Knut Hamsun 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 Hamsun’s mother, Tora, was also of peasant stock. In 1863, Pedersen moved with his family to Hamarøy in Nordland, Norway, where he settled on his brother-in-law’s farm, Hamsund, from which Hamsun later took the name by which he is known.
Hamsun’s earliest childhood years were happy ones. The happiness came to an end, however, when at the age of nine he was sent to live with his maternal uncle, a wealthy landowner and merchant. Hamsun’s parents were not happy with this arrangement either; it was only when heavy financial pressure was brought to bear on them that they agreed to it. The uncle needed Hamsun’s labor, and the boy had many experiences at his uncle’s home that later were of use to him in his art, although he was harshly treated.
Hamsun was released from working for his uncle in 1873 and began a long career of odd jobs. He first clerked in several country stores, after which he became an itinerant peddler, then a shoemaker’s apprentice, and even a sheriff’s deputy. He also worked as a country schoolmaster, a position for which he was qualified by his native intelligence and masterful penmanship.
Hamsun did not read widely during this period of his life, but he had become familiar with the peasant tales of his countryman Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and in 1877, when Hamsun was only eighteen years old, he published his first book, a naïve love story titled Den gådefulde (the riddle). This youthful work is significant only as the first version of what was to become one of Hamsun’s most persistent motifs—namely, a relationship between a lower-class man and an upper-class woman. In the beautiful and lyric novel Victoria, this motif became the main theme.
The year 1878 saw the publication of another youthful tale, Bjørger. Hamsun’s early writings enabled him to obtain the support of a wealthy merchant, and he was able to concentrate fully on the task of becoming a poet of note. To this end, he produced a manuscript and traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he offered it to Scandinavia’s best-known publisher, Hegel of Gyldendal. To his dismay, his manuscript was rejected, and he spent a difficult winter in the city of Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway. The experiences of this winter, as well as later, similar ones, provided him with the material for his novel Hunger, which in 1890 gave him his breakthrough as a writer.
Prior to the publication of Hunger, however, Hamsun spent several years in the United States. During two separate stays, he again worked at a variety of jobs, but in addition he read widely in both European and American literature. He also lectured to Norwegian immigrants on literary and cultural topics. In 1888, after his final return from the United States, he lived in Copenhagen, where he anonymously published the first chapter of Hunger in a periodical. This made him a talked-about figure in literary circles even though his identity was known by but a few. The following year, he gave a series of lectures about the United States in Copenhagen’s Student Society; these lectures were published as Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv later in the same year.
After the publication of Hunger, a groundbreaking psychological novel, Hamsun wrote an article in 1890 in which he outlined the basic principles employed in its composition. This article, titled “Fra det ubevidste sjæleliv” (“From the Unconscious Life of the Mind”), became the genesis of a series of lectures Hamsun presented in a number of Norwegian cities and towns during the year 1891. In these lectures, Hamsun attacked earlier Norwegian literature for being concerned with social conditions rather than with the mental life of the exceptional...
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