Henrik Pontoppidan was born on July 24, 1857, in the Jutland, Denmark, town of Fredericia. His parents were Dines Pontoppidan, a Lutheran clergyman, and Birgitte Christine Marie, née Oxenböll. In 1865, his father became a minister in Randers, where Pontoppidan spent his childhood. He graduated from high school in 1873 and moved to Copenhagen, where he began studying engineering. In 1876, he traveled to the Swiss Alps, and the following year, he completed the first part of his course work at the Polytechnical Institute. In 1879, the same year that his father died, he decided to pursue a career as a writer and gave up further studies.
After having spent the summer of 1880 in military service, Pontoppidan worked as a science teacher until 1882 at two folk high schools north of Copenhagen that were run by his brother, Morten. In 1881, he made his debut with a short story, “Et Endeligt” (an end), which he submitted to the journal Ude og Hjemme, and a collection of short stories, Stækkede Vinger (clipped wings), introducing a major theme in his writings: the futile battle against the influence on human life of heredity and environment. The honorarium for the book made it possible for Pontoppidan at the end of the same year to marry Mette Marie Hansen, a farmer’s daughter from the area. During his marriage, Pontoppidan traveled extensively in Denmark and abroad and wrote a series of shorter works. Some are based partly on his negative experiences of the folk high school as being hypocritical and pseudo-religious as shown in Sandinge Menighed: En Fortælling (1883; Sandinge parish); others expose with crass realism the misery of the rural population as well as the general corruption of the clergy, as in Fra Hytterne: Nye Landsbybilleder (1887; from the cottages). From 1887 to 1889 Pontoppidan worked as a journalist for the influential liberal Danish newspaper Politiken, writing informal and light sketches under the heading Enetaler (soliloquies) and drama reviews, and from 1889 to 1991 for Kjøbenhavns Börstidende, writing various articles, mostly under the pseudonym of “Urbanus” (city dweller). Pontoppidan and his wife began living separately in 1887, and in 1892, they were divorced. The same year, he married Antoinette Caroline Elise, née Kofoed, who belonged to the well-established Copenhagen bourgeoisie. After journeys to Germany and Italy, Pontoppidan settled in the provincial town of Fredensborg north of Copenhagen. After 1910, he lived permanently in Copenhagen.
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