Editor’s Note: The following sketch of Knut Hamsun’s life and work should be supplemented by Mark Deavin’s discussion here of Hamsun’s greatest book, Growth of The Soil, for which he won the Nobel prize for literature. See also Robert Ferguson’s biography Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. Also noteworthy is Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essays and Stories, 1885 – 1949.
Knut Hamsun has had a decisive impact on the course of twentieth century literature, both in Europe and America, yet he is little discussed let alone honored even in his native Norway.
Ernest Hemingway tried to emulate him as did Henry Miller, who called Hamsun “the Dickens of my generation.” Thomas Mann wrote, “never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one so worthy of it.” Herman Hesse called Hamsun his favorite author. Admired by H. G. Wells, Kafka, and Brecht, Hamsun always enjoyed a great following not only in Germany but also in Russia, lauded especially by Maxim Gorky. Even inside the Communist State Hamsun continued to be published despite his politics. For Hamsun saw in National Socialist Germany an attempt to reconnect man with the soil in the face of industrialization and materialism.
Hamsun’s influence on literature will continue, even if his name remains obscured.
Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen of an impoverished peasant family of seven children on August 4th, 1859. His father was a farmer and a tailor; his mother’s lineage was of Viking nobility. Knut had a hard upbringing on his uncle’s farm where he was sent when he was nine. But his uncle also ran the local library, which gave Knut the chance to begin his self-education.
Knut left his uncle’s farm in 1873, and over the next few years worked at a variety of jobs, laboring, teaching, and clerical, as he widely journeyed about.
At 18 he had published his first novel called The Enigmatic One, a love story. This was followed by a poem A Reconciliation. He then paid for the publication of another novel Bjorger. But acknowledgment as a writer was a decade away as there was little interest in his peasant tales.
In 1882 Knut traveled to the USA, joining the great Norwegian emigration to that country. Between numerous jobs he was able to get some newspaper articles published and began a series of lectures on authors among the Norwegian community. From this early start, Hamsun wrote without moral judgment, as an observer of life. He was the first to develop the novel based on the psychology of characters. Hamsun wrote of what he saw and felt particularly identifying with the workers and the tramps. But he was soon disillusioned with America and had a low regard for its lack of real culture.
Hamsun’s first major literary work came in 1888 when he succeeded in getting published a short story in a magazine, which was to form part of his novel, Hunger. The story gained him access to the literary scene in Copenhagen. Hamsun became a celebrity among the young intellectuals. He was invited to lecture before university audiences. He was commissioned to write a book on America in 1889 setting aside the completion of Hunger. The result was The Cultural Life of Modern America. Here he attacked the crass materialism of the country. His contempt for democracy as a form of despotism is expressed: his abhorrence for its leveling nature and mob politics. America is a land where the highest morality is money, where the meaning of art is reduced to cash value. He also expresses his misgivings about the presence of Africans in the USA. The Civil war is described as a war against the aristocracy by northern capitalists. He writes:
Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto stud farm.
Hunger appeared in mid 1890. It has been described as one of the great novels of urban alienation. Like much of his writing it is partly autobiographical. It centers on a young budding writer trying to fend off poverty, wandering the streets in rags, but in some odd way enjoying the experiences despite the hardship. Through an act of will the character maintains his identity. This was perhaps the first novel to make the workings of the mind the central theme. It was a genre he was to continue experimenting with over the next ten years. He contended against contemporary psychology that states that individuals are not dominated by a single personality type. Instead they have a complex of types that are often not integrated. He wrote of his aim for literature:
I will therefore have contradictions in the inner man considered as a quite natural phenomenon, and I dream of a literature with characters in which their very lack of consistency is their basic characteristic.
Hamsun’s next great novel of the 1890s was Mysteries, virtually a self-portrait. One reviewer described Hamsun as expressing “the wildest paradoxes,” a hatred of the bourgeoisie academics and the mass. The principal character, Nagel, is presented in the form of free flowing thought associations and a stream of consciousness.
Editor Lynge is a thinly veiled attack on an antagonistic and influential newspaper editor. Here Hamsun identifies himself as “a radical who belongs to no party, but is an individual in the extreme.” The book caused uproar among literary circles, but sold well.
Having outraged the literary establishment, Hamsun next set about critiquing the younger set of artists as arrogant and talentless wastrels in Shallow Soil. Here Hanka Tidemand, a liberated and modern woman of the type detested by Hamsun, finds her true nature back with her hard working husband and children, after an affair with an artist. She realizes her mistaken course, on the verge of divorce, when she sees her children. Here Hamsun sets out his constant theme of rediscovering one’s roots in the simple life, in family and children.
The Kareno trilogy of plays (At the Gates of the Kingdom, Evening Glow, and The Game of Life) focuses Hamsun’s growing anti-democratic sentiment in the character of Ivar Kareno, a young philosopher who states:
I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.
Hamsun had become a celebrity, cheered in the streets by crowds although he despised the publicity and public attention. Traveling to Russia he finds to his dismay the American type of modernity and industrialism even under the Communists. Traveling on to Turkey he finds more to admire in the “ancient races,” having left
. . . the life of chatter and cackle behind.
They smile and are silent. Maybe it’s best that way. The Koran has created an attitude toward life which cannot be debated, or discussed at meetings. The attitude is simply this:
happiness is to survive: afterward things will be better. Fatalism.
Such a rejection of the modern rationalist spirit of Europe and America was “simple, like iron.” Likewise his admiration for the simplicity of the Russian who “still knows how to obey.”
Hamsun’s poem Letter to Byron in Heaven is regarded as one of his most radical writings. He appeals to Lord Byron to return and save society from degeneration, democracy and feminism.
In 1934 Hamsun wrote an article, “Wait and See,” in which he attacked the opponents of National Socialist Germany, and sarcastically asked if a return of Communists, Jews, and Bruning to Germany is preferable.
In April 1940 the Germans occupied Norway to secure the sea route, after the British had on several occasions breached Norwegian neutrality, including the mining of Norway’s territorial waters.
Hamsun wrote in Vidkun Quisling’s newspaper that he hoped Germany would protect Norway from Britain in the West and Communism in the East. Ironically, Quisling, his very name becoming synonymous with ‘traitor.’ was the only politician who had campaigned before the war for a strong defense capability, and was particularly pro-British, having been honored by the British Government for looking after British interests in Russia. He sought an alliance of Nordic nations including Germany and Britain, against Communism. The only strong resistance against the German invasion came from a garrison commanded by an officer who belonged to the Quisling party. The King and Government quickly fled, leaving Norway without a Government. Quisling stepped in to fill the void as the only political figure willing to try and look after Norwegian interests under the occupation. He declared himself Minister President, but because he was not a pliant tool he did not enjoy the confidence of the German military authorities. He was soon forced to resign in favor of an administrative council under German control, but eventually regained a measure of authority.
Meanwhile, Hamsun urged Norwegians to rally behind Quisling so that some form of sovereignty could be restored. He described Quisling as “more than a politician, he is a thinker, a constructive spirit.” It was a view that was to be expressed after the war by British journalist Ralph Hewins, who had himself done his share during the war to besmirch Quisling’s name. Hamsun’s longest wartime article appeared in the German language Berlin-Tokyo-Rome periodical in February 1942. He wrote:
Europe does not want either the Jew or their gold, neither the Americans nor their country.
Despite Hamsun’s pro-German sentiment he championed the rights of his countrymen, including those who resisted the German occupation. He attempted in intercede for the writer Ronald Fangen, and many others, who had been arrested by the Gestapo. In 1943 Hamsun and his wife accepted the invitation of Goebbels to visit Germany. Goebbels wrote of Hamsun as being “the embodiment of what an epic writer should be.” Hamsun was equally impressed and sent Goebbels the Nobel medal he had been awarded, which Goebbels accepted as Hamsun’s “expression of solidarity with our battle for a new Europe, and a happy society.” Whilst en route to Norway from Germany, Hamsun met Hitler, a meeting which did not go well, as Hamsun took the opportunity to condemn the military administration of Norway which had rendered Quisling powerless. However, Hamsun continued to support Germany and expressed his pride in a son joining the Norwegian Waffen SS. In 1944 he visited a Panzer division and toured a U-Boat. Hamsun received his 85th birthday greetings from Hitler.
In 1945 a stroke forced Hamsun to quiet his activities. But with Hitler’s death Hamsun defiantly wrote a tribute for the press:
I am not worthy to speak his name out loud. Nor do his life and his deeds warrant any kind of sentimental discussion. He was a warrior, a warrior of mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reforming nature of the highest order, and his fate was to arise in a time of unparalleled barbarism, which finally failed him. Thus might the average western European regard Hitler? We, his closest supporters, now bow our heads at his death.
Membership of Quisling’s party was declared a criminal offense and Hamsun’s sons Tore and Arild were among the first of 90,000 to be arrested. Marie and Knut were arrested a few weeks later. Due to his age, at 86, Hamsun was sent to a hospital rather than prison, although the stress and treatment struck considerably at his still quite good health. He was defiant and stated he would have assisted the Germans more if he could.
He was sent to an old folks home where he was a popular guest. However, prosecuting Norway’s leading cultural figure, like America’s dealing with Ezra Pound for treason, was an embarrassing matter. Consequently he spent 119 days in a psychiatric clinic. The psychiatrists found in him, as in the characters of his novel’s, a complex interplay of traits, but the most prominent of all they described was his “absolute honesty.” The conclusion was that Hamsun was not insane but that he was mentally impaired. However, a reading of his autobiographical On Overgrown Paths, written amidst the threats of prosecution and the interrogations, shows him to be perfectly lucid. Hamsun, as his last writing shows, although deaf and going blind retained his mental faculties impressively, along with a certain fatalism and humor.
Although the Attorney General opted not to proceed against Hamsun, the Crown wished to try him as a member of the National Samlung Party run by Quisling. To Hamsun the action at least meant that he was being officially acknowledged as of sound mind. He was fined 425,000 kroner.
With ruinous fines hanging over them the Hamsuns returned to Norholm. On appeal the fine was reduced to 325,000 kroner. Tore was also fined, and his brother Arild was jailed until 1949 for his membership of the Norwegian Waffen SS. Marie was released from jail in 1948.
Hamsun’s On Overgrown Paths was published in 1949 and became an immediate best seller, although Hamsun ended his days in poverty on his farm. He died in his sleep on nineteenth February 1952.
Chapter 5 of K. R. Bolton, Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism (Luton, England: Luton Publications, 2003).