On Overgrown Paths Critical Essays

Knut Pedersen


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Some writers write because they decided at some point in their lives that they wanted to be writers; that is, there was a conscious decision to write. Others write because they cannot help themselves; writing is simply part of who they are. Hamsun, apparently, was of the latter party. He thought of himself as a farmer, a tiller of the soil, and his writings, in one way or another, center on characters who are much like himself. They are lonely or simply alone, isolated figures who have their own sometimes tortured vision of what life is and who live consistently within that vision, regardless of whether they suffer from the conditions they create. In this way the characters are like their creator; indeed, many of the characters are explicitly autobiographical.

Hamsun knew deep within himself that life was hard and that people were basically alone in the world, solely responsible for their own well-being. Thus, he worked the soil because it was the basic element of life on earth and because success or failure depended primarily on his own work, his own dedication. Nevertheless, a part of him simply sang, regardless of how hard life became. His first widely known novel, Sult (1890; Hunger, 1899), grew out of his experiences as a starving writer roaming the streets of Oslo. Hamsun condensed and heightened his own experiences, but the hunger the main character feels is remembered, not invented. Similarly, On Overgrown Paths grew out of Hamsun’s difficulty; this autobiographical memoir is as fully an expression of its author’s trouble as the earlier novels were. Hamsun himself seems to be at the mercy of his urge to write, as he clearly indicates:I know that I must not bother anyone with my speculations and recollections and perceptions; I cannot stand it in others. But my head sings with them, or perhaps it is my body or my soul singing thus. It is not the beginning of a cold or something I can cure by putting on more clothes or taking them off; hush, it is something angelic, with many violins. That is it exactly!

One should be extremely cautious about taking any writer’s words completely at face value, but in this case Hamsun has apparently written for exactly the reason he claims: He cannot help himself. In fact, in another sense, Hamsun could not realistically have hoped to help himself by writing On Overgrown Paths. Public outrage over Hamsun’s wartime activities had forced his publisher, Gyldendal, to remove all...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)