ADDRESSES: Offıce—Institutt for Britske or Amerikanske Studier, P.B. 1003 Blindern, 0315 Oslo, Norway. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Author and educator. University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway, associate professor of American literature.
AWARDS, HONORS: H.M. the King of Norway's Gold Medal, 1997, for doctoral thesis.
Calendar of the Letters of Bret Harte, Department of British and American Studies, University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway), 1997.
Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2000.
The Romantic Friendship Reader: Love Stories between Men in Victorian America, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 2003.
Also author of numerous articles on literature and gay male culture in Scandinavian and American literary journals, including Contemporary Literature, Southern Quarterly, Studies in Short Fiction, and Journal of the Short Story in English.
SIDELIGHTS: A literature professor in Norway, Axel Nissen specializes in several areas of American literature, including nineteenth-century literature and homosexuality in literature. One of his primary areas of interest is the American author Bret Harte. His book Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper, published in 2000, was the first scholarly biography of Harte in nearly seventy years. Based on extensive new sources, Nissen's biography of Harte provides both a detailed account of Harte's interesting life and an examination of the author's place in American literature, including Nissen's view of homoerotic themes in Harte's fiction. Nissen also examines the reasons why Harte became so famous only to fall from favor in modern-day literary criticism.
Born in Albany, New York, in 1836, Harte eventually left school and moved to California. He worked in various jobs, including stints as a teacher, a menial laborer, and a miner before he turned to writing. As a freelance writer, he contributed short stories, poems, and sketches focusing on the West and its people to numerous magazines on the east and west coasts. By the late 1860s, Harte was considered one of the top writers in America and was credited with reinventing the American short story with such stories as the "Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." In the process, he laid the foundation for the American Western. Harte became a literary phenomenon and a worldwide celebrity. Despite his success, however, he struggled with finances and eventually left behind his wife and children and established a career in Europe as a diplomat and writer. Harte continued to write what many considered "romances" despite the move by the literary establishment to "realistic" fiction. Immensely popular in Europe, Harte began to receive less favorable reviews in America and had an ongoing rivalry with Mark Twain, who often publicly vilified Harte. Although Harte made a considerable amount of money in his life, he died nearly broke in England in 1902.
"Whether Harte's work can support the structure of a serious study is never clearly answered," wrote Erica Da Costa of Nissen's book in the New York Times Book Review. "However, Nissen . . . has constructed a worthwhile American narrative, peppered with the presence of nineteenth-century literati and woven through with the drama of an unfolding empire." Writing in Albany's Times Union, reviewer Barbara Grossman noted that Nissen had plenty of material to focus on Harte's life alone without commenting on his writing and place in literature. "Nissen's conjectures about why Harte wrote about certain subjects is less interesting and less informative than his account of Harte's life," wrote Grossman. The Albany-based reviewer went on to comment, "These, however, are minor distractions in a biography of interest to students of American literary history, to those who like stories about the American West or to those interested in locally born authors." San Francisco Chronicle contributor Alden Mudge called Nissen's book a "fine literary biography" and went on to say that "Nissen offers some fascinating insights," including a discussion of homoerotic themes in Harte's fiction. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, however, found Nissen's examination of homoeroticism in Harte's work to be "forced." Nevertheless, the reviewer commented, "Overall, the work is enjoyable and informative, a useful contribution to the history of American letters." Margaret Flanagan, writing in Booklist, concluded by describing Bret Harte as a "lively reconsideration of an influential and long-neglected American original."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, April 15, 2000, Margaret Flanagan, review of Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper, p. 1516.
Library Journal, March 15, 2000, Charles Crawford Nash, review of Bret Harte, p. 85.
New York Times Book Review, June 25, 2000, Erica Da Costa, "Books in Brief: Nonfiction," p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, February 28, 2000, review of BretHarte, p. 73.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 3, 2000, Alden Mudge, review of Bret Harte, p. REV6.
Times Union (Albany, NY), August 6, 2000, Barbara Grossman, review of Bret Harte, p. J5.
Axel Nissen's Home Page,http://www.hf.uio.no/iba/ansatte/nilsni.html (January 22, 2002).*