Speaker to examine meaning of Hamsun

Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans have wrestled with the question for more than 60 years:  What to make of Knut Hamsun?

By Chuck Haga –  Grand Forks Herald

Unni Langaas, professor of Norwegian literature at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, will grapple with the meaning of Hamsun in a lecture Monday in UND’s Chester Fritz Library.

For a brief time in his youth a North Dakota farmhand — as well as a store clerk in Wisconsin, a lumberyard worker in Minnesota and a street-car driver in Chicago — Hamsun won the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature and is widely regarded as one of the giants of modern letters.

“Never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one worthier of it,” the German author Thomas Mann wrote. And in 1967, 15 years after Hamsun’s death at age 92, Isaac Bashevis Singer declared, “The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun.”

But his experiences in America left him with contempt for American materialism, morality and culture, and in the 1930s, he favored Europe’s dictators over the democracies. When German troops occupied Norway in 1940, Hamsun welcomed them. He made a gift of his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister. He flew to Germany to meet Hitler and, on Hitler’s death, wrote a front-page obituary in a collaborationist newspaper.

“He was a warrior,” Hamsun wrote, “a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” After the war, defenders argued that Hamsun’s stature and intervention with the Nazis saved Norwegian lives and helped get people out of prisons. He was to be prosecuted for treason, but the proceedings were complicated by questions of the aged author’s mental and physical health; he was deaf and had suffered a stroke. In the end, he was fined heavily and largely rebuked or shunned by the Norwegian people.

But time passes. “Hunger” and “Growth of the Soil” and the other Hamsun novels are selling again. Earlier this year, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, Norway organized a grand exhibition including original manuscripts and pieces of “the other Hamsun,” such as the Hitler obituary. Queen Sonja attended, meeting with members of the Hamsun family and telling reporters as she left, “I think we’ll have to keep two thoughts in our head at the same time.”

“We can’t help loving him,” a Hamsun biographer told the New York Times after viewing the exhibition, “though we have hated him all these years.”

Gunnar Sønsteby, the World War II Norwegian resistance hero who spoke at UND in October, campaigned in 2001 against a proposal to name an Oslo street after Hamsun. But Sønsteby said he can accept the commemoration, the Times reported, “as long as his literary talent and his dark side receive equal focus.”

Mark Twain and the King of Wheat

Hamsun made two trips to the U.S. in the 1880s and spent about four years in the country. He heard Mark Twain lecture, met the humorist and admired his style. But a professor of Scandinavian literature saw little potential in the young Norwegian as a writer and recommended he try manual labor. Needing to eat, Hamsun worked as a store clerk in Wisconsin, in a lumberyard in Madelia, Minn., and as a street car driver in Chicago — in all those places, surrounded by fellow Norwegians. In North Dakota, he worked on the Red River Valley bonanza farm of the so-called “King of Wheat,” Oliver Dalrymple.

In 1887, Hamsun went to Minneapolis, where he clerked for a Norwegian minister. Preparing to return to Norway the next year, he gave a lecture in Minneapolis attacking materialism and what he saw as the emptiness of American intellectual life.

Monday’s (May 4) lecture, free and open to the public, is at 3:30 p.m. in the library’s East Asian Room. The presentation is sponsored by the UND Norwegian language program and the Nordic Initiative.

Reach Chuck Haga at 701-780-1101 or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com.

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