Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen Essay - Critical Essays

Boyesen, Hjalmar Hjorth


Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen 1848-1895

Norwegian-born American critic, novelist, short-story writer, translator, and poet.

Boyesen achieved a measure of popularity in the late nineteenth century as a proponent of the Realism movement and a prodigious producer of poetry, prose, and critical essays. Though English was his second language, learned in Norway but mastered on American soil, he quickly developed a natural literary voice and worked with some of the more prestigious periodicals and publishing houses of his adopted country. A contemporary and associate of such writers as Mark Twain and Henry James in America, and Ivan Turgenev, Bjoernstjerne Bjoernson, and Alexander Kielland abroad, Boyesen maintained active epistolary relationships with these and other figures. Although his career as a liaison between Norway and America is now viewed as his greatest legacy, his artistic achievements, especially his essays on German and Scandinavian literature, still garner critical interest.

Biographical Information

Boyesen was born in Frederiksvaern, Norway, a small fishing village, on September 21, 1848, to a Naval Academy mathematics instructor and his wife. He was educated at the University of Christiania, earned a Ph.D. from Royal Frederiks University, and then left the country at age twenty for New York, New England, and then Chicago. His homeland would figure prominently in his work as a place he loved, chose to leave, and sometimes achingly missed. After working unhappily in journalism, where he found that writing in Norwegian was impeding his acculturation, he forewent the field for teaching, first at Urbana, a Swedish institute in Ohio, and later at Cornell. The latter was a marked improvement over the former, where Boyesen felt isolated from the Midwestern population and deadened by the flat landscape that stood in bold contrast to the fjords and mountains he had recently left. Boyesen's documented despair apparently compelled rather than thwarted his productivity, however. His success as a writer began in 1873, when the Atlantic Monthly began serial publication of his novel Gunnar: A Tale of Norse Life, and when he simultaneously began a lifelong correspondence with Atlantic Monthly editor, William Dean Howells. In 1878 he married socialite Lillie (Elizabeth) Keene, a marriage that critics suggest increased Boyesen's already noteworthy fiscal struggles. After a failed effort to leave academia and support his family solely through work as a writer, he was hired by Columbia College, where he taught German language and literature until his death of pneumonia on October 4, 1895.

Major Works

Boyesen's earliest publications of prose and poetry are mostly associated with European Romanticism. Gunnar, A Norseman's Pilgrimage (1875), and Falconberg (1879), three notably autobiographical novels, explore different aspects of the Norwegian's experience as immigrants. In both his fiction and his essays, Boyesen's positions on immigration were complex, but he consistently investigated immigrants' struggles with identity as well as their vital contributions to a sometimes staid American society. Conversely, he also argued for immigration restrictions to be placed on those whom he considered insufficient to the task of acculturation. With The Light of Her Countenance (1889), The Mammon of Unrighteousness (1891), and Social Strugglers: A Novel (1893), Boyesen began forays into American Realist fiction, a movement for which he was also becoming an articulate spokesperson. He distinguished himself from other critics—Howells, for example—in his emphasis on Realism as a movement less about method than content. He expressed this conception of the form in Literary and Social Silhouettes (1894) as intending to reflect “the logic of reality, as [the writer] sees it; who, aiming to portray the manners of his time, deals by preference with the normal rather than the exceptional phases of life, and, to use Henry James' felicitous phrase, arouses not the pleasure of surprise, but that of recognition.” As his career advanced, his interests increasingly extended beyond literature to social concerns. He was an ardent critic of a tendency among American writers to omit consideration of “the vital things in life” in order to supply the domestic and scurrilous fiction supported by the young and ignorant American girl, or “Iron Madonna.” Finally, informed by other systems—particularly science and philosophy—he became an active voice in the discussion of evolution and its social implications.

Critical Reception

Boyesen has rarely been enthusiastically appreciated for his talents as a writer either of prose or poetry, despite his remarkable productivity and ambition. To the contrary, he has been found consistently sentimental and prosaic, sometimes facile and overly optimistic, with little talent for dialogue, and exhibiting a tendency toward excess. However, he is genuinely appreciated for his role in exposing the American world of letters and ideas to Nordic traditions and sensibilities. Marc L. Ratner and Per Seyersted have explored Boyesen's attitudes towards women, with Seyersted tracing an arc from positive portrayals of women to a more misogynistic attitude. Robert Frederickson, who wrote a full-length study of Boyesen's life and career, argues that the author's creative work has been falsely maligned and that the author was one of the best American writers of the late nineteenth century. In addition to his purposeful contributions to literary critical dialogues about Realism, some critics also suggest that while Boyesen never succeeded as a Naturalist writer himself, his criticism, particularly of Ibsen, Strindberg, and European sociopolitical theater, helped open the door to Naturalism in American literature.

Principal Works

“A Norse Stev” (poem) 1872; published in journal Atlantic Monthly

“Bjornson's Dramas” (criticism) 1873; published in journal North American Review

*Gunnar: A Tale of Norse Life (novel) 1874

“Ibsen's Kesier og Galilaer” (criticism) 1874; published in journal Atlantic Monthly

A Norseman's Pilgrimage (novel) 1875

“The Man Who Lost His Name” (short story) 1876; published in journal Scribner's Monthly

Tales from Two Hemispheres (novel) 1877

“Tourgenieff” (criticism) 1877; published in journal Scribner's Monthly

“Evolution” (poetry) 1878; published in journal Atlantic Monthly

Falconberg (novel) 1879

Goethe and Schiller: Their Lives and Works (biography and criticism) 1879

“Two Visits to Victor Hugo” (essay) 1879; published in journal Scribner's Monthly

“Bjornstjerne Bjornson” (criticism) 1880; published in journal Scribner's Monthly

Ilka on the Hill-Top and Other Stories (short stories) 1881; adapted for stage as Alpine Roses 1884

Queen Titania (short stories) 1881

Idyls of Norway and Other Poems (poetry) 1882

“A New Norwegian Novelist: Alexander Kielland” (criticism) 1882; published in journal The Critic Magazine

A Daughter of the Philistines (novel) 1883

“Reminiscences of Turgeniev” (essay) 1883; published in journal Harper's New Monthly Magazine

“The Dangers of Immigration” (essay) 1884; published in journal Forum

“Social Problems in Norwegian Novels” (criticism) 1885; published in journal The Critic Magazine

The Story of Norway (novel) 1886

The Modern Vikings: Stories of Life and Sport in the Norseland (short stories) 1887

“Philistinism” (essay) 1888; published in journal Independent

The Light of Her Countenance (novel) 1889

Vagabond Tales (short stories) 1889

Against Heavy Odds: A Tale of Norse Heroism (novel) 1890

The Mammon of Unrighteousness (novel) 1891

Boyhood in Norway: Stories of Boy-life in the Land of the Midnight Sun (short stories) 1892; revised and reprinted as The Battle of the Rafts: Boyhood in Norway 1893

Essays on German Literature (criticism) 1892

The Golden Calf: A Novel (novel) 1892

“On Howells' Work” (criticism) 1892; published in journal Cosmopolitan

“Ibsen's Treatment of Self-Illusion” (criticism) 1893; published in journal Dial

Social Strugglers: A Novel (novel) 1893

A Commentary on the Writings of Henrik Ibsen (criticism) 1894

“The Evolution of the Heroine” (essay) 1894; published in journal Lippincott's Magazine

Literary and Social Silhouettes (criticism) 1894

Norseland Tales (short stories) 1894

“On Zola's Experimental Novel” (criticism) 1894; published in journal Cosmopolitan

Essays on Scandinavian Literature (criticism) 1895

“Great Realists and Empty Story-Tellers” (criticism) 1895; published in journal Forum

*Published serially in the Atlantic Monthly in 1873.

†Contains three stories: “Queen Titania,” “The Mountain's Face,” and “A Dangerous Virtue.”

‡Contains “The American Novelist and His Public.”


Atlantic Monthly (review date November 1874)

SOURCE: “Recent Literature.” Atlantic Monthly 34 (November 1874): 624-25.

[In the following review, the anonymous author favorably appraises Gunnar, focusing especially on Boyesen's seemingly natural command of the English language and his portrayal of Norwegian landscapes and themes.]

Amongst the works of fiction printed in the English language this year, there can hardly be any so remarkable in some aspects as the idyllic story which Mr. Boyesen tells us.1 It is not only remarkable for being a good story, which is distinction enough, but it ought to be known to every one who takes it up as an achievement almost singular in letters. It is not a translation from the Norwegian, as one might guess, but is the English of a Norwegian, thinking and expressing himself in our tongue with a grace, simplicity, and force, and a sense of its colors and harmonies, which we should heartily praise in one native to it. Mr. Boyesen has proved his genius both for literature and for language. The example of the Italian Ruffini, who writes charming novels in English, and the case of the Italian Gallenga, whose work is a model of journalistic writing in our language, are the only instances worthy to be compared with the present; and we believe that these authors have lived a long time in England; whereas Mr. Boyesen's citizenship is as new as the last election.

But it is not on his phenomenal side that we care mostly to regard him, and if his English were not joined with poetic instinct and a rare artistic power, it might remain for the gratification solely of persons of “culture.” We like his Gunnar because it is the work of a poet, and announces its origin in all characteristics. It is of that good school of which Björnstjerne Björnson is the head, and to which we have nothing answering, of English root. It is an idyllic sort of story which regards simple things naturally, but at the same time poetically. As our readers know, the scene is almost entirely among the Norwegian peasants; the plot is the love of a houseman's (or tenant's) son for the daughter of a rich peasant landowner, and relates to Gunnar's growth from a dreamy boyhood to...

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Atlantic Monthly (review date March 1883)

SOURCE: “Recent Poetry.” Atlantic Monthly 51 (March 1883): 421-23.

[In the following review, the anonymous author provides a generally favorable assessment of Boyesen's collection of poetry Idylls of Norway.]

Mr. Boyesen has wisely named his book of poems with reference to the most characteristic of the contents;1 and in so far as these answer to the title, they have a freshness and a distinctive interest which give the modest volume a separate place. Brier-Rose, Hilda's Little Hood, and Thora are charming pastoral love stories, vigorous, youthful, sweet with the vernal breath of the northern forest, and told in melodious verse, the shaping of which...

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Laurence M. Larson (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: Larson, Laurence M. “Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen.” In The Changing West and Other Essays, pp. 82-116. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1937.

[In the following excerpt, Larson describes Boyesen's progress from amateur to professional as seen in his literature and criticism.]

Soon after his interview with Boyesen in July, 1871, W. D. Howells sent him a copy of Hans Christian Andersen's travel story, “A Poet's Bazaar,” to review for the Atlantic. The review was prepared and published in October of the same year. So far as the writer has been able to learn, this was the first contribution submitted by a man of Norwegian birth or blood that had...

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George LeRoy White, Jr. (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: White, George LeRoy, Jr. “Other Outstanding Literary Interpreters of the Scandinavian.” In Scandinavian Themes in American Fiction, pp. 173-92. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1937.

[In the following excerpt, White provides an overview of Boyesen's writings and investigates his role as a chronicler of Scandinavian immigration.]

It is in the writings of Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen that the multifarious problems peculiar to the Scandinavian as an individual first get anything like complete treatment. Prior to his entrance into the field of American letters, the Scandinavian did not appear as an individual immigrant. The historical novels on Norse...

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George Leroy White, Jr. (essay date January 1942)

SOURCE: White, George Leroy, Jr. “H. H. Boyesen: A Note on Immigration.” American Literature 13, no. 4 (January 1942): 363-71.

[In the following excerpt, White provides a close reading of Boyesen's fiction and discusses how it portrays the immigrant experience.]

American fiction in the 1870's and 1880's began to become conscious of “place and race,” and an obvious reason for this interest was the fact of immigration.1 Waves of people from foreign lands were breaking across this country. The American writer who was at all aware of the subject matter around him could not fail to become interested in ascertaining how much these foreign people were...

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Alfred Kazin (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “The Opening Struggle for Realism.” In On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, pp. 3-50. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942.

[In the following excerpt, Kazin characterizes Boyesen as an important advocate for the broadly-conceived Realist school, although as an author he lacked the necessary talent to achieve greatness within the genre.]

Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen was a Norwegian and professor of German at Columbia who had a wide knowledge of the traditions of European realism and endeavored to emulate the most commonplace of them in his three best-known novels of American manners—The Golden Calf,...

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Clarence A. Glasrud (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Glasrud, Clarence A. “Boyesen and the Norwegian Immigration.” Norwegian-American Studies and Records 19 (1956): 15-45.

[In the following essay, Glasrud argues that his reputation notwithstanding, Boyesen was largely ignorant of the Norwegian immigrant's experience in America; rather, his significance was as a liaison between European and American literature.]

The career of Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, “the first writer of Norwegian birth or blood to use the English language in the successful cultivation of literary art” has been subject to general misunderstanding for a number of reasons.1 The most important misconception involves Boyesen's...

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Marc L. Ratner (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Ratner, Marc L. “Howells and Boyesen: Two Views of Realism.”1New England Quarterly 35, no. 3 (1962): 376-90.

[In the following excerpt, Ratner explores William Dean Howells influence, as mentor and editor, on Boyesen's literature and criticism.]

When regarding the growth and development of American letters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries one is struck with the influential rôle of William Dean Howells. In fact, his significance as a critic and novelist has been too much taken for granted by critics of nineteenth-century America. As a critic, Howells encouraged realistic fiction in America by supporting writers such as Twain,...

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Marc L. Ratner (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Ratner, Marc L. “The Iron Madonna: H. H. Boyesen's American Girl.” Jahrbuch fur Amerikastudien 9 (1964): 166-72.

[In the following essay, Ratner evaluates Boyesen's attitudes towards the nineteenth-century American woman as revealed in his fiction and criticism.]

One of the great social questions of the late nineteenth century was the “woman question,” and the problems which developed out of the changing status of women in society, particularly that of the independent woman, provided material for novels and drama as well as for sociological treatises. One can see evidence of this interest in the work of Shaw, Ibsen, Henry James, to name a few in...

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Marc L. Ratner (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Ratner, Marc L. “The Romantic Spencerian.” Norwegian-American Studies 23 (1967): 204-19.

[In the following essay, Ratner describes Boyesen's development from European Romantic evolutionist to a more socially conscious Realist.]

One of the strongest influences affecting American thought during the late nineteenth century came from the natural sciences. Discoveries and theories in geology and organic evolution undermined the strong religious beliefs of many, affected the idealistic philosophy of romantic transcendentalism, and encouraged a greater interest in the ethical and social implications of man's place in society.1 In the work of Hjalmar...

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Robert S. Fredrickson (essay date February 1973)

SOURCE: Fredrickson, Robert S. “Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen: Howells ‘Out-Realisted.’” Markham Review 3, no. 5 (February 1973): 93-97.

[In the following essay, Frederickson argues that Boyesen has been both misinterpreted and under-appreciated by critics.]

When Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen died suddenly and unexpectedly in October, 1895, at the age of 47, the elite of American letters served as his pallbearers.1 Boyesen was an ambitious literary man who appeared to have made it. His collected works would fill forty volumes. Many of his novels had been popular, going through several editions, and he had influenced such important literary figures as William Dean...

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Robert S. Fredrickson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Fredrickson, Robert S. “The Major Phase” and “Conclusion.” In Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, pp. 128-63. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following excerpts, Frederickson defends his assertion that Boyesen produced his best work in the last five years of his life and discusses the author's place in American intellectual and literary history.]


During the last five years of his life, Boyesen's talent and theory coalesced. He was ready to create novels which had the complexity necessary to make them vital and the intellectual authority to command respect. Boyesen had wanted to write a novel which was a...

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Further Reading


Ratner, Marc. “Georg Brandes and Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen: An Exchange of Critical Views.” Scandinavian Studies 33, no. 4 (November 1961): 218-30.

Analyzes the correspondence between Boyesen and Brandes in an attempt to reveal details about each writer's intellectual concerns and ambitions.

Seyersted, Per. “The Drooping Lily: H. H. Boyesen as an Early American Misogynist.” Americana-Norvegica 3 (1971): 74-87.

Argues that Boyesen's work reveals a shift from the idealization of women to misogyny.

Simms, L. Moody, Jr. “An Episode in the Realism War.” American Literary...

(The entire section is 259 words.)