Jensen, Johannes Vilhelm

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Johannes Vilhelm Jensen

Danish author Johannes Vilhem Jensen (1873-1950) was a prolific writer who produced as many as 60 volumes of stories, novels, essays, and poems. A former medical student, his works reflected his interests in science, evolution, and anthropology. In his most important and best-known work, Den lange rejse ("The Long Journey"), a six-novel cycle written between 1908 and 1922, Jensen portrayed, in narrative fashion, his ideas on how humans developed in accordance with the theories of Charles Darwin. The lengthy and controversial work earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944.

Early Life

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen was born on January 20, 1873, in Farsø, Himmerland, a small village located in North Jutland, Denmark. He was the second son of the district veterinary surgeon, Hans Jensen, and Marie (Kirstine) Jensen. His family came from what has been described as old peasant stock. Both his mother and father descended from farmers and craftsmen.

Until he was eleven years old, Jensen was schooled at home by his mother. His formal education began at the Cathedral School of Viborg, from where he graduated in 1893. Jensen then attended the University of Copenhagen from 1893 to 1898. For three years, he studied medicine and his curriculum included botany, zoology, physics, and chemistry. During his fourth year at the University, his interest turned to writing, and his scientific studies would greatly influence his future literary work. "The grounding in natural sciences which I obtained in the course of my medical studies … was to become decisive in determining the trend of my literary work," he wrote in an autobiographical essay when he received the Nobel Prize.

Jensen was able to earn money with his writing and this, he later indicated, put him at a crossroads. He had to choose between continuing his scientific studies or pursuing a writing career. Jensen opted to become a writer instead of a doctor.

Began Writing in College

While still attending the University of Copenhagen, Jensen managed to write two novels: Danskere (1896) and Einar Elkjær (1898). Like much of his early writings, these works were set in his native province of Himmerland. Jensen's early output also included genre fiction. He wrote romantic stories and turned out a series of detective novels that were published in a weekly periodical under his pen name "Ivar Lykke."

But it was for his stories, or "tales," that Jensen first gained his most favorable attention. Near the turn of the century, he began writing a series of stories that came to be called Himmerlandshistorier ("Himmerland Stories"). He produced these stories, which were set in the area of Denmark where he was born, between 1898 and 1910. The stories are categorized into three groups: tales from the Himmerland, (his birthplace), tales from his travels in the Far East, and the "Myths" tales. The Himmerland tales provided vivid depictions of the region's environment and people.

During this period of his career, Jensen also worked as a journalist. He spent the summer of 1898 in Spain, working as a war correspondent, reporting on the Spanish-American war for the newspaper Politken. With all assignments, the apolitical Jensen worked on a freelance basis. He never joined the staff of any newspaper, nor did he align himself with any political party. But he infused his journalism with his own impressions and attitudes. In writing a series of articles from the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, he expressed his enthusiasm for the modern and active lifestyle represented by the exhibition and the city. (These writings were collected and published as Den gotiske renæssance in 1901.)

As a young writer, Jensen was prolific, turning out more than 100 "Myths," a literary form that he created that include elements of narrative and essay. As he was turning out these pieces, he also wrote what has come to be regarded as the most significant historical novel in Danish literature, Kongen's fald ("The Fall of the King"), written in 1900-01. Taking place in the 16th century, the work is a fictional trilogy, both lyrical and realistic, about the life of King Christian II of Denmark, the last ruler of the three Scandinavian countries, and about Mikkel Thøgersen, a student and later mercenary.

Traveled Far and Wide

Along with his writing activities, Jensen also traveled extensively. Like his academic studies, Jensen's travels profoundly influenced his writing. Between his first two novels, Jensen interrupted his university studies to take the first of several trips to the United States. These transatlantic visits exposed him to new technology and the impact it had on the American culture, and they inspired two novels: Madame d'Ora (1904) and Hjulet, ("The Wheel" [1905]). They also spurred his developing talent and, in turn, influenced the work of his Danish literary peers. "I inspired a change in the Danish literature and press by introducing English and American vigor, which was to replace the then dominant trend of decadent Gallicism," he recalled.

Like fellow writer and countryman Hans Christian Anderson, Jensen traveled a great deal throughout his life. He made a second trip to the United States in 1903. He circled the globe in 1902-03, visited the Far East in 1912-13, and traveled to Egypt, Palestine, and North Africa in 1925-26. His trips to the Far East, which included visits to Malaya and China, and the subsequent writings, earned him the nickname of "Denmark's Kipling."

Other Writings

While producing his myths and novels, Jensen also wrote poetry, plays, and essays. He felt his poetry was a key to understanding his oeuvre. "The essence of my literary work is to be found in my collection of poems, which may be regarded as a reaction against the fastidious style of the day bearing Baudelaire's poisonous hallmark," he wrote. Specifically, Jensen meant that his poems represented a move toward a simpler style and a focus on deserving subject matter. (Charles Baudelaire's poetry, often described as romantic or decadent, was an extravagant commingling of the beautiful with the morbid, evil, or erotic.)

Jensen's poetic influences included Goethe, Heine and the prose poems of the American poet Walt Whitman. Jensen also employed the Old Norse style poetics for his verse. In 1906, he published a volume, Digte ("Poems") that contained all the youthful poems. Later in his life, he published Digte, 1901-43.

Jensen's essays were characterized by a poetic prose style and were collected—along with animal, travel, and nature sketches—in Myter ("Myths" [1907-1944]), which was published in eleven volumes. His essays, in particular, reflected his interest in anthropology and the philosophy of evolution.

Embraced Darwin's Evolution Theory

During the course of his studies and his writing career, Jensen became greatly interested in the work of Charles Darwin and evolution. When he received his Nobel in 1945, Jensen cited Darwin as "a man of science who has drawn a line between two epochs." Further, Jensen pointed out that, to Darwin, "evolution was not only the subject of a life's study but the very essence of life, proof of the inexhaustible richness and wonder of nature, revealed each day and taken to heart." In his vast literary output, one of Jensen's primary goals was to introduce the reader to the philosophy of evolution and to encourage them to think of life and nature in evolutionary terms.

Most importantly to him, Jensen wanted to address Darwinism because he felt it was an important concept that had been seriously misinterpreted and distorted in the 19th century. In particular, he felt Darwinism was used to justify the concept of the Übermensch or, more specifically, the distortion of that particular concept into the idea of the "superman." Nietzsche developed the concept of Übermensch, or "Overman," to describe philosophically a transcendence over limitations imposed by traditional morality. The "Overman" accepts the idea that "God is dead" (i.e. that is Christian dogmas must be destroyed and that man must separate himself from the idea of God), and then can emotionally and psychologically accept this independence without succumbing to nihilism. The Overman responds by creating his own moral ideals and lives according to the principles of his "Will to Power." The result is complete independence. Nietzche's concepts were exploited in some quarters to advance the belief in biological superiority, and Darwinism was used as evidence to support this idea. "The concept of the Übermensch had disastrous consequences in that it led to two world wars, and was destroyed only with the collapse of Germany in 1945," wrote Jensen. To counter the damage done by the misconceptions or deliberate distortions, Jensen developed a new interpretation of the theory of evolution and its moral implications, and he communicated this interpretation in his literary works.

His theories of evolution were delineated in his most important work: a cycle of six novels collectively called Den lange rejse ("The Long Journey"), written between 1908 and 1922 and published in a two-volume edition in 1938. A third volume was written between 1922 and 1924. (In all, the cycle included I: Den tabte land, (1919); II: Bræen, [1908]; Norne Gæst, [1919]; IV: Cimbrernes tog, [1922]; V: Skibet, [1912]; VI: Christofer Columbus, [1922]). In the work, Jensen placed an evolutionary interpretation upon biblical legends. The plot follows the emergence of man from the Ice Age and concludes with Columbus' discovery of America. The first book takes place in the pre-Ice Age warm climates and involves a Prometheus-like main character. The second book, a mythic recounting of the genesis of the Nordic race, involves an outcast who rediscovers fire and starts a new civilization. Later books depict the invention of land and sea vessels, the Roman Empire, and the Vikings. The work not only demonstrated his consummate skill as a literary artist but as an amateur anthropologist as well. It was this work that earned him the Nobel Prize. Jensen's own theories of evolution however, were considered questionable and generated some controversy. One of the work's major themes involved the idea that the ideal of an Edenic paradise developed from genetic memory, and paradise represented a longing for a return to the pre-ice age warm world.

Received Nobel Prize

In 1939 Jensen again visited the United States. The following year, the German army invaded Denmark and Jensen was compelled to destroy a great deal of his personal writings, as much of it was critical of Fascism and anti-Semitism. In 1944, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In giving the award to Jensen, the Nobel Committee cited the "rare strength and fertility of his poetic imagination with which is combined an intellectual curiosity of wide scope and a bold, freshly creative style." The ceremonies are held in Stockholm, Sweden, but no presentations were made that year because of the war. Jensen received his award the following year.

In his acceptance speech, given at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, on December 10, 1945, Jensen cited the impact of Darwin, Alfred Nobel and the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, the naturalist who has been called "the father of taxonomy." Linnaeus, Jensen said, "gave animals their proper names and, long before anyone had ever dreamt of evolution, classified monkeys, apes, and man under the name of primates. Passion for nature, for all that stirred and breathed, was the driving force in [his] genius. Whenever one reads of the determination of the species, or opens a book on natural science and history, in whatever language, one inevitably comes across the name of [Linnaeus]." Linnaeus, Jensen said, by designating the species as he did, provided the foundation that enabled Darwin to develop his theories on the origin of the species. As a literary influence, Jensen cited Adam Oehlenschläger, another great name in Danish literature that preceded him by a century.

Died in Copenhagen

Jensen's later works included Eksotiske noveller (1907-1917), which was based on travels in the Far East, and Jørgine (1926), a story of a deceived peasant girl who salvages her life by entering a loveless marriage and becomes a self-sacrificing mother. Selections were translated as The Waving Rye, which was published posthumously in 1958.

In 1904, he married Else Marie Ulrik. They had three sons. Jensen died in Copenhagen on November 25, 1950.


Johannes V. Jensen-Autobiography, Nobel e-Museum, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes V. Jensen - Banquet Speech, Nobel e-Museum, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen,, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, AllRefer Encyclopedia, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes V. Jensen, Pegasos, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen,, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes V. Jensen,, (December 14, 2003)

Johannes V. Jensen,, (December 14, 2003)

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Johannes Vilhelm Jensen

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