John Brunmo: the modern element in Hamsun's work

How is it that Hamsun, who in the 1890s marketed himself as a “modern writer” through his descriptions of modern dividedness and the sensitivity of the human mind, ended up castigating everything that was modern – from democracy to lipstick?

2017-04-2611:53 Marianne Gjelseth

The historical background is clear: during the time he was alive, from 1859 to 1952, Norwegian society went through a radical process of modernisation. Literary works also bear witness to the huge economic, social and political changes that Hamsun observed and participated in: the development of a more volatile monetary economy, increased opportunities for social mobility, and the establishment of a functioning democracy. These were only some of the extensive processes Hamsun made use of and took a stand on in his work. Although there is clearly a considerable leap from his personal memories of life as a shepherd boy in an agrarian society to his sharp portrayal of democracy and commercialisation, there is also an inner correlation in these experiences that weaves a thread through Hamsun’s texts. Keywords such as subjectivisation, democratisation and market economy constitute the main points of the social development that Hamsun found himself in the middle of. This meant that through the entire body of his diverse works he was concerned with modernity.

Even before Hamsun launched himself as a “modern writer” in "From the Unconscious Life of the Soul", he had assumed the role of an interpreter of modernity. Drawing on the experience of his two unsuccessful stays in America, he wrote the exceedingly critical From the Cultural Life of Modern America (1889). The book repeatedly states that “America’s moral is money”. The American theatre is said to lack “the spirit of art”, its pictorial art is portrayed as in need of “guidance to find new impulses”, and the poetry is referred to as “miserably unreal and talentless”.

But only a short time afterwards, when Hamsun was demonstrating his distance from the established Norwegian writers, he once again resorted to the word “modern”, but this time with a more positive aspect: he viewed himself as representing the future and new literature, while Ibsen and Kielland were yesterday’s men. While he gave priority to depicting the life of the soul of modern man, the “breakthrough authors” clung to what he regarded as an old-fashioned way of portraying characters. And in many ways he was right: with Hunger (1890), in which he describes the nameless writer’s fight for survival, he simultaneously gave voice to the experience of urbanity that was new to Norway. Hunger also portrays a time of breakthrough for the relationship between the author and the market. The conflict between the writer’s urge towards originality and the demands of the market is a recurring theme in the text.

Hamsun’s fascination for modernity’s opportunities and challenges is also shown in the lesser known parts of his work. The novel Shallow Soil (1893) portrays the likeable and industrious businessmen Tidemand and Henriksen, who through their work create values and promote development. The protagonist, Coldevin, is the mouthpiece of the businessmen and questions why “[…] he is admired [the writer] far more than the ablest businessman or the most talented professional”. He continues: “In my opinion there are exceptionally great talents among our business youth. And I could really advise you to pay a little attention to them. They are building ships, opening new markets, conducting complicated business on a hitherto inconceivable scale...”. These “talents” work all hours of the day and night in their wholesale companies. Business activity is portrayed as being not only about making money but also as a bold, almost magical game: “Commerce leads its own hectic life. And we must be thankful! It brings renewal.”

Even though modernity is a recurring feature in Hamsun’s work, it is not the same modern elements that are portrayed in all of his works. In the novel Pan from 1893 it appears to be well hidden. With its dream-like glorification of nature, the story of Lieutenant Glahn’s experiences in Nordland one summer can easily be interpreted as typical neo-romantic writing. However, the attentive reader will soon realise that Thomas Glahn is no child of nature: in a trembling moment in the forest he admits that there are three things he loves: “I cherish a dream of love I once had, I cherish you, and I cherish this plot of land.” But most of all he cherishes the dream. Glahn is no unreflecting nature lover: it is the civilised and urban individual’s view of “the Nordland summer with its endless day” that is depicted in Pan.

The term “modern” was gradually to change character for Hamsun. From being a positive word that could be used to distinguish him from other writers, particularly in character portrayal, “modern” became more of a social category for him. We see this, for example, in the novels Benoni (1908) and Rosa (1908), where the depiction of modernity has been given a more external and humorous form. The novels describe the fate of the nouveau riche in the 1870s in the era of successful herring fisheries. When the helpless postman, Benoni Hartvigsen, has a lucky catch of herring, he becomes the big shot of the village, and the unveiling of his lack of human stature is converted into a criticism of the capricious fluctuations of modernity. When people move out of their rightful place and are hailed as greater than they actually are, the consequences are comical. The text seems to be telling us that the poor postman can never fill the role of the powerful old merchant Mack. Superficial civilisation is compared with refinement and old culture. The same theme can be found in the Segelfoss books (Children of the Age, 1913 and Segelfoss Town, 1915): fascination with the new age and grief over lost traditions constitute key tensions in the texts. But at the same time the paradox is that Hamsun’s novels do not really have much to say about static society. The permanent structures of the small communities in northern Norway do not become material for novels until they are disturbed. What creates dynamics and movement in the novels is precisely the restlessness of modern society.

This is also emphasised in the novel for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize: Growth of the Soil (1917). This can clearly be read as Hamsun’s big showdown with modern Norway. The novel seems to tell us that Isak, the settler, is the man of the future. Isak tills the land and lives a frugal life with his family. On the surface the novel presents clear contrasts: nature and tradition are good, culture and modernity are evil. The modern mining industry near Sellanraa may well appear tempting, but Isak does not allow himself to be enticed like the less serious men do. And the novel does, of course, work in Isak’s favour: the mining operations go bankrupt. But even Growth of the Soil would not have been a readable novel without the lure of modern elements: it is the tension between tradition and modernity that propels the text.

In Hamsun’s great comeback, the August trilogy (Wayfarers, 1927, August, 1930 and The Road Leads On, 1933), the rootless but energetic main character is unmistakeably a representative of the spirit of the era: “He was as flighty as money itself, as mechanics, trade, industry and development as a whole”. The novel often points a moral finger at its own protagonist through obvious comments from the narrator, but this does not prevent the descriptions of August’s extensive projects being the high points of the trilogy. The tenacious farmer, Ezra, stands on the opposite side, and the development of the novel seems to put him in the right: he becomes the spokesman for an economy of nature that finally triumphs in the text. But August’s plans for the northern Norway fishing village of Polden to invest in growing Christmas trees and building factories and tobacco plantations bear the stamp of Hamsun’s mixture of fascination with modernity and his reactionary ideology. However, his perpetual fascination with the wanderer, in the form of August, is still in evidence. Even though Ezra is ultimately proved to be “right”, his characterisation is relatively flat and does not possess the dimensions of August.

However, in Hamsun’s last novel, The Ring is Closed (1936), criticism of capitalism gains a new form. Here Hamsun allows the rather odd protagonist, Abel, to live in a shack and to go round in dirty and shabby clothes without anyone understanding why. The social drive that so many of his other characters have shown is here replaced by a movement downwards. Abel is depicted as a psychological riddle, but also as an unassuming Bohemian rebelling against the consumer- and career-oriented society. Like Hamsun, Abel is a returned traveller from America, and we understand from the novel that his experiences from that country have never left him.

The development of the farming community into a liberal-capitalist society, changing from the old order to a new “disorder”, is the horizon in which Hamsun’s works come into being. It can be claimed that his authorship starts and ends with the mark of modernity. Hamsun’s breakthrough comes in fact with the sentence “It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him.” The person who experiences modernity – be it in the city, in America or through a lucky catch of herring in Polden – can be marked by it for the rest of his life.

Hamsun himself was of the view that he suffered from so-called neurasthenia, a rather prevalent nervous illness that he thought he had contracted in America. His nerves had been “damaged” by the commotion and noise from the centre of modernity: the fast tempo and hectic life were the causes of his subsequent “nerve problems”. Maybe the diversity of his works can be captured by “the mark of modernity” – in both concrete and metaphorical terms.


John Brumo is Associate Professor in the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

English translation: Ruth Johnson