Knut Hamsun: Norwegian Author, winner of 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature
Declared Insane - in order for Norway to avoid
confronting and debating the issues he raised.
Knut Hamsun (August 4, 1859 – February 19, 1952) was a Norwegian author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, for his novel The Growth of the Soil (Norwegian Markens Grøde). He was praised by King Haakon VII of Norway as Norway's soul.
Knut Hamsun was born as Knud Pedersen in Lom, Norway in Gudbrandsdal. He was the fourth son (of seven children) of Peder Pedersen and Tora Olsdatter. When he was three, the family moved to Hamsund, Hamarøy in Nordland. They were poor and an uncle had invited them to farm his land for him.
At age nine, Knut was separated from his family and lived with his uncle Hans Olsen, who needed help with the post office he ran. Olsen used to beat and starve his nephew, and Hamsun later stated that his chronic nervous difficulties were due to the way his uncle treated him.
In 1874, he finally escaped back to Lom, Norway. In the next five years, he would pick up any job just for the sake of the money. That included being a store clerk, peddler, shoemaker's apprentice, an assistant to a sheriff, and an elementary school teacher.
At 17, he became an apprentice to a ropemaker, and at about the same time he started to write. He spent several years in America, traveling and working at various jobs, and published his impressions under the title Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889).
Working all those odd jobs paid off, and he published his first book about it: Den Gaadefulde: En Kjærlighedshistorie fra Nordland (The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway, 1877).
In his second novel Bjørger (1878), he attempted to imitate Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's writing style of the Icelandic saga narrative. The melodramatic story follows a poet Bjørger and his love for Laura. This book was published under the pseudonym Knud Pedersen Hamsund. This book later served as the basis for Victoria: En Kærligheds Historie (1898; translated as Victoria: A Love Story, 1923).
He was detained by police on June 14, 1945 (for the commission of acts of treason) and was committed to a hospital (Grimstad sykehus) allegedly "due to his advanced age", according to Einar Kringlen (a proffessor and M.D.).
In 1947 he was tried in Grimstad, and fined. Norway's supreme court reduced the fine — from Norwegian kroner 575 000 to 325 000.
Knut Hamsun died on February 19, 1952, aged 92, in Grimstad, Norway. His ashes are buried in the garden of his home at Nørholm.
Thomas Mann described him "as a descendant of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche". Arthur Koestler was a fan of his love stories. H. G. Wells praised Markens Grøde (1917) for which Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was a fan of modern subjectivism, use of flashbacks, his use of fragmentation, and his lyricism. And Charles Bukowski called him the greatest writer to have ever lived.
Hamsun first received wide acclaim with his 1890 novel Hunger (Sult). The semiautobiographical work described a young writer's descent into near madness as a result of hunger and poverty in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania (modern name Oslo). To many, the novel presages the writings of Franz Kafka and other twentieth-century novelists with its internal monologue and bizarre logic.
A theme to which Hamsun often returned is that of the perpetual wanderer, an itinerant stranger (often the narrator) who shows up and insinuates himself into the life of small rural communities. This wanderer theme is central to the novels Mysteries, Pan, Under the Autumn Star, The Last Joy, Vagabonds, and others.
Hamsun’s prose often contains rapturous depictions of the natural world, with intimate reflections on the Norwegian woodlands and coastline. For this reason, he has been linked with the spiritual movement known as pantheism. Hamsun saw mankind and nature united in a strong, sometimes mystical bond. This connection between the characters and their natural environment is exemplified in the novels Pan, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, and the epic Growth of the Soil, "his monumental work" credited with securing him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920.
A fifteen-volume edition of his complete works was published in 1954. In 2009, to mark the 150-year anniversary of his birth, a new 27-volume edition of his complete works was published, including short stories, poetry, plays, and articles not included in the 1954 edition. For this new edition, all of Hamsun's works underwent slight linguistic modifications in order to make them more accessible to contemporary Norwegian readers. Fresh English translations of two of his major works, Growth of the Soil and Pan, were published in 1998.
Hamsun’s works remain popular. In 2009, a Norwegian biographer stated, "We can’t help loving him, though we have hated him all these years ... That’s our Hamsun trauma. He’s a ghost that won’t stay in the grave."
In younger years, Hamsun had anarchist leanings of an anti-egalitarian, racially conscious bent. In The Cultural Life of America (1889), he expressed his fear of miscegenation: "The Negros are and will remain Negros, a nascent human form from the tropics, rudimentary organs on the body of white society. Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto studfarm."
Following the Second Boer War, he adopted increasingly conservative views. He also came to be known as a prominent advocate of Germany and German culture, as well as a rhetorical opponent of British imperialism and the Soviet Union. During both the First and the Second World War, he publicly expressed his sympathy for Germany.
His sympathies were heavily influenced by the impact of the Boer War, seen by Hamsun as British oppression of a small people, as well as by his dislike of the English and distaste for the USA. During the 1930s, most of the Norwegian right-wing newspapers and political parties were sympathetic to various degrees to fascist regimes in Europe, and Hamsun came to be a prominent advocate of such views. During WWII, he continued to express his support for Germany, and his public statements led to controversy, in particular in the immediate aftermath of the war. When WWII started, he was over 80 years old, almost deaf and his main source of information was the conservative newspaper Aftenposten, which had been sympathetic to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany from the beginning. He suffered two intracranial hemorrhages during the war.
Hamsun wrote several newspaper articles in the course of the war, famously stating in 1940 that "the Germans are fighting for us, and now are crushing England's tyranny over us and all neutrals". In 1943, he sent Germany’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. His biographer Thorkild Hansen interpreted this as part of the strategy to get an audience with Hitler. Hamsun was eventually invited to meet with Hitler; during the meeting, he complained about the German civilian administrator in Norway, Josef Terboven, and ask that imprisoned Norwegian citizens be released, enraging Hitler. Otto Dietrich describes the meeting in his memoirs as the only time that another person was able to get a word in edgewise with Hitler. He attributes the cause to Hamsun's deafness. Regardless, Dietrich notes that it took Hitler three days to get over his anger. Hamsun also on other occasions helped Norwegians who had been imprisoned for resistance activities and try to influence German policies in Norway.
Nevertheless, a week after Hitler's death, Hamsun wrote a eulogy for Hitler, saying “He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Following the end of the war, angry crowds burned his books in public in major Norwegian cities and Hamsun was confined for several months in a psychiatric hospital.
Hamsun was forced to undergo a psychiatric examination, which concluded that he had "permanently impaired mental faculties", and on that basis the charges of treason were dropped. Instead, a civil liability case was raised against him, and in 1948 he had to pay a ruinous sum to the Norwegian government of 325,000 kroner for his alleged membership in Nasjonal Samling and for the moral support he gave to the Germans, but was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Whether he was a member of Nasjonal Samling or not and whether his mental abilities were impaired is a much debated issue even today. Hamsun stated he was never a member of any political party. He wrote his last book Paa giengrodde Stier (On Overgrown Paths) in 1949, a book many take as evidence of his functioning mental capabilities. In it, he harshly criticizes the psychiatrists and the judges, and in his own words proves that he is not mentally ill.
The Danish author Thorkild Hansen investigated the trial and wrote the book The Hamsun Trial (1978), which created a storm in Norway. Among other things Hansen stated: "If you want to meet idiots, go to Norway," as he felt that such treatment of the old Nobel Prize-winning author was outrageous. In 1996 the Swedish director Jan Troell based the movie Hamsun on Hansen's book. In Hamsun, the Swedish actor Max von Sydow plays Knut Hamsun; his wife, Marie, is played by the Danish actress Ghita Nørby.
The difficult case of Knut Hamsun (1859 – 1952) and On Overgrown Paths (1949)
Hamsun supported Germany during WWI and Hitler after 1933, throughout the Occupation 1940-45. He was sympathetic to Quisling’s NS party; and believed in the notion of Germanic Empire.
His literary views were rooted in the 19th century: rural and nationalistic, opposed industrialism, urbanization and commercialism; fanatic Anglophobia, hated of “English arrogance” and colonialism,, pro-German [common in 19th Century], Germany represented rural agrarianism and birthplace of Romanticism.
“Literary” view of History and Politics: Nature (Germany) vs. Civilization (England); Rural agrarian vs. modern capitalism
Hamsun’s works were popular in Germany as Heimatdichtung (romantic celebration of peasant farmer’s relationship to the soil.
Events of Arrest & Evidence Submitted to Trial
May 26, 1945, 86-year old Hamsun and his wife (Marie) house arrest at Nørholm.
June 14, 1945, Hamsun taken to hospital in Grimstad (Marie to prison); then to old people’s home in Landvik, then to Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo for examination by Dr. Langfeldt, who concluded that Hamsun had "Permanently impaired mental faculties". He was therefore not prosecuted for treason.
Evidence presented: membership in NS, newspaper articles in support of occupying
forces. He was fined $80,00 for economic collaboration (575.000 crowns). He appealed his sentence which was reduced in June 1948. The fine left the family financially destitute. On Overgrown Paths ends with verdict of Surpreme Court, June 21, 1948.
In 1949 he publishes, On Overgrown Paths wherein he demonstrates his sanity, his “genius”, and begins process of rehabilitation of Hamsun as the writer.
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