Knut Hamsun

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Knut Hamsun
Hamsun bldsa HA0324.jpg
Knut Hamsun in July 1937
Born Knud Pedersen
(1859-08-04)August 4, 1859
Lom, Gudbrandsdal, Norway
Died February 19, 1952(1952-02-19) (aged 92)
Grimstad, Nørholm, Norway
Occupation Author, poet, dramatist, social critic
Nationality Norwegian
Period 1877–1949
Literary movement Neo-romanticism
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Literature


Knut Hamsun (4 August 1859 – 19 February 1952) was a Norwegian author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Hamsun's work spans more than 70 years and shows variation with regard to the subject, perspective and environment. He published more than 20 novels, a collection of poetry, some short stories and plays, a travelogue, and some essays.

The young Hamsun objected to realism and naturalism. He argued that the main object of modernist literature should be the intricacies of the human mind, that writers should describe the "whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone marrow".[1] Hamsun is considered the "leader of the Neo-Romantic revolt at the turn of the 20th century", with works such as Hunger (1890), Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898).[2] His later works—in particular his "Nordland novels"—were influenced by the Norwegian new realism, portraying everyday life in rural Norway and often employing local dialect, irony, and humour.[3]

Hamsun is considered to be "one of the most influential and innovative literary stylists of the past hundred years" (ca. 1890–1990).[4] He pioneered psychological literature with techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue, and influenced authors such as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Maxim Gorky, Stefan Zweig, Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, and Ernest Hemingway.[5] Isaac Bashevis Singer called Hamsun "the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect—his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun".[6]

On August 4, 2009, the Knut Hamsun Centre was opened in Hamarøy.[7] Since 1916, several of Hamsun's works have been adapted into motion pictures.


Hamsun in 1890, the year he published his first major work, Hunger.

Early life

Knut Hamsun was born as Knud Pedersen in Lom in the Gudbrandsdal valley of Norway.[8] He was the fourth son (of seven children) of Tora Olsdatter and Peder Pedersen. When he was three, the family moved to Hamsund, Hamarøy in Nordland.[9] They were poor and an uncle had invited them to farm his land for him.

At 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; for the next five years he did any job for money; he was a store clerk, peddler, shoemaker's apprentice, sheriff's assistant, and an elementary-school teacher.[10]

At 17 he became a ropemaker's apprentice; at about the same time he started to write. He asked businessman Erasmus Zahl to give him significant monetary support, and Zahl agreed. Hamsum later used Zahl as a model for the character Mack appearing in his novels Pan (1894), Dreamers (1904), and Benoni and Rosa (1908).[11]

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).

Literary career

Working all those odd jobs paid off[citation needed], 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).[12]

World War II, arrest and trial

Title page of the first American edition of Hunger.

During World War II, Hamsun put his support behind the German war-effort. He courted and met with high-ranking Nazi officers, including Adolf Hitler. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wrote a long and enthusiastic diary entry concerning a private meeting with Hamsun; according to Goebbels Hamsun's "faith in German victory is unshakable".[13] In 1940 Hamsun wrote that "the Germans are fighting for us".[14] After Hitler's death, he published a short obituary in which he described him as "a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations."

After the war, he was detained by police on June 14, 1945, for the commission of acts of treason, and was committed to a hospital in Grimstad (Grimstad sykehus) "due to his advanced age", according to Einar Kringlen (a professor and medical doctor).[15] In 1947 he was tried in Grimstad, and fined.[16] Norway's supreme court reduced the fine — from 575,000 to 325,000 Norwegian kroner.[17]

After the war, Hamsun's views on the Germans during the war was a serious grief for the Norwegians, and they tried to separate their world-famous writer from the "Nazi"-person. In latter years, the view on Hamsun has become more balanced, and his pro-German and anti-English views is more understood and accepted.[citation needed]


Knut Hamsun died on February 19, 1952, aged 92, in Grimstad. His ashes are buried in the garden of his home at Nørholm.[18]


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 his modern subjectivism, use of flashbacks, his use of fragmentation, and his lyricism.[12] Charles Bukowski called him the greatest writer to have ever lived.[19]


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, Rosa, 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 ("There is no God," he once wrote. "Only gods."). 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.[20]

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.[21] 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."[22]

Writing techniques

Along with August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Sigrid Undset, Hamsun formed a quartet of Scandinavian authors who became internationally known for their works. Hamsun pioneered psychological literature with techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue, as found in material by, for example, Joyce, Proust, Mansfield and Woolf.

Family portrait on the stairs of "Villa Havgløtt". (l.t.r. Tore Hamsun, Marie Hamsun, Arild Hamsun, Knut Hamsun and Ellinor Hamsun)

Personal life

In 1898, Hamsun married Bergljot Göpfert (née Bech), who bore daughter Victoria, but the marriage ended in 1906. Hamsun then married Marie Andersen (1881-1969) in 1909 and she was his companion until the end of his life. They had four children: sons Tore and Arild and daughters Elinor and Cecilia.

Marie wrote about her life with Hamsun in two memoirs. She was a promising actress when she met Hamsun but ended her career and traveled with him to Hamarøy. They bought a farm, the idea being "to earn their living as farmers, with his writing providing some additional income".

After a few years they decided to move south, to Larvik. In 1918 they bought Nørholm, an old, somewhat dilapidated manor house between Lillesand and Grimstad. The main residence was restored and redecorated. Here Hamsun could occupy himself with writing undisturbed, although he often travelled to write in other cities and places (preferably in spartan housing).

Political sympathies

In younger years, Hamsun had leanings of an anti-egalitarian, racially conscious bent. In The Cultural Life of Modern 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."[23]

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 World War II 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.

Portrait by Alfredo Andersen

Hamsun wrote several newspaper articles in the course of the war, including his notorious 1940 assertion that "the Germans are fighting for us, and now are crushing England's tyranny over us and all neutrals".[14] 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.[24] Hamsun was eventually invited to meet with Hitler; during the meeting, he complained about the German civilian administrator in Norway, Josef Terboven, and asked that imprisoned Norwegian citizens be released, enraging Hitler.[25] Otto Dietrich describes the meeting in his memoirs as the only time that another person was able to get a word in edgeways with Hitler. He attributes the cause to Hamsun's deafness. Regardless, Dietrich notes that it took Hitler three days to get over his anger.[26] Hamsun also on other occasions helped Norwegians who had been imprisoned for resistance activities and tried to influence German policies in Norway.[27]

Nevertheless, a week after Hitler's death, Hamsun wrote a eulogy for him, saying “He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.”[22] 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 in 1930

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 ($65,000 or £16,250 at that time) 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.[citation needed] He wrote his last book Paa giengrodde Stier (On Overgrown Paths) in 1949, a book many take as evidence of his functioning mental capabilities.[citation needed] 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.

Works in English Translation


  • Hunger (1899; translated by George Egerton; and again in 1967 by Robert Bly).
  • Shallow Soil (1914; translated by Carl Christian Hyllested).
  • Dreamers (1921; translated by W.W. Worster; again in 1996 by Tom Geddes).
  • Growth of the Soil (1921; translated by W.W. Worster; and again in 2007 by Sverre Lyngstad).
  • Pan (1921; translated by W.W. Worster; again in 1956 by James W. McFarlane; and again in 1998 by Sverre Lyngstad).
  • Mysteries (1922; translated by Arthur G. Chater; again in 1971 by Gerry Bothmer).
  • Wanderers (1922; translated by W.W. Worster).
    • Under the Autumn Star (first novel of the "wanderer" trilogy).
    • A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings (second part of the trilogy, the sequel being The Last Joy; translated again in 1975 by Oliver & Gunnvor Stallybrass).
  • Victoria (1923; translated by Arthur G. Chater; again in 1969 by Oliver Stallybrass; and again in 2005 by Sverre Lyngstad).
  • In the Grip of Life (1924; translated by Graham and Tristan Rawson).
  • Children of the Age (1924; translated by J.S. Scott).
  • Segelfoss Town (1925; translated by J.S. Scott).
  • Benoni (1925; translated by Arthur G. Chater).
  • Rosa (1926; translated by Arthur G. Chater; again in 1997 by Sverre Lyngstad).
  • The Last Chapter (1929; translated by Arthur G. Chater).
  • Vagabonds (1930; translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft).
  • August (1931; translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft).
  • The Road Leads On (1934; translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft).
  • The Ring is Closed (1937; translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft; again in 2010 by Robert Ferguson).
  • Look Back on Happiness (1940; translated by Paula Wiking).
  • On Overgrown Paths (1967; translated by Carl L. Anderson).
  • The Women at the Pump (1975; translated by Oliver & Gunnvor Stallybrass).
  • Wayfarers (1980; translated by James McFarlane).
  • The Last Joy (2002; translated by Sverre Lynstad)

Short stories


  • The Cultural Life of Modern America (1969; translated by Barbara Gordon Morgridge).
  • Selected Letters (1990; translated by James McFarlane).
  • In Wonderland (2003; translated by Sverre Lyngstad).
  • Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essays and Stories, 1885-1949 (2003; translated by Richard Nelson Current).

Nobel Prize-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer translated some of his works.

Cinematization of literary works

Hamsun's works have been the basis of 25 films and television mini-series adaptations, starting in 1916.[32]

The book Mysteries was the basis of a 1978 film of the same name (by the Dutch film company Sigma Pictures), directed by Paul de Lussanet, starring Sylvia Kristel, Rutger Hauer, Andrea Ferreol and Rita Tushingham.

Landstrykere (Wayfarers) is a Norwegian film from 1990 directed by Ola Solum.

The Telegraphist is a Norwegian movie from 1993 directed by Erik Gustavson. It is based on the novel "Mothwise" (of which the American title is "Dreamers").

Pan has been the basis of four films between 1922 and 1995. The latest adaptation, the Danish film of the same name, was directed by Henning Carlsen, who also directed the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish coproduction of the 1966 film Sult from Hamsun's novel of the same name.

Remodernist filmmaker Jesse Richards has announced he is in preparations to direct an adaptation of Hamsun's short story The Call of Life.[33]

Cinematized biography

A biopic entitled Hamsun was released in 1996, directed by Jan Troell, starring Max von Sydow as Hamsun.




  1. Knut Hamsun (1890). "Fra det ubevidste Sjæleliv", Samtiden, September 1890
  2. The new encyclopædia Britannica: Volum 5
  3. Hal May, Contemporary Authors, Volum 119, Gale, 1986
  4. Robert Ferguson (1987). Enigma: the life of Knut Hamsun, New York, N.Y. : Farra, Straus & Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-52093-9
  5. "The St. Petersburg Times - A complex legacy". 2009-11-06. Retrieved 2011-06-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Isaac Bashevis Singer (1967). Introduction to Hunger
  7. [1] Archived January 19, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  8. Hamsun bio at Nobel Prize website.
  9. "salten museum - Knut Hamsun's Childhood Home". Retrieved 2011-06-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Contemporary Authors Online. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7876-3995-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Citation: [...] dobbeltromanen Benoni og Rosa fra 1908. I skikkelse av oppkomlingen BenoniHartvigsen tegner Hamsun her for første gang et portrett av en allmuens mann i full skikkelse, med ironisk distanse, men også med betydelig sympati.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Næss 2007, 1-608.
  13. The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, translated, edited, and introduced by Louis P. Lochner, 1948, pp.303-304. Goebbels also claimed that "from childhood on he [Hamsun] has keenly disliked the English".
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Norway: Put Out Three Flags". TIME. 1959-08-17. Retrieved 2011-06-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. " Den 14. juni 1945 ble Hamsun «pågrepet» av politiet, men på grunn av høy alder innlagt på Grimstad sykehus og siden overflyttet til et gamlehjem. Spørsmålet for påtalemyndighetene var imidlertid hva man skulle gjøre med Hamsun. At Hamsun hadde vært en landsforræder var ingen i tvil om." Archived March 11, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  16. (translation of title:— Hamsun was not psychiatrically ill — Psychiatrist Terje Øiesvold at Salten psychiatric center opines that Knut Hamsun did not have svekkede sjelsevner ("diminished" + "soul" + "abilities") "- Hamsun ikke psykisk syk — Psykiater Terje Øiesvold ved Salten psykiatriske senter mener Knut Hamsun ikke hadde svekkede sjelsevner. Hamsun burde vært stilt for retten for sin nazi-sympati under krigen."; quote: "I 1947 mottok Knut Hamsun endelig sin dom. I en rettsak i Grimstad ble han idømt en bot som var så stor at han i realiteten var ruinert for alltid. "
  17. "I 1947 fikk Hamsun endelig sin dom, han ble idømt en bot på 575.000 kroner. Senere satte Høyesterett boten ned til 325.000 kroner. Dette beløpet var så høyt at Hamsun var ruinert for alltid."
  19. Charles Bukowski, WOMEN,New York: Ecco Books, 2002. p.67
  20. "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1920". Retrieved 2011-06-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Gyldendal: Samlede verker 1–27" (in norsk bokmål). Retrieved 2011-06-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. 22.0 22.1 Gibbs, Walter (February 27, 2009). "Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Once Shunned, Is Now Celebrated". The New York Times. Retrieved April 8, 2008. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Sjølyst-Jackson, Peter. Troubling legacies: migration, modernism and fascism in the case of Knut Hamsun. 2010: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 16.CS1 maint: location (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Thorkild Hansen, Prosessen mod Hamsun, 1978
  25. MORTEN STRAND "Fikk Hitler og Aftenposten til å rase". Retrieved 2014-05-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Otto Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew, p.8
  28. McFarlane, James, ed. (1982). "Slaves of Love". Slaves of Love and Other Norwegian Short Stories. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Hallmudsson, Hallberg, ed. (1965). An Anthology of Scandinavian Literature, from the Viking Period to the Twentieth Century. New York: Collier Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Church, Virginia, ed. (1934). "An Apparition". International Short Stories. Dallas: Lyons & Carnahan. pp. 43–51.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Sehmsdorf, Henning K., ed. (1986). "Zachæus". Short Stories from Norway, 1850-1900. University of Wisconsin: Department of Scandinavian Studies.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. "In Passing: Article on Remodernist Film in FilmInk Magazine". Retrieved 2014-05-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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Žagar, Monika (2009), Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance, Seattle: University of Washington Press<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

Further reading

External links