Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.