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Knut Hamsun



Among the Scandinavian novelists of the present day, Knut Hamsun stands in the foremost rank, and by the nature of his productions he is sharply distinguished from all the rest. The manner of his rise and development, as well as the experiences of his earlier years have also been unusual, and, all in all, Hamsun is a unique figure in the literary world of to-day.

Knut Hamsun was born on August 4, 1860, at Lom, in Gudbrandsdalen, in the eastern part of Norway. His parents were of an old peasant family in which artistic talent had cropped out repeatedly. Hamsun's grandfather, a blacksmith, was an expert in ornamental work. The parents did not prosper in Gudbrandsdalen and removed to the Lofoten Islands when Hamsun was but four years old. Here the boy grew up, surrounded by the wild, rugged, and mighty nature of Nordland with its light summer nights, throbbing with intense life in man, beast, and vegetation, only to sink back again into sleep and oblivion on the approach of the long, dark winter. During the last decades many changes have taken place in the mode of life of the people dwelling in these latitudes. The development of natural water power has resulted in an abundant and cheap supply of electricity, and the long winter nights have been made thereby more endurable, some industries have been established, improved means of transportation have brought about speedier, more regular, and dependable communication with the rest of the world. Civilization has been brought closer to the people of Nordland, but their habits of life have remained simple and their emancipation from the influences and forces of nature has as yet not progressed very far. Sixty years ago, ie in the childhood of Hamsun, life in Nordland was still more primitive.

On the Lofoten Islands, fishing is almost the sole occupation of the people. The lives of the fishermen are full of hardship, uncer

tainty, danger, daring, and adventure. Though periods of want are not infrequent, these men enjoy a high degree of independence and personal liberty. The local merchant, who usually buys up the fish and supplies the necessaries of life, is virtually their only overlord. Of course, they are always at the mercy of the elements, but since man has no share in shaping these conditions, the inevitable dependence upon them is borne more easily. Inasmuch as the people of Nordland were left to shift for themselves by the state, they were exempt from many of the duties which the government ordinarily exacts from the individual. It is a significant fact that they were not required to render military service until the beginning of the present century.

There cannot be any doubt that Hamsun was deeply impressed by the life about him and strongly imbued with the spirit of freedom from social restraint, and when he afterwards came again in contact with civilization and highly organized society, he rebelled against the many restrictions and limitations which he encountered and, being of a highly sensitive nature, he was often driven to exasperation by mere trifles. This fact must be borne in mind in judging his literary productions, especially those of his earlier years.

The conditions under which he spent his childhood drove him early into isolation. For several years he lived with an uncle who was a preacher of the state church, a very stern and rigorous man, who was thoroughly convinced of the truth of the old adage: spare the rod and spoil the child. Hamsun's intellectual development may have benefited by his stay with this man, but his boyhood was thereby despoiled of all happiness. In the short story Et Spøkelse (A Spook) Hamsun relates: "Several years I spent with an uncle of mine in a rectory in Nordland. It was a hard time for me, a great deal of work, many floggings and rarely an hour for play and amusement. Since my uncle held me so strictly, it became gradually my only joy to steal away and be alone; when I had an hour to myself, a thing which rarely happened, I betook myself to the woods or I went up to the cemetery and

'In the rural parts of Norway the preachers of the state church derive a large part of their income from the farm and pasture lands belonging to each parsonage. Præstegaarden comprises aside from the parsonage a number of outbuildings and usually appears like the place of a more or less prosperous gentleman farmer.

roamed among the crosses and tombstones, dreamed, pondered, and talked aloud to myself.

"The rectory was in an unusually pretty location, close to the Glimma channel, a broad ocean current with large rocks, the roar of which resounded day and night, without a let-up. The current ran part of the time southward, part of the time northward, according to the conditions of the tide, but its eternal song rose unceasingly, and the waters flowed with the same swiftness summer and winter, whichever way they ran.

"Upon a hill, the church was situated and the cemetery. The church was an old wooden structure in the form of a cross and the cemetery was without trees or shrubs and there were never any flowers on the graves; but at the stone-wall forming the enclosure there used to grow the most delicious raspberries, large and juicy berries, which grew there and drew nourishment from the fertile dust of the dead. I knew each grave and every inscription and witnessed how crosses newly erected began to lean as time went on and finally fell over some stormy night.

"But though there were no flowers on the graves, during the summer the grass grew luxuriantly over the whole cemetery. It was a tall and stiff kind of grass, and I often sat there and listened to the wind rustling in this terribly hard grass which reached clear up to my waist. And in the midst of this rustling the weathervane would swing around, and the sound of the rusty iron rang out over the whole place. It sounded as though an iron mouth was gnashing its teeth.

"When the grave-digger was at work, I often had a talk with him. He was a serious man and rarely smiled, but he was very kind towards me and when he stood there, casting up earth from a grave, he occasionally would warn me that I must get out of the way, for now he had a large femur on his spade, or a grinning skull." 912

The cemetery was Hamsun's favorite haunt in those years. He thus was early impressed with the ephemeralness of human life, but his joy in living and his desire for the humble pleasures of existence were by no means impaired. One can easily imagine what effect this sort of life must have had on the sensitive boy.

Samlede Verker, Gyldendalske Boghandel, Kristiania og København, 1918, III, Kratskog, pp. 50 f.

At the age of seventeen, Hamsun was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Bodö, the chief town of the province of Nordland. Here he found spare time enough to carry on literary pursuits. Already in 1878 he published a solemn, gloomy poem entitled Et Gensyn (Meeting Again), a naively romantic production, which, however, already manifested an unusual nature sense. Shortly afterwards there appeared Bjørger. Fortælling af Knud Pedersen Hamsund. Eget forlag. Bodø, 1878. (Björger. A Story by Knud Pedersen Hamsund. Published by the Author.) In regard to style this story clearly showed the influence of Björnson's peasant tales. The theme, the objective and emotional experiences of an orphaned peasant lad, lent itself admirably to the introduction of many personal elements; a few passages revealed for the first time the skill in lyric prose which is the chief charm of many of the later works from the pen of Hamsun. But this early attempt of his to break into literature naturally failed.

Hamsun's roaming disposition made him ill-suited for a sedentary occupation and he terminated his apprenticeship long before he had entered into the mysteries of the shoemaker's trade. For a few months he worked as a coal heaver at the Bodö pier, but finally pulled up stakes altogether and disappeared. Drifting from place to place he spent several years in various forms of occupation. He worked as quarryman, at road-making, taught school, and acted as sheriff's assistant. Finally he landed in America. Here he earned his living as street-car conductor, grocery clerk, farm laborer, and what not. In the summer of 1885 Hamsun appeared in Christiania, where he managed to keep from starving to death by some newspaper work and an occasional inconoclastic lecture on literary topics.

In the fall of 1886 we find him back in the United States, this time as correspondent for a daily, Verdens Gang (Current Events), a position which proved so little remunerative that he had to abandon it and fall back on hard, manual labor to keep body and soul together. It was during his second stay in the United States that he, among other things, worked for many months on a Russian fishing vessel off the Newfoundland banks. His main haunts were, however, in the region between Chicago and the Dakotas. Cecil Kröger, a journalist, has given the following account of a chance meeting he had with Hamsun at Minneapolis:

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