Twentieth-Century Danish Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Twentieth-Century Danish Literature


Twentieth-Century Danish Literature

The following entry presents criticism on authors and works of twentieth-century Danish literature.

The geographical area that currently comprises the nation of Denmark was invaded by several generations of Indo-European settlers beginning sometime around 2000 b.c. Over the next several hundred years, these ethnic groups and others merged to form the ethnic population of modern-day Denmark and Scandinavia. Although Denmark has a strong history of indigenous literature and folk tales—including poetry composed in the Runic alphabet, reminiscent of other cultures influenced by Indo-European civilizations—the modern-day Danish lexicon has its roots in the Germanic family of languages. After the advent of Christianity and throughout the Middle Ages, literature in Denmark was largely dominated by ecclesiastical writers and themes. At the time, Danish literature focused heavily on stories about saints and legends concerned with expounding the Christian view of life. One well-known exception to this trend was a history of Denmark, titled Gesta Danorum, that was written by Saxo Grammaticus sometime in the twelfth century. This text shows evidence of both pagan and Christian influences in its tales of the lineage of Danish kings throughout the ages. In addition to such works as Gesta Danorum, indigenous Danish narratives were also preserved during the Middle Ages through a continuous output of folk songs and stories. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of neoclassical literature in Denmark, followed in the twentieth century with the adoption of a more realistic national prose style.

Early twentieth-century Danish literature was heavily influenced by a reaction against the naturalist movement in prose that began in the late nineteenth century. This era witnessed the advent of a fervently nationalistic Danish literature in the works of Martin Andersen Nexø. Nexø's novel Pelle Erobreren (1906-10) is now regarded as a seminal work of proletarian literature and has been translated into numerous languages. In addition, the early twentieth century saw the rise of regional and rural literature in Denmark, as embodied in the works of such significant Danish writers as Marie Bregendahl and Jeppe Aakjær. Critics such as Torben Brostrøm have argued that Danish poetry underwent a major thematic shift in the early twentieth century, marked by a distinct rejection of lyrical style in favor of a more symbolist style of writing. The works of such Danish poets as Johannes Jørgensen paralleled other European writers of the period in their opposition to naturalism and their focus on personal and political concerns. One of the most notable Danish symbolist poets of the era was Paul la Cour, who asserted that poetry represents a concept of existence, a unique whole where fragments come together and reveal subtle connections. Another influential Danish poet, Johannes Jensen, published the collection Digte in 1906, which is considered one of the most significant texts in the history of the new form of poetry in Denmark. Although Jensen's writing clearly departed from nineteenth-century lyricism, his strong impressionistic and interpretative style set him apart from other poets of his time. Jensen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1944.

Post-war Denmark witnessed the emergence of a new kind of realistic literature—where novels, poetry, and dramas were steeped in reality and concerned with the futility of human existence. While these works were dark and pessimistic in their descriptions of ordinary life, most concluded with a vision of hope for the future. One of the most notable figures of this period was Isak Dinesen. Dinesen is regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of modern Danish literature. Many of her works have appeared in English, the most famous being Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and Den Afrikanse Farm (1937; Out of Africa). Following the German occupation of Denmark during World War II, Danish literature also began reflecting overtly nationalistic sentiments filled with emotional and ethical turmoil inspired by the conflict.

Modern Denmark is a largely well-educated society with a reputation for being supportive of its literary and artistic communities. Continuing this trend through the 1960s and beyond, the novel and short story continue to be popular genres with Danish readers, while the country itself is one of the leading producers of books and periodicals in the Western world.

Representative Works

Jeppe Aakjær
Vredens Børn, Et Tyendes Saga [Children of Wrath, a Hired-Man's Saga] (novel) 1904
Rugens Sange [Songs of the Rye] (poetry) 1906

Hans Christian Branner
Legetøj (novel) 1936
Drømmen om en kvinde (novel) 1941
“Humanismens krise” (essay) 1950

Marie Bregendahl
En Dødsnat [A Night of Death] (novel) 1912
Billeder af Sødalsfolkens Liv. 7 vols. [Pictures from the Life of the People of Sodal] (short stories) 1914-23

Paul la Cour
Leviathan (poetry) 1930
This Is Our Life (poetry) 1936
Astrid Noack (poetry) 1943

Isak Dinesen
Seven Gothic Tales (short stories) 1934
Sanhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (play) 1936
Den Afrikanse Farm [Out of Africa] (autobiography) 1937
En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse [Bonfire Speech Fourteen Years Delayed] (essay) 1953
Last Tales [Sidste Fortaellinger] (short stories) 1957
Anecdotes of Destiny [Skaebne-Anekdoter] (short stories) 1958

Leck Fisher
Leif den Lykkelige [Leif the Lucky] (novel) 1928-29
Det maa gerne blive Mandag [Monday May as Well Come] (novel) 1934
Barnet (play) 1936

Thorkild Hansen
Jens Munk [North West to Hudson Bay: The Life and Times of Jens Munk] (novel) 1965; also translated as The Way to Hudson Bay: The Life and Times of Jens Munk, 1970
Sidste sommer i Angmagssalik (journals) 1978

Ole Hyltoft
Tør du være fri? (essays) 1968
Hvis lille pige er du? (novel) 1970
Hjertet sidder til venstre (novel) 1973
Revolutionens fortrop (short stories) 1975
Hvem er angst for den stygge ulv? (novel) 1976
Befriede (novel) 1979
Besejrede (novel) 1979
Byggekongen (novel) 1981
Tante Isidora (short stories) 1982

Johannes Jensen
Den gotiske Renaissance (poetry) 1901
Digte (poetry) 1906
Den lange Rejse [The Long Journey] (novel) 1919

Johannes Jørgensen
Essays (criticism) 1906
The Legend of My Life (biography) 1928

Martin Andersen Nexø
Skygger (short stories) 1898
Muldskud (short stories) 1900
Dryss (novel) 1902
Soldage [Days in the Sun] (novel) 1903
*Pelle Erobreren. 4 vols. [Pelle the Conqueror] (novel) 1906-10
Ditte Menneskebarn. 5 vols. (novel) 1917-21

Tor Obrestad
Sauda! Streik! (novel) 1973

Klaus Rifbjerg
Under vejr med mig selv (poetry) 1956
Camouflage (poetry) 1961
Portræt (poetry) 1963
Amagerdigte (poetry) 1965
Udviklinger (play) 1965
Hvad en mand har brug for (play) 1966
Anna (jeg) Anna (novel) 1969
Dengang det var før (memoirs) 1971
Brevet til Gerda (short stories) 1972
Den syende jomfru (short stories) 1972
R. R. (novel) 1972

Hans Scherfig
Det forsømte forår [Stolen Spring] (novel) 1940

*This work contains Pelle Erobreren (1906), Læreaar (1907), Den store Kamp (1909), and Gryet (1910).

Criticism: Major Works

George Bisztrav (essay date winter 1976)

SOURCE: Bisztrav, George. “Documentarism and the Modern Scandinavian Novel.”1Scandinavian Studies 48, no. 1 (winter 1976): 71-83.

[In the following essay, Bisztrav analyses the development of documentarian tendencies in the modern Scandinavian novel.]

Early in 1969, the editors of Vinduet initiated a symposium to elucidate particular problems of the documentary tendency in modern literature. During the discussion, the Swedish guest, Per Olov Enquist, exclaimed: “Det er litt dumt dette med betegnelsen “dokumentær” kanskje, det sentrale spørsmålet i denne sammenheng er fiction eller non-fiction.”2 There was hardly a more...

(The entire section is 4843 words.)

Torben Brostrøm (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Brostrøm, Torben. Introduction to Contemporary Danish Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Line Jensen, Erik Vagn Jensen, Knud Mogensen, and Alexander D. Taylor, pp. 1-10. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1977.

[In the following essay, Brostrøm reviews the development of modern Danish poetry, focusing on stylistic and thematic trends particularly influential in Denmark during the first half of the twentieth century.]

For a description of modern Danish poetry, various historical points of departure may be chosen, e.g., the nearly century-old Naturalism with its new idea of man, coinciding with the emergence of industrialism and capitalism. In many respects we are still...

(The entire section is 3352 words.)

Frank Egholm Andersen and John Weinstock (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Andersen, Frank Egholm, and John Weinstock. “Danish Literary Criticism since 1960.” In The Nordic Mind: Current Trends in Scandinavian Literary Criticism, pp. 1-5. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.

[In the following essay, Andersen presents a brief synopsis of Danish literary critical thought.]

It has been extremely exciting to follow Danish literary criticism and research during the last two decades. Denmark is a very small country but nevertheless has a culture and a language all its own. Exactly because of this limitation in size, Danish cultural and literary debates are notably sensitive to what is happening in other, larger cultural...

(The entire section is 1775 words.)

Criticism: Major Authors

Aage Henriksen (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Henriksen, Aage. “Karen Blixen and Marionettes.” In Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, edited by Olga Anastasia Pelensky and William Mishler, pp. 1-17. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, originally published in Karen Blixen og Marionetterne in 1952, Henriksen illustrates the use of the marionette symbol in Isak Dinesen's works, including Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales.]


The qualities that have led to Karen Blixen's literary fame are the first ones to strike the readers of her stories. The exquisite and refined narrative manner and the mysterious and fantastic...

(The entire section is 8269 words.)

Ann Gossman (essay date autumn 1963)

SOURCE: Gossman, Ann. “Sacramental Imagery in Two Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4, no. 3 (autumn 1963): 319-26.

[In the following essay, Gossman describes the use of the theme of destiny and the search for human identity in three of Isak Dinesen's short stories.]

Many stories by Isak Dinesen explore a pattern of destiny against which the individual must search for his identity, or else abandon his hope, his risks, and his distinctive humanity. Such a theme is evident in some of the stories in Dinesen's first published collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), especially in “The Dreamers.” It...

(The entire section is 3416 words.)

Sven H. Rossel (essay date winter 1983)

SOURCE: Rossel, Sven H. “Ole Hyltoft and the Neorealistic Trends in Contemporary Danish Literature.” World Literature Today 57, no. 1 (winter 1983): 17-21.

[In the following essay, Rossell argues that the poetry of Ole Hyltoft is marked with sharp political satire examining the ideologies of Capitalism and Marxism, and that many of the views expressed in his writing evolved during his years as a critic and journalist.]

Life is so many-sided: poetic, criminal, full of love, taunting.

Ole Hyltoft

When Klaus Rifbjerg (see BA 49:1, pp. 25-28), the writer largely responsible for the...

(The entire section is 3537 words.)

Faith Ingwerson and Niels Ingwerson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Ingwerson, Faith, and Niels Ingwerson. “Introduction: The Age, the Man, and His Vision.” In Quests for a Promised Land: The Works of Martin Andersen Nexø, pp. 3-33. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Faith and Niels Ingwerson trace the political and cultural climate during Martin Andersen Nexø's time, also providing overviews of his major works and themes.]

Martin Andersen Nexø was always involved in the history of his age: he recorded it as he saw it, and he wanted to set his mark on it. His oeuvre is a statement that was meant to influence opinions and affect lives. A necessary delineation follows of his times, his...

(The entire section is 12738 words.)

Charlotte Schiander Gray (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Gray, Charlotte Schiander. “Lyrical Debut” In Klaus Rifbjerg, pp. 3-12. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Gray details Klaus Rifbjerg's life and works, focusing on Under vejr med mig selv his first collection of poetry.]


Rifbjerg's biography, as such, is very undramatic, but he has an almost uncanny ability for the sensuous reproduction of basic and normal life occurrences so that they continue to offer new insights. And although the available biographical facts themselves are quite limited, Rifbjerg's recollection and recreation of them seem boundless.


(The entire section is 4108 words.)

Charlotte Schiander Gray (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Gray, Charlotte Schiander. “The Author and His Work.” In Klaus Rifbjerg, pp. 75-90. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Gray discusses Klaus Rifbjerg's experimental style in his memoirs, short stories, and novels.]


Stages of crisis, and of potentially renewed insight and development, occur especially when a character is about to enter adulthood or when he is assessing his status as an adult approaching middle age. The travel descriptions follow the same biological-psychological pattern. For example, Leif in Leif the Happy, Jr. (1971), is confronted with a problem similar to...

(The entire section is 6423 words.)

Marlene Barr (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Barr, Marlene. “Food for Postmodern Thought: Isak Dinesen's Female Artists as Precursors to Contemporary Feminist Fabulators.”1 In Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin, pp. 21-33. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Barr theorizes on the importance of Isak Dinesen's works as precursors to postmodern feminist writing.]

In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson comments, “I am very far indeed from believing that any of the most significant postmodern artists—John Cage, John Ashbery, Philippe Sollers, Robert Wilson, Andy Warhol, Ishmael Reed,...

(The entire section is 4306 words.)

Mark Mussari (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Mussari, Mark. “H. C. Branner and the Colors of Consciousness.” Scandinavian Studies 71, no. 1 (spring 1999): 41-66.

[In the following essay, Mussari studies H. C. Branner's use of pictorial language in his writings as a means to evoke images underlying human consciousness.]

                                                  Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot

Commenting on the power of the image in his essay “Kunst og virkelighed” (1962), H. C. Branner observed that “de store forandringer viser sig altid først i kunsten, hvad der er en...

(The entire section is 10880 words.)

Further Reading


Gray, Charlotte Schiander. “Klaus Rifbjerg: A Contemporary Danish Writer.” Books Abroad 49, no. 1 (winter 1975): 25-8.

Chronicles the literary output of Danish poet and novelist Klaus Rifbjerg, characterizing him as a leading figure amongst contemporary Danish writers.

Jorgensen, Aage. “Touring the 1970's with the Solvognen in Denmark.” Drama Review 26, no. 3(95) (fall 1982): 3-14.

Follows the development of twentieh-century Danish theater, focusing in particular on the development of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.

Koefoed, H. A. “Martin Andersen Nexø—Some Viewpoints.”...

(The entire section is 184 words.)