Historian’s Almanac: August 4, 2016

Today is August 4, 2016.  There are 149 days left in the year and only 95 days left until we elect a new President.

The Norwegian Nobel Laurate, Knut Hamsun (aka, Knut Pedersen) was born on this day in 1859 in Lom, Gudbrandsdal, Norway.  Born into poverty, Knut was sent to live with an uncle who starved and beat him regularly.  In 1874 he was able to escape from his uncle’s oppression.  He spent the next 5 years doing odd jobs for food and shelter.

Hamsun began his writing career with the publican of his first novel, The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway, in 1877.  It was a love story that began, “Near a small hill crowned with trees, at the foot of which a small river meandered across the lovely meadow, was a handsome farmhouse. It belonged to the richest man in town, Ole Aae.”

Hamsun was not proud of his first novel, or two others that are among the 30 novels he wrote during his long career.  He did not allow them to be included in his Collected Works during his lifetime.  Why?  As he explained to his publisher:  “I would never have published things like ‘A Reconciliation’, ‘The Enigmatic One’ and ‘Bjørger’ had it not been, each time, to show my brothers and sisters that I was not to be made fun of.”

During his literary career of 70 years, Hamsun wrote short stories, plays, essays, travelogues, and poetry as well as novels.  He first won acclaim with Hunger (1890), a novel about a young writer driven to near madness by hunger and poverty.  He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920 for Growth of the Soul, first published in 1917.

Among well-known authors who have praised Knut Hamsun are Arthur Koestler, H. G. Wells, and Thomas Mann who hailed him as a “descendant of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche.”  Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Polish-born Jewish author who wrote only in Yiddish, and himself a Nobel laurate, was a great admirer of Hamsun.  “The whole school of fiction in the 20th century,” said Singer, “stems from Hamsun.”

Norwegians are proud of Knut Hamsun the Nobel Laurate.  But, there is another side of Hamsun’s legacy that is problematic.  Hansum was among a small number of interwar intellectuals who somehow found merit in the pseudo-scientific racial theories that were popular at that time in both Europe and America.

Hamsun supported the German occupation of Norway during World War II.  In 1943, he sent his Nobel medal as a gift to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.  It may have been an attempt to gain an audience with Hitler, whom he admired.  If so, it worked.

When Hamsun met Hitler in 1943, he dared to advise the Führer on German policy towards Norway.  Hitler, of course, was not used to taking advice from anyone, even such a devoted lackey as Hamsun.  According to Hitler confident, Otto Dietrich, it took Hitler 3 days to get over his anger.

In 1945, when he heard the news of Hitler’s death, Hamsun published a eulogy in the Aftenposten is Norway’s largest printed newspaper:

“Hitler was a warrior, a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reforming character of the highest order, and his historical fate was that he functioned in a time of exampleless [unequalled] brutality, which in the end felled him.

“Thus may the ordinary Western European look at Adolf Hitler. And we, his close followers, bow our heads at his death” (May 7, 1945).

Sufficient time has gone by since the end of World War II to allow Norwegians to excuse Hamsun’s pro-Nazi past and focus on his legacy as a great author.  On the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2009, the Knut Hamsun Center was opened in northern Norway near where he was born.  Resembling a large black cube, the Hamsun Center is a museum and educational center dedicated to honoring his life and work.

Hamsun’s literary works remain on school reading lists in Norway.  Still his wartime collaboration with the German occupation and his pro-Nazi sympathies linger in the background like a ghost.

——

It’s the birthday of Elizabeth, wife of George VI (The King’s Speech), Queen of England (1936-1952), and mother of Elizabeth II.  She was known as the “Queen Mother.”  She died on March 30, 2002.

It’s the anniversary of the death of the American actor Victor Mature, who starred in many Biblical epics, among them Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Robe (1953), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).  Of his career, he once said: “Actually, I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor; ask anybody, particularly the critics.”

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.

 

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