Knut Hamsun

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1994

Article abstract: The author of more than twenty novels, six plays, and numerous essays, poems, and short stories, Hamsun is widely considered to be Norway’s greatest novelist. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

Early Life

Knut Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen in the agricultural...

(The entire section contains 1994 words.)

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Article abstract: The author of more than twenty novels, six plays, and numerous essays, poems, and short stories, Hamsun is widely considered to be Norway’s greatest novelist. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

Early Life

Knut Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen in the agricultural area of Lom, Gubrandsdal, Norway, on August 4, 1859. When he was four years old, his impoverished family moved to the farm of a wealthier uncle in Nordland, one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Life was easier for the family there, but debts continued to mount. At nine, Knut was sent to live with another uncle, Hans Olsen, working in Olsen’s post office to pay off a family debt. For five years, Knut worked for his uncle, who starved and beat him. Once Knut had finished his schooling, however, he was able to escape, beginning at the age of fourteen a life of wandering and searching for work.

For the next five years, Hamsun roamed northern Norway, working as a store clerk, an itinerant merchant, a shoemaker’s apprentice, a sheriff’s deputy, and a schoolteacher. Throughout these years he sharpened his writing skills, and he published his first novel, Den gaadefulde (the mysterious one), in 1877. In 1878, he published a poem, “Et gjensyn” (“A Reunion”), and another novel, Bjoerger. The two novels were transparently autobiographical accounts of the loneliness and frustrations of Hamsun’s own life. None of these minor works has been translated into English.

In 1879, Hamsun traveled south again, working as a member of a road crew. The pay was poor, and he nearly starved, but he continued his education and his literary pursuits, reading everything he could find in local libraries and offering himself as a lecturer on literary topics. He emigrated to the United States in 1882, expecting to find literary success and prosperity there. Instead, he found a life of hardship and illness, and he returned to Norway in 1884.

Upon his return, he published an article on Mark Twain, using the pseudonym Knut Pedersen Hamsund (“Hamsund” being the name of his family’s farm). The printer accidentally omitted the “d,” and the writer was thereafter known as Knut Hamsun. Over the next few years, Hamsun delivered more lectures and traveled again to the United States, this time finding employment as a streetcar conductor in Chicago and as a journalist in Minneapolis. Yet literary fame continued to elude him there, and upon settling in Copenhagen in 1888 he began a series of anti-American lectures and writings.

Life’s Work

With his first major novel, Sult (1980; Hunger, 1920), Knut Hamsun established himself as an original talent. Until his appearance on the literary stage, most Norwegian literature of the time tended toward themes of “social problems,” focusing on the evils of society at large, and involving complicated plots. Hunger focuses instead on the inner workings of one man.

Like Hamsun’s earlier novels, Hunger is largely autobiographical. Based on Hamsun’s miserable years on the road crew, it is the story of a starving young writer who works diligently at his art, sustained only by his yearning for literary success. Hunger brought Hamsun the fame and respect he had long sought. In this novel, Hamsun unveiled techniques that he would develop throughout his career: the interior monologue, flashbacks and other jumps in time, and the interruption of narrative by episodes of fantasy. Hamsun’s work with interior monologue was perhaps the most influential, leading the way for James Joyce’s development of stream-of-consciousness. Indeed, many of Hamsun’s techniques, which seem rather commonplace to the modern reader, were quite new to readers in the nineteenth century.

Hunger also ushered in a period during which Hamsun focused on gifted and isolated men—men like Hamsun himself—who struggle to nurture their talents but who are unable to form lasting family or romantic attachments or become a part of the society in which they live. These heroes live steadfastly according to their own beliefs, making no attempt to modify themselves in order to adapt to society’s demands. The novels written in this vein are some of Hamsun’s greatest: Mysterier (1892; Mysteries, 1927), Pan, of Loeitnant Glahn’s papirer (1894; Pan, 1920) and Victoria: En kaerligheds historie (1898; Victoria, 1923). During this period, Hamsun also wrote short stories, essays, plays, and poetry reflecting his new ideas about literature.

Hamsun’s work underwent a marked change after the turn of the century. While the gifted but isolated hero continued to appear in his novels, Hamsun’s attention turned from the inner workings of the individual to the environment in which he lived; the novels themselves were no longer interior monologues but became more conventionally plotted social novels with omniscient narrators. Hamsun became increasingly critical of cities and of urban people, seeing in Norwegian cities the same cultural mediocrity and the same lack of individuality that he had found in the United States. Hamsun owned a farm himself and began more and more to consider himself a farmer as well as a writer; for him, the earth was an important source of power, strength, and inspiration.

In the early 1900’s, Hamsun produced a series of humorous novels dealing with simple folk in northern Norway. The first of these was Svaermere (1904; Dreamers, 1921), the story of a slightly foolish telegraph operator who realizes his dream of marrying the beautiful daughter of the town’s most important citizen. Like Benoni (1908; Benoni, 1925) and Rosa, af student Parelius’ papirer (1908; Rosa, 1925), Dreamers features broadly painted comical characters, including overzealous civil servants, unscrupulous businessmen, romantic and unreliable artists, homespun and hardworking laborers, and sharp-tongued women. His novels of this period have in common an affectionately satiric attitude toward simple rural folk and depictions of people from the cities as grasping and untrustworthy.

With Boern av tiden (1913; Children of the Age, 1924) and its sequel Segelfoss by (1915; Segelfoss Town, 1925), Hamsun tells a more serious tale of an old estate growing to be an industrial center, and of the economic and social problems caused by this growth. These novels are peopled with dozens of characters; instead of focusing on the fate of one man, they depict the disintegration of an entire society.

Hamsun the writer/farmer continued to examine the effects of modernization in northern Norway, holding up as his ideal the pioneer farmer who resists society and embraces nature, carving out a place for himself through his own strength and know-how. Markens groede (1917; Growth of the Soil, 1920), which was instrumental in winning for Hamsun the Nobel Prize in Literature, is the story of a rugged farmer who suffers every hardship that nature can throw in his path, but who nevertheless endures. This book makes clearer than any other the nuances of Hamsun’s attitude toward nature. He did not revere nature because it is kinder than the powers of mankind or society, but because it is greater. Those who choose to grapple with nature have a difficult life, and they must face death and loss, but, Hamsun believed, their life is the only spiritually and emotionally satisfying one.

Hamsun produced several more novels, including the important August trilogy, comprising Landstrykere (1927; Vagabonds, 1930), August (1930; August, 1931) and Men livet lever (1933; The Road Leads On, 1934). August is a wandering musician who travels from village to village upsetting convention and habit, and he was the last major character Hamsun created. By this time, Hamsun was in his seventies, and, by all accounts, he had not aged gracefully. Throughout his life he had been unyielding and opinionated. His first marriage had been brief, and his second was not harmonious. Hamsun took his pleasure from his farm and from his writing; but as he aged, his strength and creative abilities began to fail him. His reputation suffered greatly, as well, when in 1940 he wrote newspaper editorials welcoming the Nazis and encouraging his fellow citizens to lay down their arms and accept Nazi rule. So firmly did he believe in the Nazi cause that he met personally with Adolf Hitler and presented his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels.

In 1945, Hamsun was arrested and charged with collaborating with the Nazis. He was held for months in various hospitals and old-age homes awaiting trial, because it was felt that his age and mental condition made him unfit for trial. During this confinement, he wrote his celebrated memoir, Paa gjengrodde stier (1949; On Overgrown Paths, 1967), a lyrical and clearly written work which he intended in part as a defense against the charge of mental incompetence. Nevertheless, he was judged incompetent, fined, and released. He never wrote again and died three years later.


Widely accepted as Norway’s greatest novelist, Knut Hamsun has also been called the father of modern literature. Regardless of whether this claim exaggerates his importance, it cannot be denied that many of the techniques and themes of the so-called modern writers appear in some form in Hamsun’s early works. He was certainly one of the first important writers to develop the psychological novel, using interior monologue, memory, fantasy, and flashback to probe the inner workings of a central character.

For some twenty years after World War II, most criticism of Hamsun’s work focused on his controversial political beliefs, attempting to find even in his earliest works hints of totalitarian leanings. Yet Hamsun will not be remembered chiefly as a political writer. He did find much to approve of in Nazi Germany—a reliance on manly strength over intellectual ability, the subjugation of women, the glorification of the peasant—but his attraction was intellectual rather than political; his ideas had been formed well before the new Germany arrived on the scene.

Hamsun’s greatest legacy lies in his lyrical depictions of nature, his skillful characterization, and his demonstration of the possibilities inherent in focusing on the individual instead of society and on the inner man rather than on the outer one. Because of his humorous tales, his glorious scenic depictions, his love stories, and his rejection of materialism, Hamsun will always have a place in popular literature. And because of his influence on modern writers in more than thirty languages, he will always have a place as an important literary figure.


Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987. An excellent, unflinching look at the ambiguities and complexities of Hamsun’s life. This illustrated biography falls into three parts: Hamsun’s picaresque early life, the middle period with its back-to-the-earth emphasis, and the later years of Hamsun’s involvement with Hitler. Includes a bibliography (only a handful of the entries are in English) and a chronological list of Hamsun’s works.

Gustafson, Alrik. “Man and the Soil: Knut Hamsun.” In Six Scandinavian Novelists. Minneapolis: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1940. An admiring and sentimental look at Hamsun’s life before World War II, with a generous look at the early years and a novel-by-novel account of Hamsun’s greatest works.

Hamsun, Knut. Overgrown Paths. Translated by Carl Anderson. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1967. A memoir writen between 1945 and 1948, while Hamsun was interned on suspicion of aiding the Nazis. As he awaits his trial, Hamsun reflects on his life, his politics, his books, and his importance as a writer.

Larsen, Hanna Astrup. Knut Hamsun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922. A very readable but dated biography dealing with the first half of Hamsun’s life. By uncovering the writer’s “artistic personality,” Larsen identifies Hamsun with the lonely figure featured in many of his novels. Includes four photographs of Hamsun.

Naess, Harald. Knut Hamsun. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A solid overview of Hamsun’s life and works, countering the common view that his creative powers diminished after the middle period. Includes a chronology and an extensive bibliography.

Naess, Harald. “Who Was Hamsun’s Hero?” In The Hero in Scandinavian Literature, edited by John M. Weinstock and Robert T. Rovinsky. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. A clear and convincing description of how Hamsun’s own life as an individualist and social outsider was reflected in the heroes he created.

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