On Overgrown Paths Essay - Critical Context

Knut Pedersen

Critical Context

In at least two major ways On Overgrown Paths makes a fitting conclusion to Hamsun’s life and his writing career. It represents a peculiar merger of biography and art, rescuing its author from an enforced obscurity and providing a fitting closure to a long literary career. From a personal standpoint, the years between Hamsun’s last novel, Ringen sluttet (1936; The Ring Is Closed, 1937), and On Overgrown Paths gave the very public man of letters a time for rest, and the reaction against him took away the pressure of living up not only to his own reputation but also to the fact that he was regarded as the replacement for the earlier literary lions: Henrik Ibsen, Bjrnstjerne Bjrnson, and Alexander Kielland. From early in his career, and increasingly after he won the Nobel Prize for Markens Grde (1917; Growth of the Soil, 1920), Hamsun had felt forced in his writing, forced to produce and constrained by his own literary fame. In On Overgrown Paths, however, he could write freely, and he managed to get back to a kind of writing he had not done for a long time, perhaps not since the early 1900’s.

From a literary standpoint, then, Hamsun’s last book was a breakthrough and a kind of homecoming for its author. Aside from his clear desire to be forgiven without actually apologizing for his actions, he wrote honestly and without pretension, and he made contact with his public. Released in Norway shortly after Hamsun’s ninetieth birthday, the book ran through its first printing of five thousand copies and its second printing of seven thousand. A simultaneous Swedish edition and several later German editions experienced similar popular success. Two years later, just before Hamsun died, Gyldendal issued his collected works. Hamsun had accomplished the seemingly impossible task of separating the literary Hamsun from the political one. Even his publisher and longtime friend Harald Grieg could not forgive Hamsun’s wartime advocacy of the Nazis, but On Overgrown Paths restored the literary position Hamsun had enjoyed before the war.