Born Aleksis Stenvall on October 10, 1834, Aleksis Kivi (he later took this as his nom de plume) came from the northern reaches of Uusimaa, the province in which Helsinki lies, a region still known, at the time of his birth, for its lawlessness. Indeed, Kivi’s paternal great-uncle, Matti Stenvall, was sentenced to life imprisonment for banditry in 1829, spending the rest of his days incarcerated at Suomenlinna, the fortress-complex in Helsinki harbor. Matti’s brother, Kivi’s grandfather, was a sailor who returned to the countryside only late in life, and Kivi’s father, the village tailor, had briefly attended school in the capital and, at the time of his confirmation, was described in Nurmijärvi’s records as a “Swedish-speaker.” The Stenvalls were certainly well known in their home community; the command of Swedish gave Kivi’s father considerable authority (especially on legal matters) in his village. He was, as well, ambitious for his offspring: His oldest son, Juhani, nine years Aleksis’s senior, had been sent to a private school to learn Swedish, the key to business and social success, and when the gifted Aleksis, the youngest of the four sons, was dispatched to Helsinki at the age of twelve for schooling, Juhani, then employed as a clerk in the capital, was expected to help with the boy’s expenses, which he did grudgingly.
Kivi’s schooldays were made difficult not only by his poverty but also by the disparity in age between him and his fellow pupils, who as a rule were between three and four years younger. His education took place entirely in Swedish, which he mastered so completely that he at first thought of following a literary career in the language. His knowledge of Swedish also gave him access to the authors who perhaps meant the most to him in his own literary creation: Ludvig Holberg, whose Danish was easy to grasp, and Miguel de Cervantes, Homer, and William Shakespeare, all of whom he devoured in Swedish, learning whole passages of Karl August Hagberg’s translation of Shakespeare by heart, including the entire role of Cordelia in King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606). Each summer, the boy returned to the Finnish-speaking milieu of Nurmijärvi; Helsinki itself, and much of its adjacent territory, was still overwhelmingly Swedish in language.
After many vicissitudes, Kivi, at the age of eighteen, completed his preparatory training at Helsinki’s “advanced elementary school,” He then decided to prepare privately for the university and spent some time at cramming schools very much like the school Henrik Ibsen had attended in Norway a few years earlier, taking the university entrance examinations in December, 1857. Again, with characteristic dilatoriness, he delayed his formal entrance to the university until 1859 and pursued his studies in a desultory fashion, staying on the enrollment books until 1865 but never attaining an academic degree.
The advantages he drew from these apparently aimless years lay, on one hand, in the acquisition of supportive and sometimes affluent friends (such as Bergbom, Nervander, and the German-born poet Julius Krohn), who admired the genius from the countryside, and, on the other, in the inspiration he drew from two of his teachers: Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and the aesthetician and critic Fredrik Cygnaeus, who lectured on drama (and who, in 1853, had published an essay, “The Tragic Element,” on the newly restored national epic). Lönnrot and Cygnaeus may fairly be regarded as the godfathers of Kivi’s first play, the tragedy Kullervo, based on cantos 31-36 of the Kalevala. The first version of the play, still in manuscript, got Kivi a prize, in March, 1860, from the Finnish Literary Society, for “the best theatrical work in Finnish”; Kivi suddenly became the great hope of a literature still in statu nascendi. Dissatisfied with what he had written, Kivi continued to work at the play until, entirely revised, it was published by the Finnish Literary...
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