A Norwegian Enigma in America

Oslo literary festival explores Knut Hamsun’s literary legacy

Photo: Public domain Hamsun in public transit conductor uniform, Chicago, 1884.

Photo: Public domain
Hamsun in public transit conductor uniform, Chicago, 1884.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

At noon on Saturday, September 5, the main auditorium of Litteraturhuset (“The Literature House”) in Oslo, was filled to capacity. The mélange of writers, literary figures, students, and readers had come to hear a panel of five discuss “Knut Hamsun in America” on the final day of the annual Norwegian American Literary Festival. After a round of applause an hour and a half later, they left, having benefitted from new insights into the life, work, and mentality of the great Norwegian writer who when still in his 20s had spent four years in America.

The scope of the panel discussion reflected the expertise of its members. Ane Farsethås, who moderated the discussion, is recognized for her benchmark essay “Knut Hamsun and literary merit.” She is now the Culture Editor of Morgenbladet, the Norwegian weekly known for its literary coverage. Two other members of the panel were Norwegians. Tore Rem, a professor of English literature at the University of Oslo, is also a writer. His most recent book is Reisen til Hitler (“Trip to Hitler”), an analytical account of Hamsun’s visit to Hitler on June 26, 1943. Karl Ove Knausgård is a contemporary Norwegian author, best known for six autobiographical novels, Min Kamp (“My Struggle”).

Two members of the panel were Americans. John Jeremiah Sullivan, the keynote speaker, is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, a Harpers contributing editor, and an editor for The Paris Review. English-born James Wood was the principal reviewer for The Guardian before relocating in New York in 1995. He is now a critic for The New Yorker and a Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University.

In just 15 minutes, keynote speaker Sullivan presented his recent research on Knut Hamsun’s two stays in the U.S., from February 1882 to the autumn of 1884 and from the autumn of 1886 to the summer of 1888. His first stay began in Elroy, Wisconsin, where his elder brother Peter had a general store. Peter was unable to provide financial help or lodging, so Knut took odd jobs at low wages. He couldn’t afford to rent a room unless he shared its expense with another renter. He found a man willing to share, Will T. Ager, an American of British heritage who taught at the local high school. The two got on well, and much of what Sullivan discovered about Hamsun’s stay in Elroy was written by Ager and published later in The American Book Collector, a monthly magazine for bibliophiles. Sullivan reckons that many of the traits that were to mark Hamsun’s character surfaced during his stay in Elroy, including his dislike of the British and his disenchantment with American society.

In 1889 Hamsun published his first book, Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (“From the Cultural Life of Modern America”), an amusing and occasionally vitriolic attack on the New World (first English translation in 1969). The book was widely regarded as diatribe. But Georg Brandes, the Danish critic and scholar who at the time greatly influenced Scandinavian and European literature, praised it. That encouraged Hamsun to continue unabated.

Photo: Whitmore Rare Books First edition of Hunger, 1899.

Photo: Whitmore Rare Books
First edition of Hunger, 1899.

He had been working on his first novel, Sult (“Hunger”), of which one of its four parts had been published anonymously in Ny Jord (“New Ground”), a Danish literary journal. Rumors that something larger was in store circulated in Danish-Norwegian literary circles. It was. Sult was published in 1890 by Philipsen of Copenhagen.

That was a turning point at which a chance encounter first made Hamsun’s work accessible in English. Writer George Egerton (the pen name of Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) had spent two years in New York and then two years in Norway, where she met and had a brief affair with Hamsun. She acknowledged her infatuation by dedicating Keynotes, her first book, to him with the words: “In memory of a day when the west wind and the rainbow met.” She went on to translate Sult. The translation was finished in 1895. But at the time, the literary community of London was in crisis. Oscar Wilde, one of its foremost figures, had been imprisoned for homosexuality. After his trial, no publisher would consider a new radical literary work.

But one did. Leonard Smithers, a publisher involved in the Decadent Movement, accepted the Sult translation, and published Hunger in 1899. Its reception was chilly. The Academy, a review of literature published in London, was shocked by the book’s storyline and even more so by its minimalistic cover, designed by illustrator and mystic William Thomas Horton. In its “Literary Week,” The Academy sniffed that “Scandinavia’s contribution to the world’s store of morbid literature is increased this week.”

Despite the cool initial reception of Hunger, Hamsun went on to be the most prolific of the Scandinavian writers prominent in twentieth century literature, of which three Norwegians had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903), Knut Hamsun (1920), and Sigrid Undset (1928). The list of Hamsun’s publications includes 20 novels, six plays, three collections of short stories, and two volumes of poetry. He was an innovative literary stylist whose works influenced many authors, including Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Henry Miller, and Ernest Hemingway. Polish-born American author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was awarded two U.S. National Book Awards and the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature considered Hamsun to be “the father of the modern school of literature in every aspect.” Yet Hamsun remains not very well known in America.

That conundrum was the challenge of the panel discussion that followed the keynote presentation of Hamsun’s life in America in the 1880s. The panelists agreed that though the details of Hamsun’s unconventional career were well known, their underpinnings were not. What, for instance, was the source of Hamsun’s enchanting grip on his readers? Writer Knausgård reckoned that tragicomedy might be involved, as Hamsun had associated with the poor figure played by Charlie Chaplin. Keynote speaker J.J. Sullivan pointed out that pinning down any one cause might be elusive, as Hamsun’s influence was “everywhere yet nowhere.” The panel discussion ended with more perplexing questions than it had faced at the outset. Yet it had shed light on the place of America in the life of an enigmatic author.

This year’s Norwegian American Literary Festival (NALF) was the fourth. The first was put together by Frode Saugestad, a Norwegian literary scholar who specializes in the modern novel. He has ties to America and lives in part in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 2007 to 2010 he was a post-doc in comparative literature at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Harvard University and is now a visiting fellow there.

The NALF has few of the frills of a literary conference. It has no printed program. Its website at www.nalf.info provides only a schedule of the times and venues of its events. There are no nametags. Its promotional material consists of postcard-sized flyers, printed on both sides. It has no publisher backing. Attendance is free. Founder Frode Saugestad still MCs the NALF and is its one-man press corps. A free video of the 2015 keynote event, “Hamsun in America” is online at: livestream.com/accounts/11147584/events/4316265.

Litteraturhuset, the venue for NALF, was inspired by the German tradition of Freie Literaturhaus, of which there are many in Germany and now in other European countries. Each year Litteraturhuset hosts some 700 events and attracts nearly a quarter of a million visitors, a record for European houses of literature. If you’re in Oslo it’s worth a visit; further information at www.litteraturhuset.no (in Norwegian, with information pages selectable in English).

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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