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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

Born Knut Pedersen on August 4, 1859, Knut Hamsun (HAHM-suhn) was raised one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in a land that demanded much of its inhabitants. It was a barren, cruel, lonely environment, which Hamsun, paradoxically, loved so much that fully one-third of his fiction is set there, and all his works reflect the spirit of that forbidding landscape. Hamsun’s characters are solitary figures, cut off physically, financially, spiritually, or socially from the rest of humankind, and Hamsun’s world is a recalcitrant place, improved only by small increments and at great cost to the reformers. His portrayals of both people and places are living re-creations, accounts which even at their bleakest betray a basic optimism that relies on simple values, on humankind’s inevitable, unseverable connection to the land as a source of hope. This vision emerged slowly over the first thirty years of Hamsun’s career as a writer, which began in 1890 with the publication of Hunger, but by 1920, the year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for Growth of the Soil, he was already recognized as a major European writer. Because the award accelerated the translation of his works into English and other languages, by 1940 his fiction was acclaimed worldwide.{$S[A]Pedersen, Knut;Hamsun, Knut}

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Hamsun’s career can be divided into stages. The first, and perhaps the most important, is the earliest, lasting roughly from 1888 to 1898, or from the beginning of Hunger to the publication of Victoria. During this period Hamsun’s vision and his peculiar style grew to maturity. He established his characteristic themes of isolation and of the necessity for hard work, and he built an audience for himself in his native Scandinavia. During the second period, from 1898 to 1917 and the publication of Growth of the Soil, Hamsun’s outcast hero evolved into a wanderer who, instead of being shut out from society, retires from it, seeking peace in the countryside, away from the impersonality and materialism of the modern world. This new thrust softens Hamsun’s sense of isolation without actually compromising it. The novels are more optimistic, as Hamsun at least admits the possibility of a better life, hard though that life may be. Basically, Hamsun establishes himself as a social novelist who attacks industrialism and posits that only a return to the land will save humankind from destroying itself.

Hamsun shifted his focus from the countryside to the city in Growth of the Soil and the novels that followed it. Here, in the third stage of Hamsun’s career, he produced his most significant works and turned to an extended examination of the city. In Growth of the Soil Hamsun catalogs the advantages of city life: medical care, education, professional opportunity, and other positive symbols. However, he uses the metaphor of the city-as-prison to demonstrate that city dwellers are trapped by their advantages, that they are imprisoned by their conveniences in a way that the country people are not. Hamsun follows up on this metaphor in The Women at the Pump, in which the city is described as an anthill. Everyone is busy, everyone is occupied, but this society is too segmented, providing each resident with too small a scope. The city dwellers cannot see beyond their own needs, and so their actions are shortsighted and destructive. Finally, in Chapter the Last, Hamsun portrays the city as a sanatorium, packed with criminals and crazy people. Here industrial society is portrayed at its lowest, as the efficient cause of the ruination of its citizens.

In these three novels Hamsun demonstrates that industrial society destroys by placing too many limitations on the people, making them self-centered and creating an atmosphere in which destruction is seen as positive, an atmosphere in which the human spirit is ever poorer. By contrast, Hamsun praises the rural life, the struggle to extract a living from the soil, as a liberating experience and as an experience that promotes responsibility. Each generation tries to improve the medium of life—the soil—for the next generation. Hamsun thus elevates the farmer, the simple husbandman, to the stature of hero, and the farmer’s solitude becomes an entirely positive element.

After finishing Chapter the Last, Hamsun went through an extremely difficult five years, during which he simply could not write. A compendium of personal difficulties produced a depression for which he finally sought professional help. Psychoanalysis helped, and Hamsun began the last phase of his career with the August trilogy, comprising Vagabonds, August, and The Road Leads On. Here Hamsun explores the human failure to recognize when one is doing well; his characters are clearly happy in their town of Polden, yet they cannot stay there. Their desire for advancement, their ambition, takes one, Edevart, away to the United States and makes the other, August, restless and unhappy. These portraits betray the author’s bemusement over what he sees as human failings, rather than his bitterness over them. These are gentler admonitions, not jeremiads, and taken together with The Ring Is Closed, they demonstrate Hamsun’s capacity for growth even at this last stage of his literary activity. After 1936, he would write no more novels.

Hamsun’s talent is only too evident in his novels, as is his energy. However, part of the Hamsun phenomenon is the result of luck, for the timing of the Nobel Prize maximized his already considerable influence. As a result of the award, all of his books, major and minor, were soon translated into English, and Hamsun almost overnight progressed from a European writer to a fixture in world literature. Indeed, his reputation grew until even his sincere but misguided support of the Nazis during World War II could not eradicate it. In fact, his memoir of his postwar imprisonment and trial, On Overgrown Paths, was widely hailed as a vindication of a ninety-year-old national treasure. Shortly after the memoir appeared, Hamsun’s Danish publisher issued his collected works, and since then all the major novels have been retranslated in more scholarly editions. Today, Hamsun’s literary importance is unquestioned.

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