We Have the Facts and We’re Voting “Asshole”

Alas, a bit of research shows that Herr Hamsun did indeed suffer from a case of Nazism. Worse, if that’s possible, he said and did things that rocket him way past “casual flirtation”–like meeting with Joseph Goebbels and then sending Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift:

Hamsun’s loyalty to the National Socialist New Order in Europe was well appreciated in Berlin, and in May 1943 Hamsun and his wife were invited to visit Joseph Goebbels, a devoted fan of the writer. Both men were deeply moved by the meeting, and Hamsun was so affected that he sent Goebbels the medal which he had received for winning the Nobel Prize for idealistic literature in 1920, writing that he knew of no statesman who had so idealistically written and preached the cause of Europe. Goebbels in return considered the meeting to have been one of the most precious encounters of his life and wrote touchingly in his diary: “May fate permit the great poet to live to see us win victory! If anybody deserved it because of a high-minded espousal of our cause even under the most difficult circumstances, it is he.” The following month Hamsun spoke at a conference in Vienna organized to protest against the destruction of European cultural treasures by the sadistic Allied terror-bombing raids. He praised Hitler as a crusader and a reformer who would create a new age and a new life. Then, three days later, on June 26, 1943, his loyalty was rewarded with a personal and highly emotional meeting with Hitler at the Berghof. As he left, the 84 year-old Hamsun told an adjutant to pass on one last message to his Leader: “Tell Adolf Hitler: we believe in you.”

Fucking hell. This doesn’t quite answer the question of whether I should read Hamsun or not, but to say it dampens my enthusiasm (in advance) would be an understatement.

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  1. I suggest reading at least Hunger and then Growth of the Soil. Aside from being (I think) his strongest books, and bookending his productive period, they also provide some sense of how Hamsun’s fierce self-sufficiency became cruel nationalism and made Nazism appealing.

    Hamsun’s story is also revealing in that he was so important as a national hero that while his wife and son (or daughter?) were arrested for treason, the author was declared mentally ill rather than put on trial. It’s a story of the state’s need for a particular kind of artist, and inability to reconcile one that won’t quite fit.

  2. I was trying to come up with an answer to whether you should read Hamsun. An infinite regress of conditionals — flipping a coin sometimes brings resolution.

    And Steve, no disrespect meant, but could you spell out why one would want or need to know “they also provide some sense of how Hamsun’s fierce self-sufficiency became cruel nationalism and made Nazism appealing”?

  3. Definitely a question I should have answered in the first place.

    It interests me because Hamsun’s early work is so marked by an insistence on independence, by denying the value of any political philosophy or authority. For example, the narrator of Hunger’s willful self-deprivation in order to demonstrate that he is in control of his own fate. That position, apparently very much Hamsun’s own, seems at odds with the fascism he came to later. By Growth of the Soil, that independence takes the form of xenophobia and cruelty.

    Understanding Hamsun’s political shift is important because it seems (to me) unlikely. Hamsun honed his philosophy while laying railroad in the US, so his work makes me wonder if there’s a kind of warning about how our own sense of rugged individualism can be spun into something nefarious. I don’t intend that as an apology for Hamsun or sympathy for what he became, only a suggestion that by paying attention to the arc of his career we might gain a sense of what to be careful of in the future.

  4. I’m a firm believer in separating the artist from the art. So my advice would be “read away!” But feel free to inform the masses about the Nazism as well. It’s just like when I talk about a Roman Polanski film. I say something to this effect:

    “Besides the fact that he was convicted of anal statutory rape and has been a fugitive from the country for decades, Polanski really deserved more credit for Death and The Maiden.”

    Kills two birds with one stone, and I don’t deny myself a great piece of art because a shoddy man.

  5. I submit the following:

    Ezra Pound was a fascist.

    Leni Riefenstahl was an egregious propagandist.

    Malcolm X spouted black nationalism for most of his life.

    Most recently (and less severely), Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest short story writers the last century has seen, has been spouting foolish claptrap with a clear misunderstanding of copyright law. It’s moved books.

    Does this belittle their respective contributions to the arts? No. These backgrounds certainly taint them. But the mature arts lover can, I believe, separate the art from the artist, irrespective of political persuasion. If I had to discount a novelist I’ve read and enjoyed because of personal politics, the list would be very long indeed.

  6. GROWTH OF THE SOIL is one of the most impressive novels I’ve read, one that seems to me to have a great respect for humanity. I don’t think it has a reputation for being a protofascist work. But if reading Hamsun has become impossible for you, I recommend the Icelandic socialist Halldor Laxness instead. You get just as much great Scandinavian peasant epic but without the guilt. Try INDEPENDENT PEOPLE.

  7. I do like to fancy myself a “mature arts lover,” Ed. (Well, at times.) That established, these revelations always seem to hit me like cold bucket of water, and I’m never quite able to enjoy the books as I should, notwithstanding said maturity.

    I read plenty of writers who were awful away from the typewriter, but Hamsun seems to go beyond mere prickdom, no?

  8. Rake: Okay, I confess. “Mature arts lover” sounds like some porn addict with a no-limit credit card locked in a motel room. I withdraw the term.

    But believe it or not I’m with you on Hamsun. Anyone supporting the Nazis is, by my definition, a prick. So it pains me to some extent to confess that the work is good. (Just as John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra” is a superbly plotted novel, it is, nonetheless, written by an alcoholic boor who was a consummate prick in real life.)

    I guess the Nazi thing didn’t hit me as much because Hamsun wrote “Hunger” years before changing his allegiance. Of course, all this may have something to do with a heated argument I had over “Olympia” back in my undergraduate days that forced me to separate the art from the artist. Offhand, I’d say that it doesn’t necessarily follow that admiring the art means that you embrace the artist’s politics.

  9. Put another way: Owning/reading/stealing a book doesn’t necessarily mean that you adhere to its ideals or those of the author. (That’s what is so disturbing about the government making noises about poking into folks’ reading habits.) When I read Mysteries, I had no idea about the unredeemable loyalties of Hamsun [henceforth referred to as Hamsun the Prick].

    Similarly, I was in the middle of Father Joe when the allegations about Tony Hendra came out. I don’t know whether those claims are true or not, and only care in the sense that someone—him or his daughter or perhaps both—has been wronged. That said, I couldn’t really enjoy the book after that. Again, not because I necessarily believed one thing or the other; the claims just overshadowed what was on the page.

  10. Rake, I’d look at a few more sources before making this judgment. If you didn’t notice, the site you linked was a “racial nationalist” site (White Supremacy, basically) that elsewhere claims that Hitler should’ve been allowed to win WWII because he would have wiped out the Commies. So that article is actually WANTS to paint Knut Hamsun as a huge Nazi because then they get a great literary figure on “their” side. I’d recommend trying a more impartial site or article (this one’s from “The National Vanguard,” scary).

    Regardless, I don’t think you should give up on the man because of that. After all, is the work no more than the man? The brunt of 20th century literary criticism would disagree. And I’m certainly not throwing out my Wagner operas, my DVD of the Lower Depths, or my Rousseau essays (because of the way he treated his children).

  11. M:

    Yeah, that’s an unfortunate choice for a link. Sorry. What’s in there (other than the creepy shit) I pretty much corroborated elsewhere, so I don’t think what’s there, Hamsun-wise, is factually incorrect. Here are a few other links:


    From first site above: “Upon hearing of Hitler’s death, when the war was over, Hamsun wrote: ‘He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.'”

    Tough to spin that.

    Just understand I’m not asking anyone to throw out anything, nor am I saying that I won’t read Hamsun’s novels. However, I’d like to carve out a little space to comment on how unfortunate is this aspect of Hamsun’s life.

    Is the work no more than the man? Yes and no. I still think it’s strange that when one comments on some writer’s regrettable views that a bunch of folks (not you, per se) will jump out and accuse one of, I dunno, subjectivity(?) Being too emotional? Regardless of my background in 20th century literary criticism, it makes me sad to hear about something like this, and as much as I like to imagine myself an objective, steely-eyed realist, it still affects my reading of the author’s work. That’s all.

    This might well just be a personal problem.

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