Pontoppidan, Henrik

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Henrik Pontoppidan

Novelist Henrik Pontoppidan (1857–1943) is considered Denmark's foremost prose author. The Nobel Prize winner earned recognition for his exceptionally accurate portrayals of his native Denmark—contributing three epic novel cycles and a set of memoirs that helped shape the country's literary heritage.

Early Life

Henrik Pontoppidan was born July 24, 1857, in Fredericia—located on the Jutland Peninsula of Denmark. His father, Dines Pontoppidan, was a Lutheran clergyman, one in a long line of family ministers, and an advocate of fanatic spiritualist N.F.S. Grundtvig. Pontoppidan's mother, Marie Kirstina (Oxenböll), was the daughter of a Danish government official. Pontoppidan was closer to his mother than his father, and spent much time learning by her side. She instilled in him many of her own beliefs, as she was a voracious reader of history and economics, and had very firm ideas about the way the Danish's newly democratic government should be treating their poor. Apparently they had given the peasants the vote, but had given little concern or care in helping them deal with their poverty, something she considered to be very hypocritical. Many of the ideas espoused by his mother would later show up in Pontoppidan's own work.

Early Education

In 1863, the family was moved to another Jutland town called Randers, and Pontoppidan was enrolled in the Randers Latin School at age five, where he displayed a gift for mathematics. The town was toppled by the Prussian and Austrian armed forces during a brief occupation when Pontoppidan was six years old, and the destructive force of the onslaught left a lasting impression on the impressionable boy. The fourth of sixteen children, Pontoppidan was expected to carry on the theological tradition for the family, but surprised everyone and disappointed his father when he decided to pursue engineering instead.

In 1874, at the age of 17, Pontoppidan was accepted to the Polytechnic Institute at the University of Copenhagen to study engineering. During his time there, he took a summer excursion to Switzerland for a walking tour, and the vibrancy of his experiences there prompted him to start expressing his thoughts and feelings in writing. In 1877, at the age of 20, he dropped his studies just short of receiving a degree, certain that he was being called to a life of writing. In his autobiography on the Nobel Prize Website, Pontoppidan explains that "in the beginning I aimed at descriptions of nature and folk life until, as the years passed, the description of man became my chief interest."

Although Pontoppidan left his formal education without having earned any formal academic degrees, he worked as a teacher of natural sciences from 1877 until 1882 at the Frersley Folk High School—an institution for the peasant class in the Zealand countryside—run by his brother, Morten. In 1882, his brother was thrown into jail for his political views, and the school was closed. The Cyclopedia of World Authors revealed that Pontoppidan "hated the facile religious sentimentality prevalent in the school, and he disliked the easy–going way of life of the Danish people because it lacked the emotional and intellectual intensity that he respected." He soon abandoned all other career efforts in order to focus solely on writing fiction.

Life as a Writer

Initially, Pontoppidan hoped to expand his understanding of the peasant class by becoming one of them. He tried to immerse himself in that life, even marrying a peasant woman, Mette Marie Hansen, in December of 1881. They had two children, but Hansen eventually moved back in with her parents in 1888, and their marriage was later dissolved in 1892. Pontoppidan expressed remorse at never truly succeeding in integrating himself.

In 1881, Pontoppidan produced his first short story collection, Clipped Wings. His early work had an air of resentment about the condition of society, and he wrote about the unjust treatment of the peasant class by a society that took great pride in its Democratic foundation. Pontoppidan incorporated generous helpings of uncompromising political opinions and scathing "anti–clerical" overtones into his fiction. He detested the lyric and romantic writing styles of the times, and this showed up in his own writing. He stated that readers should beware of writing that was pretty and emotionally manipulative. He strove to provide clear and efficient writing that would portray the truths that he saw without veiling or filtering them in an attempt to soften a harsh reality.

Pontoppidan started his literary career as a naturalist, focusing on depictions of peasant life. He wrote a second short story collection titled Skyer in 1890, berating farmers for not taking a stand against abuse, and criticizing society for mistreating the laborers. Rather than adopting the tenants of any particular religion, Pontoppidan described himself as a free–thinker and "popular storyteller" rather than a didactic moralist, despite being raised in a strongly Lutheran household. Pontoppidan felt dissatisfied with his ability to properly treat the subjects that intrigued him in the short story format, and soon switched to what he identified as the "more spacious form" and "broader style" of the novel.

His first novel cycle, Det forjættede Land—three volumes released from 1891 to 1895, sometimes translated Soil, The Promised Land, and The Day of Judgment—firmly launched his status as a master among European authors of the time. He married Antoinette Cecilia Caroline Elise Kofoed on April 9, 1892, and remained with her until she died in 1928. His next novel cycle, Lykke–Per—eight volumes released from 1898 to 1904 and translated Lucky Per—was an autobiographical account of the ways in which a strict Protestant upbringing can shape an individual. Its atheist protagonist, Per Sidenius, discontinues his pursuit of an engineering degree to become a writer. Quoted on the Kirjasto Website, Marxist critic George Lukacs identified the irony in this novel as lying "in the fact that he lets his hero succeed all the time, but shows that a demonic power forces him to regard everything he has gained as worthless." Lykke–Per was never translated into English, but is still considered by many to be Pontoppidan's "magnum opus."

His last novel cycle, De Dødes Rige—five volumes released from 1912 to 1916 and translated The Realm of the Dead—are considered by many scholars, critics and readers to be "the greatest novels in the Danish language." This cycle marked a continuation of his critical cultural view. Both pragmatic and contemptuous in tone, his pessimism and criticism grew from cycle to cycle, making a convincing storyline that, nevertheless, was not very complimentary to Danish character. Pontoppidan's desire to promote educational reform and liberate his people from the pitfalls of cultural insincerity resulted in an often harsh and biting depiction of his fellow man within his fiction. He criticized the people of Denmark for being complacent in the face of what he viewed as governmental oppression and prejudice.

This perspective and outspoken chastisement peaked in his 1927 novel Mands Himmerig (Man's Heaven), which tells the tale of a corrupt man trying to benefit from the suffering of others in wartime. It was his memoirs—five volumes written from 1933 to 1940—that helped readers better understand his rigidly moral stance. He stated that his creed was a belief in "the clarity of thought and the masculine balance of mind." Two significant literary motifs are woven throughout Pontoppidan's fiction, according to the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, "the contrast between nature and culture," and "the failure of idealism owing to a destiny determined by environment and heredity."

In 1917, Pontoppidan was awarded a joint Nobel Prize for Literature with fellow Danish author Karl Gjellerup. Pontoppidan's "profuse descriptions of Danish life" were cited as the impetus for the prestigious award. Due to the difficulties of life during World War I, no formal ceremony was enacted, and the recipients did not give speeches. Sven Soderman, a Swedish critic, wrote an essay to commemorate the moment. While receiving a Nobel Prize in Literature frequently results in foreign language authors experiencing increased exposure and translation, the fact that he shared the award with fellow author Gjellerup, who was soon forgotten, and the lack of fanfare due to the historic period meant that Pontoppidan never got the recognition that critics feel he deserved.

Famous German author Thomas Mann classified Pontoppidan as "a born epic poet . . . a true conservative, who in a breathless world has preserved the grand style in the novel." In his History of Scandinavian Literature, Sven Rossel praised Pontoppidan's "clear style, which 'de–lyricizes' language," adding that "No other modern Danish author has been able to paint so precisely a complete picture of his time—its intellectual movements and its people." Although he was best known for his novel cycles, Pontoppidan was a versatile author, composing short fiction and plays under the pseudonyms "Rusticus" and "Urbanus" and four volumes of memoir that spanned the time period from 1933 through 1940. He went from an organic observer—comparing character and tradition, atmosphere, and intention—to a more philosophical writer searching for long lasting truths and principles.

Respected Author at Rest

Pontoppidan died in his home at the age of 86 on August 21, 1943, in Charlottenlund, a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark. Although the majority of Pontoppidan's material was socially caustic in nature and tone, the memoirs to which he devoted much of his time and energy in the twilight of his life featured a softer tone than his other works. Critics are given to using superlatives when describing Pontoppidan's impact on Danish as well as international literary culture. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature wrote that "No other Danish writer has succeeded in portraying his own age, its main currents, and its people so completely and with such artistic precision as Pontoppidan." Pontoppidan was remembered when his portrait shared one half of a postage stamp in a commemorative set issued in 1977 along with the Nobel committee's statement that Pontoppidan "has no equal in Scandinavia as a describer of people and contemporary spiritual history."


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