Knut Hamsun

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Hamsun, Knut

(kəno͞ot` häm`so͝on), 1859–1952, Norwegian author, a pioneer in the development of the modern novel. Virtually without formal education, in his youth he led a wandering life, and on his second visit to the United States (1886–88) worked as a streetcar conductor, lecturer, peddler, clerk, and harvest hand. His first book, From the Cultural Life of Modern America (1889) was published on his return to Norway. The theme of the wanderer is prominent in many of his novels, including the naturalistic Hunger (1890, tr. 1899), which aroused a furor of criticism and gained him a large audience. Among his many other novels are the highly regarded Mysteries (1892, tr. 1927), the lyrically beautiful Pan (1894), the class-conscious romance Victoria (1898, tr. 1923), and Growth of the Soil (1917, tr. 1921), his most successful 20th-century novel, which sets simple agrarian values against those of the new industrial society. His last novel was published in 1936. Hamsun also wrote numerous short stories, six plays, and two volumes of poetry. He was awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature. His largely autobiographical work reflects an intense love of nature and an interest in the unconscious, and he often evinces concern for the material condition of the individual and its effect on his spirit. During World War II Hamsun supported the Nazi invasion of Norway. In 1946 he was declared by psychiatrists to be permanently mentally disabled; he was fined $87,000 for economic collaboration with the enemy.


See his memoir, On Overgrown Paths (1949, tr. 1967); H. Naess and J. McFarlane, ed., Knut Hamsen: Selected Letters 1879–1898 (2 vol., 1990); biography by R. Ferguson (1987); studies by H. Naess (1984), M. Humpal (1998), and S. Lyngstad (2005).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Hamsun, Knut


(real surname, Pedersen). Born Aug. 4, 1859, in Lom; died Feb. 19, 1952, in Nørholmen. Norwegian writer. Son of a village tailor.

Hamsun led the life of a vagabond from the age of 14 and changed professions several times. He began his literary activity in 1877. His impressions from journeys to America were recounted in The Cultural Life of Modern America (1889) and other publicistic works. The psychological novel Hunger (1890; Russian translation, 1892), about the sufferings of a poor writer in Kristiania, brought success to Hamsun. Neoromantic motifs are evidenced in his novels Mysteries (1892; Russian translation, 1910), Pan (1894; Russian translation, 1901), and Victoria (1898; Russian translation, 1904). The main characters of these novels stand in opposition to society and follow directly the impulses of their contradictory nature. Hamsun masterfully portrays their complex emotional lives. Hamsun’s characteristic individualism led him to adopt a sharply antidemocratic stand, which was evident in his dramatic trilogy At the Gates of the Realm (1895), The Play of Life (1896), and Sunset (1898). At the start of the 20th century Marxist critics like G. V. Plekhanov pointed out the decadent and reactionary tendencies in Hamsun’s works, while at the same time noting his talent. On several occasions M. Gorky wrote about the artistic force and originality of Hamsun’s best books.

The novel Under the Autumn Star (1906) was the first of a number of Hamsun’s works about life in the north of Norway, including Benoni (1908) and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings (1909). Hamsun contrasted in his work the peasant’s way of life and its closeness to nature with life in the capitalist city. A novel on this theme, Growth of the Soil (1917; Russian translation, 1922), won the Nobel Prize in 1920. The idea of man’s loneliness and helplessness in the contemporary world predominates in Hamsun’s novels The Women at the Pump (1920; Russian translation, 1923), The Last Chapter (1923; Russian translation, 1924), Vagabonds (1927; Russian translation, 1929), August (1930; Russian translation, 1933), The Road Leads On (1933; Russian translation, 1934), and The Ring Is Closing (1936). During the years of World War II (1939-45), Hamsun collaborated with the German occupation forces. After the rout of Hitlerite Germany, he was prosecuted for treason against his fatherland and was ostracized by Norwegian society. Hamsun described the years he spent awaiting trial (1945-48) in his book On Overgrown Paths (1949). Progressive circles in Norway draw a line between Hamsun’s treasonous conduct during the years of the German occupation and his literary accomplishments.


Samlede verker, 5th ed., vols. 1-15. [Kristiania-Copenhagen] 1954-56.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1-12. St. Petersburg, 1909-10.
Izbr. proizv., vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1970. (Introductory article by B. Suchkov.)


Plekhanov, G. V. “Syn doktora Stokmana.” In his book Literatura i estetika, vol. 2. Moscow, 1958.
Gorky, M. “Knut Gamsun.” In his book O pisateliakh. Moscow [1928].
Kuprin, A. I. “O Knute Gamsune.” Sobr. soch., vol. 6. Moscow, 1958.
Fish, G. Norvegiia riadom. Moscow, 1963. Pages 309-16.
Evnina, E. M. “Knut Gamsun.” In her book Zapadnoevropeiskii realizm na rubezhe XIX-XX vekov. Moscow, 1967.
Braatøy, T. Livets cirkel: Bidrag til analyse av Knut Hamsuns dikting. Oslo, 1954.
“Verdig markering av Hamsuns hundreårsdag.” Arbeiderbladet, Aug. 5, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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