Knut Hamsun was born 154 years ago today. A Norwegian author, poet, dramatist, and social critic, he is considered one of the most innovative literary stylists of the twentieth century, pioneering psychological novels that used stream of consciousness and interior monologue. His writing influenced many 20th century authors, including Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Maxim Gorky, Stefan Zweig, Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, and Ernest Hemingway.
Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen Hamsund in Lom on 4 August 1859. He was the fourth son of seven children by Pedter Pedersen, a tailor, and Tora Olsdatter. The family was poor, and moved to Hamsund when Knut was three to farm his uncle's land.
At the age of nine Hamsun was sent to live with his maternal uncle, Hans Olsen, who used him to help him run a post office. Olsen fell under the influence of Pastor Lars Oftedal, then collecting souls, and Knut became a focus of concern. He beat and starved his nephew until the latter finally ran away in 1874. Hamsun would later express disdain for both Oftedal and Olsen, whose noxious influence he deemed to have blighted his childhood.
Back in Lom, between 1874-1879 he worked odd jobs to support himself and it was at this time that he began writing. Erasmus Zahn, a tradesman who owned the island of Kjerringøy supported him financially during these lean years. Zahn represented the old, traditional nordland, which was Hamsun's ideal society, and Hansum would later model his fictional character Mack after him.
Hamsun then went to Hardanger, where he was spurned as a writer. He did, however, take lessons in public speaking. Later he would be remembered for his gripping oratory. He next spent an exiguous winter in Kristiania (Oslo), which served as the basis for his celebrated novel, Hunger. This is a truly grim and somewhat disturbed work about a young writer attempting to make his way with the pen while money stubbornly eludes him. After this, he was employed in road construction.
Funded by a benefactor and armed with a letter of introduction to Professor Rasmus B. Anderson, of the University of Wisconsin, Hamsun sailed to America in 1882. Anderson, however, saw no promise in him as a poet and advised him to become a manual worker. For the next two years Hamsun did various jobs in the Mid West, until, in 1884, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and returned to Norway. The diagnosis proved incorrect, however, and he found himself restored to health by the time he reached Norway.
Hamsun managed to get some of his work published during this next period, which is also when, due to a printer's error, he dropped the 'd' from his surname. He liked the cock up and embraced it.
Hamsun returned to the United States in 1886. He settled in Chicago and worked as a horse-drawn carriage conductor. So absent-minded and in his thoughts was he that he, who was also near-sighted, proved a disaster in this job: he missed streets, he gave the wrong change, and he forgot to charge his passengers. Eventually, the company inspectors caught up with him.
Hamsun cobbled together a living doing other jobs, and by 1888 he'd had enough. To raise funds for his boat fare back to Norway, he organised a lecture at the Dania Hall in Minneapolis. Not yet 30 and extremely outspoken, he lambased America's so-called freedom, materialism, morals, and intellectual life. The lecture served as the basis of a book, The Spirital Life of Modern America, which would be published after returning to Europe. Those in attendance were amused and he raised $40. This being short of what he required, his friends supplied the rest.
While crossing the ocean he encountered Prof Anderson. The latter expressed surprise that Hamsun was still alive. After a brief exchange, he asked Hamsun about a black ribbon on his lapel, to which the Norseman replied he was mourning the Haymarket anarchists. Anderson alerted the captain and then, upon debarking in Copehagen, reported Hamsun to the police. For several months Hamsun was shadowed by the authorities.
While in Copenhagen, Hamsun set to work on Hunger (1890). This would be followed by another intensely psychological novel, Mysteries (1892); Pan (1894), likely his most famous novel, which was subject to five film adaptations; and Victoria (1898), after which Hamsun named his first daughter. It wouldn't be until 1917, however, that Hamsun would publish Growth of the Soil, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize in 1920.
Hamsun's views grew increasingly traditional after the Second Boer War. He became an enthusiast of German culture and opposed British imperialism and the Soviet Union. Therefore, during World War II Hamsun sided with Germany. In this he joined other authors who rejected liberal and communist ideals: Charles Maurras, Morand, Hillaire Belloc, Gentile, Filippo Marinetti, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Luigi Pirandello, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Robert Brasillach, Lucien Rebatet, Miguel Serrano, Savitri Devi, Ezra Pound, G. K. Chesterton, Ranier Maria Rilke, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, and Carl Schmitt. In 1943 he met Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels, who held his work in high regard and had some years earlier commissioned a film adaptation of Pan. Alfred Rosenberg had already praised him in The Myth of the 20th Century (1930). When the death of Hitler became known, he wrote an obituary.
Hamsun's political sympathies caused him trouble after the war. His books were publicly burnt and he, his wife, and his son were arrested. Due to his advanced age—86 at the time—he was committed to a mental hospital rather than incarcerated. Hamsun remained defiant, asserting that if able he would have helped the Germans even more. He was forced to undergo a psychiatric examination, but the entire procesure was acutely embarrassing for the Norwegian government, given that Hamsun was their literary pride. It was thus decided that Hamsun's support for the Germans had been due to senility and impairment of his mental faculties. The case for treason was dropped and instead he was tried for civil liability, which resulted in his being fined NOK 425,000, reduced to 325,000 on appeal. At the age of 89, this ruined him financially. His son was also fined, and his brother was jailed until 1949.
In On Overgrown Paths, published in 1949, Hamsun savages the pyschiatrists and the judges. His writing is completely lucid. This last book would prove a best-seller, but Hamsun would nevertheless end his days in poverty. He died on his farm in 1952. Decades later, the trial was investigated by Danish novelist Torkild Hansen, who harshly criticised the treatment of the Nobel laureate in his book Processen mod Hamsun (1978). The latter, never translated into English, was later made into a film, directed by Jan Troell and released in 1996.
1877 Den Gaadefulde. En kjærlighedshistorie fra Nordland (Published as Knud Pedersen)
1878 Et Gjensyn (Published as Knud Pedersen Hamsund)
1878 Bjørger (Published as Knud Pedersen Hamsund)
1889 Lars Oftedal. Udkast (11 articles, previously printed in Dagbladet)
1889 Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (The Spiritual Life of Modern America)