Knut Hamsun, who is Norway’s most important novelist, was born Knut Pedersen on August 4, 1859, at the farm Garmotræet in the district of Lom, Norway. His father, Peder Pedersen, was a tailor and small farmer, and his mother, Tora, was also of peasant stock. In 1863, the family moved to Hamarøy in Nordland, Norway, there to settle on the farm Hamsund, from which Hamsun later took his surname.
Hamsun’s childhood was happy until he was sent to live with his maternal uncle, a wealthy merchant and landowner, who also owned Hamsund. Though he treated Knut harshly, financial pressures forced the boy’s parents to consent to the arrangement. Leaving his uncle’s home in 1873, Hamsun began a long series of odd jobs. He clerked in several country stores and became by turns an itinerant peddler, a shoemaker’s apprentice, and even a sheriff’s deputy. He also worked as a country schoolmaster.
During these years, Hamsun began writing; his first novel, Den gådefulde (1877; the riddle), was published when he was only eighteen. Eventually, he managed to secure the patronage of a wealthy merchant and thus to focus more fully on his writing. Still, this support did not make Hamsun’s way smooth. He traveled to Copenhagen to offer a new manuscript to Scandinavia’s best-known publisher, Hegel of Gyldendal. To his dismay, his work was rejected, and he spent a difficult winter in the city of Kristiania, Norway. Later, this experience would provide him with the material for the novel that would become his first critical success: Sult (1890; Hunger, 1899).
Prior to the publication of Hunger, however, Hamsun lived for several years in the United States. Working in a variety of jobs, he read widely in both European and American literature and presented lectures on literary topics to Norwegian immigrants. In 1888, he returned to Scandinavia, taking up residence in Copenhagen, where the first chapter of Hunger was published anonymously in a periodical. Suddenly, though his identity remained a secret, Hamsun began receiving much attention in literary circles. The following year, he addressed Copenhagen’s Student Society in a series of lectures that were published as Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv (1889; The Spiritual Life of Modern America, 1969).
The publication of Hunger in its complete form created a literary sensation and is regarded as a milestone in Scandinavian literary history. It is the first psychological novel in Norwegian literature, one which has influenced many later writers. In an 1890 article, Hamsun explained the principles and framework that he had employed in constructing the novel. This article, “Fra det ubevidste sjæleliv” (“From the Unconscious Life of the Mind”), was followed by a series of lectures in numerous Norwegian cities during 1891. Attacking earlier Norwegian literature for focusing on social conditions, Hamsun called for an exploration of the inner life of the exceptional individual.
During the 1890’s, Hamsun wrote Mysterier (1892; Mysteries, 1927), Pan (1894; English translation, 1920), and Victoria (1898; English translation, 1929). Many critics consider Pan his most important work of the period, and some term it his masterpiece. Its point of view is complex, for the bulk of the story is narrated by the main character, the lieutenant Thomas Glahn; this section is followed by an epilogue narrated by Glahn’s unnamed hunting companion and killer. Issues of power and love surface repeatedly in all Glahn’s relationships; the ultimate message of the book is that power...
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