Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

At the end of World War II, Knut Hamsun, then eighty-six years old, presented a sensitive problem for the Norwegian government. During the war, Hamsun had supported the Nazis. He had believed that Adolf Hitler and the Germans, as neighbors and members of Germanic peoples, would best protect Norway’s integrity and neutrality. A determined isolationist, Hamsun did not trust—indeed, had never liked—the British, and he had regarded an English incursion in support of the Norwegian underground as an example of British imperialism. Nevertheless, he had thought that Norway would have to rely on some other power, and he chose to support Germany as a kind of champion against England. If Germany defeated England, Hamsun had believed, then a great threat against his homeland would be removed. Hamsun therefore had chastised the king and his cabinet for leaving Norway and for mobilizing Norway’s armed forces against Germany. He went on to appeal to Norwegians fighting for the Allies, even as late as 1944, to desert the anti-Nazi cause and return to Norway.

The Germans and the Norwegian Nazi Party took full advantage of the prestige that Hamsun’s name lent to their cause in Scandinavia. Hamsun was at that time the grand old man of Scandinavian letters, a 1920 Nobel laureate whose literary career had begun in 1877. Before the war, this reclusive writer, who regarded himself as a farmer, a worker of the soil, had been a kind of national treasure; in the postwar furor against Nazi collaborators, however, his actions in support of Hitler could not be overlooked. Too many people had read his articles or listened to his radio addresses and too many people resented his acceptance of an award from Hitler’s own hand. Thus, Hamsun was caught up in a wave of reaction against Nazi collaborators such as Vidkun Quisling, the notorious founder of the Norwegian Nazi Party, and against Nazi atrocities in Norway and elsewhere.

Yet even Hamsun’s support of Hitler and Quisling could not erase his literary reputation. Though his publisher dared not publish his books, Hamsun himself was still regarded as a somewhat tarnished...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, 1987.

Jacobs, Barry. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXII (July 16, 1967), p. 5.

Lowenthal, Leo. “Knut Hamsun,” in Literature and the Image of Man, 1957.

Naess, Harald. Knut Hamsun, 1984.

Updike, John. “My Mind Was Without a Shadow,” in The New Yorker. XLIII (December 2, 1967), pp. 223-232.