House) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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Hamsun, Knut (4 August 1859 - 19 February 1952)

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