Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

Knut Hamsun Triumph and Tragedy


									     Knut Hamsun: Triumph and Tragedy
                                PAUL KNAPLUND

ON FEBRUARY 1952, one of the twen-
                19,                            his death the New York Times devoted a
tieth century’s outstanding authors, the       full column to the life and achievements
Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, died           of Knut Hamsun. He was called the literary
lonely and unmourned. In 1920 when he          giant of the north, “a writer of great
was awarded the much coveted Nobel prize       depth and tremendous power.”
in literature Hamsun’s countrymen had              Why then did Norway refuse to pay
praised him to the skies. Norway was im-       tribute to a son who had brought glory
mensely proud of her famous son. Her           to her name? The answer lies in the sad
newspapers quoted at length the glowing        and terrible fact that in April, 1940, when
tributes paid him by literary critics the      Norway strove desperately to stem the
world over, and called attention to the fact   horde of German invaders who slaughtered
that his works were published in twenty-       her sons and burned her homes, Hamsun
three languages. But when he died, the         hailed the enemy as a deliverer, and
demise of Hamsun was barely mentioned          praised Hitler, that foe of all Christian
in Oslo’s newspapers. What had produced        civilization. “Put down your arms”
this radical change? Had he at 92 out-          (“Nordmen! Kast borsa og ga hjem
lived his fame? Or had his novels become       igjen”) Hamsun shouted to his country.
outmoded? To those last two questions the      men as they resisted the enemy. Through-
 answer is an emphatic “NO!” Norwegians        out the occupation, despite the brutality
 are proud of their longevity; Hamsun’s        and ghastly crimes committed, Hamsun
 vitality was admired. And his remarkable      steadfastly reiterated his original advice-
 prose epic, Growth of the Soil, has become       submit.”
 one of the world‘s classics. The day after        Learning of Hitler’s death Hamsun

Modern Age                                                                             165
wrote: “I am unworthy to speak with re-            son, but had shown himself to be a nithing
sounding eloquence about Adolf Hider. .  ..         (a man false and without honor), the
He was a warrior, a fighter for humanity,          strongest derogatory term in the language
a proclaimer of the gospel of justice for          of Norsemen.
all nations. He was a supreme reformer,               As soon as the war ended, the arch-col-
but it was his historical destiny to work          laborator Vidkun Quisling and his blood-
in an age of unprecedented brutality. May          stained lieutenants were given short shrift.
the ordinary citizens of Central Europe            Quickly convicted, they suff ered the usual
view Hider in that light; and meanwhile            fate of traitors. Against others the Nor-
we, his devoted followers, bow our heads           wegian government proceeded more slow-
at his death.’y2                                   ly. This was especially true in the case of
   Two years later Hamsun disavowed                Knut Hamsun. He had been a giant among
these opinions. On May 22, 1947, writing           men, and he was past eighty when the Ger-
to his friend Christian Gierloff, Hamsun           man invasion occurred. He was first placed
said; “Quite early I became aware of the           under house arrest, and later underwent
fact that personally Hitler was a tinker."^    ~   a lengthy psychiatric examination. Though
But in the same letter he praised Joseph           public feeling against him was bitter, two
Goebbels who, it is generally admitted,            years passed before Knut Hamsun was
ran Hitler a close second as a “stinker.”          brought to trial in 1947.
“Goebbels,” Hamsun declared, “was a                   Despite his advanced age, his defective
              . .
splendid man , a radiant human being               hearing and failing eyesight, Hamsun vig-
quite the opposite of Hitler who had               orously defended himself in court. He
gained control over           In like spirit       emphatically denied that he had ever be-
Hamsun defended the malodorous Nor-                trayed Norway. On the contrary, he as-
wegian traitor, Vidkun Quisling, who, in           serted that he had always sought to pro-
December, 1939, had urged Hitler to at-            mote her welfare. He had done only what
tack Norway, and who during the occupa-            he thought was right. It had been his sin-
tion was a tool of the Germans.s                   cere belief that close association with Ger-
   The enigma of Hamsun’s behavior from            many would foster the happiness and pros-
1940 to 1945 is the more baffling because          perity of Norway. To resist the Germans
in 1905, during the crisis attending the           was, therefore, injurious to the best inter-
dissolution of the Norwegian-Swedish un-           ests of-his country. In his judgment it was
ion, he had followed a strongly patriotic          tantamount to treason. Moreover, it was
line, volunteered for military service, and        also a futile sacrifice of young lives. Un-
even rebuked the revered nationalistic             trained and ill-armed Norwegian recruits
poet, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, for not being         did not have the slightest chance against
sufficiently enthusiastic in his country’s         the invaders. Nor, in the opinion of Ham-
cause.                                             sun, could the Norwegian underground
   Thirty-five years later Hamsun gave aid         hope to achieve anything. With some jus-
and comfort to the plunderers of his father-       tice, Hamsun claimed credit for having
land. Patriotic Norwegians reacted in sor-         made earnest, though often futile, efforts
row and in anger against the author of             to save from the firing squad men who
whom they had long been proud. In the              unwisely had resisted the occupying au-
eyes of a vast majority of his countrymen          thorities. Furthermore, he pointed out, he
Hamsun, during the greatest national crisis        had not joined the Norwegian Nazi party
since 1814, had not only committed trea-           (Nasjonal Samling) .6

166                                                                                 Spring 1965
   But it was on the basis of complete ig-        against the prosecuting attorney and the
norance of any Nazi misdeeds that Ham-            psychiatrists, and protested the treatment
sun made his strongest plea for acquittal.        he had been subjected to during the trial?
He was deaf and, he claimed, consequently         Then in his ninety-first year he published
isolated from the men and events of the           a book, On Weed-choked Paths (Paa Cjen-
Nazi period. “I did not know what was             grodde Stier), which proves conclusively
going on. Nobody told me,” he cried over          that his mental powers were unimpaired.
and over again.l                                  Far from being an apology, the book
   How specious was this plea is glaringly        teems with violent accusations. In master-
shown by the fact that in 1940 Hamsun             fully blended passages of laconic simplic-
had urged his countrymen to submit to the         ity and argumentation, Hamsun presents
Germans on the grounds that his wide              his story of ill-treatment and martyrdom.
reading of newspapers, his extensive knowl-        He portrays himself as the guileless, pa-
edge of Nazi principles, and his varied           triotic old man-a      lamb hunted and torn
experiences in life had made him especial-        by ravenous wolves. Though facts are dis-
ly well qualified to speak. He was an au-         torted, the book, by presenting snatches
thority on Nazism and its promoter, Adolf         of autobiography, becomes a “must” for
Hitler ; he appreciated the benefits Norway        all students of the life and work of Knut
would derive from German control. Anoth-          Hamsun. A man from the north, probably
er refutation of his plea that he was igno-        fictitious, is introduced, and with his aid
rant of Nazi misdeeds can be found in the         the author conjures up word pictures of
fact that Hitler’s blood purge of 1934 and         arctic Norway where he spent his child-
his pogrom against the Jews in November,           hood and youth. The story of hitherto un-
 1938, were widely publicized in Norway.           known episodes from his life as a farm la-
Furthermore, Hamsun’s wife and two sons            borer in North Dakota add to the riches
were members of Nasjonal Samling. A                in this, the last of Hamsun’s publications.
daughter who lived in Germany, his                 In the words of an English reviewer, Pau
 younger son who served as correspondent           Gjengrodde Stier “is a fascinating psy-
 on the Russian front in 1943, and his wife        chological document.”1°
 who spoke German well and visted Ger-                In 1921 The London Times Literary
 many at least four times during the war,          Supplement had written: “In the art of
 must all have kept Hamsun informed.               depicting character Knut Hamsun has
    At his trial the accused steadfastly re-       hardly an equal among living writers. [His
 fused to apologize or to retract anything         books] deal with the soul and will of hu-
 he had said or written about Nazism. He           manity.”ll The query naturally arises, how
 was furious over the psychiatrists’ exami-        could this supremely gifted poet and novel-
 nation, and persistently uncooperative un-        ist, this keen portrayer of “the soul and
 der their questioning. They therefore re-         will of humanity,” go so far astray as to
 ported him senile. On the basis of their          praise the vicious psychopath Adolf Hitler,
 findings the treason charge against him           and accept without dismay Hitler’s actions,
 was dropped because “the accused suffers          including the ghastliest deeds of genocide
 from mental deficiencies brought about by         in recorded history?
 old age.’’8                                          In considering this intricate question
    Hamsun fiercely resented the grounds           one must bear in mind world problems and
 for this verdict. In a long letter to the Nor-    the climate of opinion in the first half of
 wegian state’s attorney he lashed out             the present century. One must also sub-

Modern Age                                                                                167
ject to scrutiny Hamsun the man as well         youth, and early manhood. Let us consider
as Hamsun the author. Rapidly changing          Hamsun the man in that perspective.14
economic, political, and social issues             Before he was three years old Hamsun
brought forth a plethora of nostrums for        was transplanted from his birthplace in
real and imaginary ills. Among these nos-       Gudbrandsdal, a valley in south central
trums the theories of Karl Marx were most       Norway, to the parish of Hamaroy well
prominent. The period between the two           within the arctic circle. His childhood was
world wars was an era of great bewilder-        spent in a region of majestic natural
ment when the old moral order seemingly         grandeur. Here he acquired a deep ap-
was collapsing and the peoples of the world     preciation of nature and its mystery. The
were much attracted by the dictatorships        magic of the arctic summer with mornings
in MOSCOW,    Rome, and Berlin. In the so-      without beginning and evenings without
called free world, voices decried discipline    end, the awesomeness of winter storms,
and inhibition. Such notions were exceed-       and the arctic nights when the sudden out-
ingly distasteful to Knut Hamsun, one who       bursts of the varicolored aurora shot and
had achieved world fame by hard work            flickered across the sky-all these made a
and rigid self-discipline. To him Nazism        lasting impression on the sensitive mind
seemed the way out of the morass of self-       of the gifted boy. The descriptions of na-
indulgence and social anarchy.                  ture in her shifting moods lend vividness *
   Despite his great gifts, Hamsun was          to many of Hamsun’s novels and poems.
strangely ambivalent in character. He was       His lyricism stands forth with special clar-
tyrannical and tender, careless and order-      ity in the bewitchingly lovely poem, “The
ly, penny-pinching and generous.12 While        Isle on the Coastal
morbidly sensitive to adverse criticism                An isle in the ocean
of his own work, he often savagely at-                 With luxuriant strand,
tacked books by other writers and was ex-              Here blossom flowers,
tremely scornful of men of letters who                 Not seen by humans.
mouthed platitudes with an air of pro-                 They watch like strangers
fundity. Yet he gullibly accepted German               And see me land.
philosophical jargon about racial superior-            My heart becomes
ity. A strong individualist, he subscribed             A mystic garden
to the Nazi creed which aimed at reduc-                With flowers like those
                                                       Of the island.
ing the individual to a slave of the state.
With good reason Mrs. Hamsun labels her           Impressions of the economic and social
husband’s character “ ~ o m p I e x . ~ ’ ~ ~   life of northern Norway, especially from
   Literary historians who have analyzed        the province of NordIand7 also Play an im-
Hamsun’s contradictory qualities usually        portant part in the writings of Knut Ham-
                                                sun. This is particularly true of the series
 interpret him in the light of the types that
                                                which centers around Segelfos Town and
 appear in his novels and plays. Laymen,
                                                the trilogy in which August, the wanderer,
 on the other hand, are more inclined to        is the leading               idioms of the
 seek explanations for his actions and opin-    north profoundly colored ~~~~~~3~        re.
 ions in his social background and his ex-      markable and highly personalized style of
 periences in early life. NO modern author      writing. But for all his numerous contacts
 of Hamsun’s standing has undergone so          with and his admiration of arctic Norway,
 many vicissitudes as he did in childhood,      Hamsun never became a true son of the’

168                                                                              Spring 1965
north, “en Nordending.” Neither in the         ucation that ever fell to his lot. Here he
Segelfos nor in the August novels does he      also benefited by his association with the
show love and understanding of the native      children of the local rector.
people of that region. Nor has he a real          Whether to escape the uncle’s tyranny
appreciation of their struggles and achieve-   or because he still felt himself to be a
ments.                                         stranger in the parish of Hamaroy, Knut
   The fact is that both the bitterness and    Pedersen (as he was then named)I8 secured
dislike of the common people which be-         assistance from an uncle in Gudbrandsdal,
came so evident in the closing decades of      and at the age of fourteen went there for
the author’s life, and the haunting sense      his confirmation.
of inferiority which pursued him through          But a year later he was back in Hama-
all his years originated in his early expe-    roy. According to the custom of this north-
rience. His father was a tailor, an occupa-    e m area in those days, the age of fifteen
tion which for some unknown reason was         marked the date of transition from child-
considered ludicrous by the fishermen and      hood to early manhood. That was the year
farmers of northern Norway. Young Knut         when a lad would go for the first time as a
doubtless heard the derogatory ditty which     half-share fisherman to Lofoten. At sixteen
was often chanted in that re,’  uion :         he was reckoned a full-fledged fisherman
                                               and received his full share. But young
       Fifteen tailors weigh a pound           Knut did not conform to the customs of
       With their needle                       the region. Between fifteen and twenty he
       And their thread,                       served as a shoemaker’s apprentice, clerk
       And their iron thrown in.               in a country store, pack peddler, bailips
                                               deputy, and itinerant school teacher.
Moreover, his family circle which included
                                               None of these occupations advanced him
parents, uncles, and grandparents neither
                                               economically or socially, but he learned
mixed with the local inhabitants nor par-
                                               about the people, their racy unaffected
ticipated in the major occupations of the
                                               language, and life in general. He also
area-fishing and seafaring. In HamarSy,
                                               found time to read widely, and decided
as in other places in the north where a
                                               he would become an author. Although the
considerable number of migrants had
                                               novelettes which he published in these
come in the 1860’s from Gudbrandsdal,
                                               years failed to attract attention,17 Knut
the newcomers remained mere landlub-
                                               Pedersen was unshaken in his belief that
bers. In self-defense the Hamsun clan
                                               eventually success would come his way.
drew close together, became a self-con-
                                               The personality and aplomb of the twenty-
tained group, and tried to bolster their
                                               year-old youth so impressed a maecenas
ego with the notion that they were socially    of the north, E. B. Kjerschow Zahl of
superior to their neighbors.
                                               Kjerringoy, that this wealthy merchant
   At the age of nine Knut was “farmed         gave the aspiring poet a thousand crowns,
out’’ to his mother’s brother, financially     a large sum in those days. Hamsun, thus
the most successful member of the family.
                                               assured of the needed leisure, retired to a
This uncle, who was the local postmaster,
                                               quiet place in western Norway to write a
farmed a part of the extensive glebe be-
longing to the parish of Hamaroy. He was       novel.
a tyrant who exploited Knut mercilessly,          His work finished, the young author
fed him scantily, and beat him often. But      took the manuscript to the most famous
here Hamsun received the only formal ed-       publishing firm in Scandinavia, Gyldendal

Modern Age                                                                            169
 in Copenhagen, who rejected it. Still un-    nomically that their only important intellec-
daunted, Knut sought the advice of his        tual efforts were related to the church and
 great hero, Bjornstjerne Bjomson. Again      theology. Most were Lutherans to whom
 discouragement. Bjornson suggested that      Unitarianism was distasteful. The literary
the handsome and personable young man         group with which Hamsun associated was
might try his luck on the stage. Although     neither representative of the bulk of Nor-
not really interested in the theater he took  wegian-Americans nor was it well assimi-
a brief drama course only to experience       lated with American cultural life.20
 another failure. This period in Oslo (then       After four years in the United States
called Kristiania) subjected him to the       Knut Hamsun decided that the New World
soul-searing trials which Hamsun later im-    did not offer him the needed opportunity.
mortalized in his first successful novel,     In 1888, following a decade of frustration,                                    he made another assault on the Scandina-
    These frustrations might have crushed     vian cultural citadel of Copenhagen. Here
 many aspiring writers, but the future No-    he finally met with success. The gifted Ed-
bel prize winner was not an ordinary per-     ward Brandes, brother of Georg Brandes
son. To keep body and soul together Knut      then the Iiterary arbiter of the North, read
Pedersen finally took employment as a         Hamsun’s manuscript of Hunger and told
 roadbuilder. He thus became a navvy          the author, “You have a great future!”21
 (slusk) which is the lowest of the IOW Soon sections of the novel appeared se-
 among Norwegian manual 1ab0rers.l~            rially in a Danish magazine, N y Jord. It
    Knut Pedersen then decided, like thou-    was an instant success. Reviewers in Co-
 sands of others at the time, to try his luck penhagen and Kristiania vied with one an-
‘in America. Though he never intended to      other in hailing its anonymous author as
become an American, he hoped to win a         a writer of genius. In the spring of 1890
place as a man of letters among the grow-     Hunger appeared in book form, and it was
 ing Norwegian population in the United       then revealed that the author was Knut
 States. Again he failed. During his two      HamsunT2
sojourns in America, 1882-1884, and 1886-         His name had first become known a
 1888, he clerked in a small town store,       year earlier when his book on intellectual
 worked in a lumberyard, labored as a har-     life in America (Fra det Moderne Amer-
vest hand on a North Dakota farm, was a        ikas Aandsliv) was published. It was a bit-
 streetcar conductor in Chicago, served as     ter satirical arraignment of the culture of
 secretary to Kristofer Janson, a Norwe-      that vast country. Years later Hamsun ad-
 gian Unitarian minister in Minneapolis,      mitted that “I as a common laborer never
and held sundry other odd jobs. It was in     had a glimpse of the world of the [Amer-
Minneapolis that Pedersen adopted Ham-         ican] upper c l a s s e ~ . But~in 1889 this lack
                                                                           ~’ ~
sun as his name. There he found a congen-     of knowledge did not prevent the thirty-
ial literary coterie none of whom, however,   year-old author from ridiculing and writ-
enjoyed much distinction.                     ing pontifically about a subject quite un-
    Small in number and tom by factions,      known to him.
the Norwegian element in the United               The reasons for Hamsun’s rashness may
States did not develop any significant lit-   be considered from several angles. At the
erary movement. The vast majority of the      time when Hamsun was in the United
immigrants from Norway were so fully OC-      States, Scandinavian immigrants were of-
 cupied trying to establish themselves eco-   ten treated with condescension and even

170                                                                                 Spring 1965
 derision by the “Yankees” (Americans of              He was always sensitive on points touching
 colonial stock) . Terms like “Scandihoo-             his fame, so this slowness intensified his
vians” and Norwegian or Swedish “square-              dislike of the English-speaking countries.
heads” were commonly used in the Middle               His anglophobia made him sympathetic to-
 West. These expressions naturally aroused            ward the idea of a greater Germany wheth-
keen resentment and later influenced Ham-             er that of Emperor William I1 or of Adolf
sun when he sought to portray American                Hitler.
culture. Furthermore, because the 1880’s                 Fame did not alter Hamsun’s habit of
witnessed a period of very heavy Norwe-               attacking the great men of his day. On the
gian emigration to the United States, peo-            contrary he enlarged his sphere to include
ple in Norway were concerned over the ef-             men in fields where his competence to
fects of “the America fever” upon their               judge was nil. W. E. Gladstone, the Eng-
 country. They welcomed efforts to deni-              lish Liberal leader who was described by
grate a land which drew off tens of thou-             his political opponent, Lord Salisbury, as
 sands of Norway’s young men and women.                 possessing the most brilliant intellect ever
 They accepted without question the opin-             devoted to the State since Parliamentary
 ion that although “America was well ad-               Government began” was labeled by Ham-
vanced technologically [she] was quite be-            sun “the century’s greatest cow.”z6 Ham-
 hindhand ~ u l t u r a l l y . ” ~ ~ have this im-   sun extended his warfare even to the
pression confirmed by one who presuma-                Deity. The play, Vendt the Monk (1902),
bly knew America and who wrote wittily                lashes out against the Almighty for His
and persuasively about that country was               enslavement of mankind, and for man’s
pleasing not only to Norwegians but to                misery and degradation.
 many other Scandinavians as well. The book              In his forties Hamsun extolled the
 was both praised and criticized, but wheth-          young. “Honor youth” was then one of his
er lauded or attacked, it gained for the au-          favorite slogans?‘ He described fifty as a
thor his main objective-publicity.             And    climacteric beyond which man’s judgment
with the publication of Hunger Hamsun’s               and creative power gradually waned. But
many years of compulsive writing at last              after Hamsun himself had passed the fate-
bore real fruit. Victory had come through             ful half-century mark, this axiom was for-
endurance.                                            gotten. And, indeed, he provided a devas-
   But the financial returns on his books             tating refutation of the theory by publish-
were small. Years of practice in Norway               ing his greatest novel, Growth of the Soil,
and in America had given Hamsun an ex-                when he was fifty-eight.
cellent technique as a public speaker. Lec-              Throughout his adult life anglophobia
ture tours proved profitable now, and since           was one of Hamsun’s obsessions. Among
he attacked such literary giants as Ibsen             the evidences of British misdeeds which
and Tolstoy, the lectures also brought him            he steadfastly cherished were the British
prominently before the p ~ b l i c . ~ 5              bombardment of Copenhagen, 1807, the
   By the end of the 1890’s Hamsun ranked             blockade of Norway, 1807-1814, and the
among the foremost of the younger Scan-               so-called Bodo Affair, 1818-1820. Ham-
dinavian authors, and he had been discov-             sun knew by heart and often recited Ibsen’s
ered by the outside world as well, especial-          poem, Terje Viken, which relates the story
ly by Germany and Russia. The slowness                of the capture of a Norwegian pilot as he
with which America and Britain afforded               sought to break through the British block-
Hamsun recognition rankled in his mind.               ade and bring food from Denmark for his

Modern Age                                                                                      171
 starving family, The Bodo Affair was an        Hamaroy. The changes were not to his
 unsavory story about British smuggling        liking. Hamsun, the successful author who
 activities in northern Norway, the arrest     years earlier had been a mere proletarian,
 of the smugglers and their breaking out       admired the local aristocracy which had
 of the Bodo jail, their flight to England,    bccn prominent in his youth. In Segelfos
 and their securing by false testimony the     Town it is the newly-rich Theodore and
 aid of the British government to collect a    the bishop who had risen from the ranks
 heavy indemnity for alleged injuries.28The    of the common man of whom Hamsun is
 recollection of this episode was green in     most scornful. As the twentieth century
 the mind of many at the time Hamsun was       advanced he found the new democratic de.
 a shoemaker’s apprentice at Bodo, and it      velopments and the prevailing climate of
was later used in the debates over a sep-      opinion more and more distasteful. I n his
 arate Norwegian foreign service which         greatest novel he preached that industrial-
brought about the dissolution of the Nor-      ization was an evil, and that people should
 wegian-Swedish union, debates in which        go “back to the soil.” Near the town of
Hamsun took an active part.                    Grimstad in southern Norway he strove
    His stay in America strengthened the       to develop a landed estate. He was especial-
author’s antipathy toward Britain. In the      ly distressed by what he conceived to be
 1880’s dislike of that country was wide-      the spread of indiscipline. The desire to re-
spread in the United States. Moreover, in      verse the tendency was one factor in his
Minnesota where the majority of the            support of Nazi ideology.
 “Yankees” were of English descent, their         But basically the most potent element in
disdain of Scandinavians caused the of-        persuading Hamsun to accept Hitler’s
fended immigrants, by some curious in-         nihilistic doctrines was his deep-seated
version of reasoning, to be hostile to Eng-    feeling of inadequacy which his success as
 land, the ancestral home of the Yankees.      an author never dispelled. Jealous through-
   During the Anglo-Boer war (1899-            out his life of those who had obtained aca-
1902) Norwegian sympathy-shared          by    demic training, he was especially bitter to-
Hamsun-was with the Boers. Though he           ward teachers educated in the state nor-
had fewer Norwegian supporters, he was         mal schools.30
even more violently anti-British during           In common with many people in Ger-
World War I. Viewing the extent of the         many and elsewhere who were disturbed
British Empire he compared it with “a rat      by feelings of their own inferiority, Knut
sitting on the bacon.” Germany, on the         Hamsun sought refuge in racist theories
other hand, was to him a tree rich with        which emphasized the special virtues of.
luscious fruit. It is therefore not surpris-   their own racial group. With enthusiasm
ing that he considered the Versailles          he embraced the cult of pan-Germanism.
Treaty a crime and a disgrace to human-        The incomprehensible blather of Alfred.
it~.2~                                         Rosenberg about the superior qualities of
   In addition to Hamsun’s hostility toward    the Germans, Hamsun accepted as scientific
the happenings in world affairs, develop-      fact, and he believed firmly that by close
ments in his own country also created in       association with the Germans, Norwegian
his mind a deep animosity to events and        culture and intellectual life would be much
ideas. The province of Nordland under-         benefited. All this led him to welcome the
went a rapid transformation in 1911-1917,      German occupation of Norway.
years when Hamsun was a landowner in              During World War I1 the anglophobia

I72                                                                             Spring 1965
of Knut Hamsun reached its height. In                   happen to the myth Hamsun invented?
 1941 he wrote to his daughter, Cecilia:                   One last point should however not be
“Next year the war will be over and light               forgotten. Famous men of literature have
will dominate everywhere. This will be a                often been far off the beam when they
joy! England will be crushed, and then                  sought to guide their compatriots in the
my soul will rejoice. Europe will be prop-              fields of politics and statesmanship. Wit-
erly organized-my      God, how welcome                 ness the Britons Carlyle, Swinburne, and
this will be!’’31                                       Tennyson. Goethe, the greatest among
   To his distress it was Germany, not                  German writers, “welcomed the genius
Britain, which was crushed. Knut Hamsun                 and saluted the conquests of Napoleon,”
was called to account for what he had said              regarded by others as the arch enemy of
and written while his country was under                 his country. And of the Holy Alliance
German domination. He was tried for trea-               Goethe said that “nothing greater or more
son, and it was then that an unrepentant                useful for mankind has been in~ented.”~’
Hamsun sought to create a myth about                    But these fatuous remarks have long been
himself in his autobiographical memoir,
                                                        ignored in the assessment of the famous
Paa Cjengrodde Stier. In this he had a
                                                        German author.
famous if not quite parallel precedent.
Napoleon I had done the same thing while                   Something of the same kind may happen
a prisoner at St. Helena. A generation af-              in Knut Hamsun’s case-his political va-
ter his death millions of Frenchmen ac-                 garies overlooked, the novels and poems of
cepted the Napoleonic legend as histori-                a truly creative author, “a giant among
cal fact. Will something of the same kind               men,” remembered.

     ’Sigurd Hoel, “ b u t Hamsun,” in Yinduet, VI,        *‘The London Times Literary Supplement, April
1952, p. 33.                                            14, 1950.
     ’Quoted, ibid., p. 34.                                 Sbid., Feb. 10, 1921.
     ‘Christian Gierloff, Knut Hamsun’s Egen Rost           “Tore Hamsun, Knut Hamsun (Oslo, 19591, pas-
 (Oslo, 1961), p. 115.                                  sim. I n 1947 when Knut Hamsun’s wife was inter-
     ‘Ibid. In his letter Hamsun asserts that Hitler    viewed about her husband, Hamsun was so angered
was the father of Mrs. Goebbels‘ sixth child, a boy.    that she had talked with the psychiatrists about him
     6Hamsun called Quisling a man of integrity,        that he broke off all relations with her for three
“The character trait Knut valued the most, whether      years. Marie Hamsun, pp. 81-82, 109-11.
in man or woman.” Marie Hamsun, Under Gullreg-              ‘“bid., pp. 5-6.
nen (Oslo, 1959), p. 64. See also Sverre Hartman,           ”The childhood and youth of the writer of this
“Quislings Konferanse med den Tyske Overkom-            paper were spent near Bodo in Nordland. He knew
mando,” in Samtiden, LVI, 1956, pp. 317-23.             well the shop where Hamsun served as a shoemak-
     T h e validity of this point is questionable be-   er’s apprentice and the hotel where in 1915 he
cause Knut Hamsun was not a “joiner.” He even           wrote Segelfos Town. Both shop and hotel were
refused to be a member of the society of Norwegian      destroyed by the Germans in 1940. For pictures of
authors. Gierloff, p. 81.                               them see Einar Skavl’an, Knut Hamsun, 2nd e d
    ’Gierlijff, p. 141.                                  (Oslo, 1934), pp. 40-41, 249. Emigrating to the
    ‘Quoted, New York Times, June 26, 1948.             United States in 1906 the writer met some of Ham-
    ’Gierloff, 13338. For a defense of the psychia-     sun’s American friends. He also learned about the
trists’ reports see Gabriel Langfeldt, “Dommen over     attitude of Yankees toward Scandinavian immi-
Knut Hamsun,” in Vinduet, VI, 1952, pp. 175-77.         grants in the 1880’s. The writer’s father, horn in

Modern Age                                                                                              173
1832, was thoroughly familiar with conditions in            z3Knut Hamsun, Artikler, selected by Francis
Nordland in Hamsun's youth and with the views           Bull (Oslo, 1939), p. 226. In 1929 he repudiated the
on migrants from Gudbrandsdal.                          opinions on America presented in his first book.
        For original see Skavlan, p. 201. The isle is   Ibid., pp. 222-27.
douhtless "Utrost" (Outer Rbst), a blessed island           T h r . Collins in introduction to H. Tambs
traditionally located somewhere near the western-       Lyche, Lysstreif over Livsproblcmer (Kristiania,
                                                               .   .     .
most of the Lofoten island chain.                       19031, p. x.
    'sHamsun's father was Peder Pedersen. The nov-                                            B
                                                            "Sten Sparre Nilson, ''Hamstin P Turn6 og i
elist vas known successively as Knut Pedersen, h u t
Pederson, Knut I-Iamsund, and finally Knut Ham-
                                                        Paris." in Sumtiden. LXM, 1960. DD. 533-38.
                                                            "Quoted, Gierloff, p. 43.

sun. Hamsund was the name of the parental farm              "Knut Hamsun, Artikler, pp. 72-109.
in Hamaroy.                                                 =Gierloff, pp. 35, 52; Tore Hamsun, p. 120.
     "Skavlan, pp. 41-55.                                   '8Marie Hamsun, pp. 3435.
    "Ibid., pp. 61-65. The novel, Frida, was never          "Arild Haaland, "Knut Hamsun," in Humsun
published.                                              og Hoe1 (Bergen, 1957), p. 49. A Norwegian train-
     ''Ibid., pp. 68-78.                                ing school for teachers is called seminarium, and
     "For Hamsun in America see ibid., pp. 79-106;      its graduates seminarister. Even in old age H m u
Ramus B. Anderson, Life Story (Madison, W s       i-     raved against them saying "A seminarist is 8
 consin, 19151, pp. 30410; Carl G. 0. Hansen, My
                                                        swine" (En seminarist er et svin). Quoted, Gier-
Minneapolis (Minneapolis, 1956), pp. 99-109; and
Kristofer Janson, Htiad Jeg Har Oplevet (&isti-         loff, p. 17.
ania. 19131, pp. 219-26.                                     "Quoted, Marie Hamsun, p. 35.
     "Skavlan, p. 108.                                      "Quoted, H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe
      9bid., pp. 109-12.                                 (Boston, 1939), p. 901.

 174                                                                                               Spring 1965

To top