Karianne Bjellås Gilje: “Damned scribbling in newspapers”
Knut Hamsun as a non-fiction writer
Can reading Hamsun’s non-fiction give us a more complete picture of the author? Indubitably. All his available texts, his non-fiction as well as his fiction, form parts of the author’s work, and his life. If there actually is one complete picture, then we find it in the mosaic of these parts. The literature researchers who reject any connection between a writer’s life events, opinions and experience, and how these are expressed in fiction, have had their day. Our first thought is that perhaps fictional texts are more open to interpretation and to a greater diversity of meaning than non-fiction. This is conveyed in the term itself: non-fiction is bound to the matter at hand, to reality. Or, as Professor Johan Tønnessen says in his book on the subject, non-fiction consists of texts that the reader has good reason to regard as direct observations of reality. However, this is one of the most obvious statements that can be made about non-fiction, and it is also why this professor and many others have begun to show an increasing interest in the non-fiction texts in the history of literature.
A quick dip into Hamsun’s prose writing can show how these texts yield knowledge of both his life and his works – in addition to providing worthy reading experiences. Becoming more familiar with what Hamsun in one newspaper debate called “damn scribbling in newspapers” provides a depth and context to the reading of the novel for which Hamsun in his time won most fame: the Nobel Prize novel Growth of the Soil (1917).
The subject is infanticide. The word is shocking in itself. Two child murders are committed in Growth of the Soil: we meet two mothers who kill their children immediately after birth. The mothers are portrayed as very dissimilar by the narrator of the novel. Why? As we will see, we must turn to Hamsun’s non-fiction in our search for an answer. A study of the author’s non-fiction during the period he was writing this novel reveals that for two whole years he was engaged in a comprehensive newspaper debate on precisely that subject – infanticide – with opponents who had a high public profile at that time: for example the author Sigrid Undset, the women’s rights campaigner Katti Anker Møller, the doctor Johan Scharffenberg and the politician Johan Castberg.
On 16 January 1915 Hamsun has an article printed in the newspaper Morgenbladet. Here he writes: “Some weeks ago in Morgenbladet there was an article about a young girl who had been given a penalty of eight months for killing her child. It did not say eighteen years or eight years, but eight months. Were there any special circumstances to the case, or is the penalty for killing a child now eight months?” Hamsun concludes that the child had development potential while the mother was hopeless, and therefore “Hang both parents, do away with them! Hang the first hundred – they’re hopeless. The first hundred, that will gain respect, and then perhaps these terrible conditions will improve. Let something be done, give the children peace from the hands around their necks, from all the blood and all these murders!”
Not surprisingly, these outbursts were the start of a long-standing debate, in several newspapers and magazines. Through his contributions Hamsun managed to make it sound as if he was alone in his defence of the children while all the other 25 debaters defend the unhappy mother. But it was not so simple. All Hamsun’s opponents agree with him that the act of taking the life of a newborn baby is ethically reprehensible. But nonetheless they try, to a greater extent than Hamsun, to analyse the mother’s reasons for acting as she does, and they ask how infanticide can be prevented or deterred. Their main objection to Hamsun is that he cannot see that there is also something wrong with society – not only with the individual unhappy woman. But Hamsun snorts. He refuses to listen to the “half-male” Sigrid Undset and to the “catty meowing” of Katti Anker Møller. He calls their statements “stuff and nonsense” and regards them as showing no progress if they insist on putting all the blame on society. Hamsun wants action – action in the form of stricter penalties for infanticide.
The cause of Hamsun’s strong commitment to the infanticide case at the beginning of 1915 was the revision of the so-called “Children’s Acts”, one of the initiators of which was Johan Castberg. A major point in the legislative amendments was that unmarried mothers and “illegitimate” children were to be given greater financial security because a man’s obligation to his children should be the same whether they were born in or out of wedlock. Castberg and his sister-in-law, Katti Anker Møller, perceived Hamsun’s contribution to the debate as an attack on the revision of these acts. The debaters were to a certain degree talking at cross purposes in their eagerness to advance their own views on the matter – a well-known phenomenon in newspaper debates. However, there was also genuine disagreement, mainly about the angle from which the case was viewed – the angle of the child, of the mother or of society, or a combination of several.
Hamsun’s chief concern was the child. He esteemed the young, regarding them as people with potential and a future, not only in the infanticide debate but also in other non-fiction and in fiction. In the debate he claims that “old people and idiots” sit in “palaces” while “children’s homes shiver on in poverty from one year to the next”. Such statements caused the Hamsun biographer Robert Ferguson to write that the infanticide debate is just one of many cases where one would have preferred Hamsun to have kept quiet. His reason was that the debate has been used to prove that Hamsun lacked a basic humane attitude. But here Ferguson has forgotten the nuances – in the newspaper articles and particularly in the novel. Even though Hamsun apparently advocates simple solutions – “Hang them!” – the reader soon recognises the nuances. And when the debate on infanticide continues in Growth of the Soil, direct quotations from Hamsun’s most indignant opponents are woven into the speech of the characters of the novel, and these are not depicted as unambiguously negative.
Hamsun himself considered using “A novel of my Norwegian era” as a subtitle. This is a sign that the novel can also be interpreted as a broadly-based reply to the participants in the world outside the cover of the book. The doctors and mothers who wanted to put him in his place in the newspapers are given their fictional spokesperson in the wife of the sheriff. In the second part of the novel she holds a speech defending Barbro fra Maaneland, who has drowned her own child. In the speech there are many direct quotations from the newspaper contributions of Hamsun’s opponents – and Barbro is acquitted.
The novel’s other child murderer, Inger Sellanraa, is described in milder terms than Barbro. And why? Because with her the development takes place that Hamsun proposes in the newspaper debate as the best: Inger is given a long sentence, she shows regret, and she develops to become a better person. Barbro, who was acquitted, remains an “immoral slut of a servant girl” with no regret or development. When Hamsun was allowed to control the story as he wanted to in the universe of his novels, he introduced characters that confirmed the claims of his newspaper contributions: punishment will have a preventive effect, and punishment and regret can lead to the child murderer’s development. What he does not do is to hang Inger Sellanraa. Are the allegations from the newspaper debate on the death penalty for child murders, which he repeats in an article in the newspaper Aftenposten on 16 April 1916, intended as outbursts aimed at provoking debate rather than as his actual wishes? There is much to suggest this. The most important point for Hamsun seems to be that the penalty is strict enough to have a preventive effect.
But then there is the child. The child is also Hamsun’s main concern in the novel. Sheriff Geissler, who can be characterised as Hamsun’s mouthpiece in Growth of the Soil, claims that birds and animals are protected and that it seems somewhat strange that infants are not. The same technique recurs in the newspaper articles: presenting paradoxes and examples to show how society systematically disparages young people. In retrospect we can at least say that some of the strong criticism of civilisation has had a result: children and young people have been given far more rights in Norwegian democracy since 1915. Nonetheless we must add that the improvement in children’s rights has fortunately not come through the criminal prosecution of women but through improving the conditions that led desperate women to take extreme action.
If Hamsun’s non-fiction writings are read in their historical context, they complement the story of the author’s life. Fictional writers’ non-fiction has always been used in this way. But readers must also keep their eyes open for the literary element in such prose, as is shown in the following example: two sentences that form a story in the middle of the harsh polemic of Hamsun’s first contribution to the debate in 1915:
And a child is pretty too, pretty to have in this life. It plays with its small hands, and now and then it looks up. It is full of wonder when it comes into a new room.
This is quite clearly an argument for taking care of children, although it is expressed in more than just non-fiction.
Karianne Bjellås Gilje (b. 1969) has a Master’s degree in Arts, and her thesis (1996) analyses Knut Hamsun’s non-fiction in the debate on infanticide, and his novel Growth of the Soil. She has also written, contributed to and edited a number of books, and she is editor of the magazine Prosa.
English translation: Ruth Johnson