Twentieth-Century Danish Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.