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Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950)


Danish novelist, poet, and essayist, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1944. Jensen sought to depict through an idealized Darwinian theory how human development is part of the natural process of evolution. His major works include Kongen's fald (1900-01), one of the most significant historical novels in Danish literature, and Den lange rejse (1908-22), an evolutionary interpretation of the biblical legends.

The elder spreading
her dew-cold hands
toward the summer moon
A year later:
The self-same beeches
and twilight nights,
the same elation!

(from 'Envoi')

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen was born in the small village of Farsø, Himmerland, in North Jutland. He was the second son of the district veterinary surgeon, Hans Jensen, a descendant on both sides of farmers and craftsmen, and Marie (Kirstine) Jensen. Jensen was taught by his mother until the age of eleven. Under the influence of his father, he developed a fasciation for Darwinism, which became the cornerstone of his thinking. Jensen graduated from the Cathedral School of Viborg in 1893, and subsequently studied medicine at the University of Copenhagen from 1893 to 1898. In 1904 he married Else Marie Ulrik; they had three sons.

Jensen's medical studies, including preliminary examinations in botany, zoology, physics, and chemistry, deeply influenced his literary work.  Between the novels Danes (1896) and Einar Elkjær (1898), Jensen visited the United States. After these books Jensen gave up his plans for a medical career and devoted himself to writing. Jensen also published romantic potboilers and a series of detective novels which appeared under the pen name Ivar Lykke between 1895 and 1898 in Revuen, a weekly periodical. However, Jensen excluded these works from his oeuvre. His detective, the British Mason, was a parody of Sherlock Holmes.

Half awake, half dozing,
In an inward seawind of dadaid dreams
I stand and gnash my teeth
At Memphis Station, Tennessee.
It is raining.

(from 'At Memphis Station')

Danskere and Einar Elkjær drew from the fin de siècle atmosphere of Copenhagen, but most of Jensen's early writings were set in his native province. Himmerlandshistorier (1898-1910) portrayed vividly his native region and its people. It was followed by a historical novel of the 16th century, Kongens fald, a fictional biography of King Christian II of Denmark, the last ruler of the three Scandinavian countries. It blended criticism of lyrical and realistic elements in the story of the king and Mikkel Thøgersen, a student and later mercenary.

Jensen was a correspondent for the newspaper Politken and reported from Spain on the Spanish-American war.  In 1896 and 1903 he traveled in the United States.  After this trip he translated the American novelist Frank Norris's novel The Octopus, about the conflict between farmers and railroad. New technological advances inspired the novels Madame d'Ora (1904), and its sequel, Hjulet (1907), and Jensen's descriptions of American cities. Madame d'Ora played with the idea, that a cinematograph can used as a means to deceive the public. The summer of 1898 Jensen spent in Spain and Germany. This marked also the beginning of his career as a correspondent. In 1900 he wrote articles from the World Exhibition in Paris, and collected these pieces in Den gotiske renæssance (1901), which presented his enthusiasm about a modern, active way of life. The wheel (hjulet) was a symbol of modern American technology, speed, and traffic. At the World Exhibition Jensen had seen a 100 metre Ferris wheel (Grande Roue Paris), originally invented  by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Jensen's father and sister, the writer Thit Jense, were devout spiritualists. Noteworthy, in Madame d'Ora Edmund Hall, a German investor and scientist, whose model was the renowed British chemist Sir  William Crookes, begins to doubt the nature of reality and ventures into spiritualism. Like Hall, Crookes conducted experiments in materialization with a female medium. Hall falls in love with the spectral girl, named Eld, who turns out to be part of a murder plot.  

In his poems Jensen rejected "Baudelaire's poisonous hall-mark," as he wrote, and turned " to simple style and sound subject matter." As literary models he kept Goethe, Heine and Whitman's prose poems, but he also wrote in the Old Norse style. His first volume of poems, Digte (1906), contained all the youthful poems. Late in life he returned to poetry with Digte 1901-43 (1943). Eksotiske noveller (1907-1917) was based on journeys in the Far East. Having developed a longing for foreign places, Jensen travelled around the world in 1902-03, to the Far East in 1912-13, and to Egypt, Palestine, and North Africa in 1925-26. In 1914 he traveled to the United States for the fourth time. Especially he praised New York: "New York har den skønneste Atmosfære in Verden."

Jørgine (1926) was a story of a deceived peasant girl who saves herself from disaster by an unromantic marriage and becomes a self-sacrificing mother. Myter (1907-1944), published in eleven volumes, was a series of essays and animal, travel, and nature sketches. Jensen's treatment is poetic; the essay form offers him a means to express his own ideas. Several of the myths found their way to Den lange rejse, a six-volume epic cycle, probably Jensen's major work, which earned him the Nobel Prize. Jensen developed in it his partly dubious theories of evolution and anthropology and described the evolution of the Northern peoples from the Ice Age to the 15th century, to the explorations of Christopher Columbus. He started to introduce the philosophy of evolution into literature, according to the author, because of the misinterpretation and distortion of Darwinism at the end of the 19th century. "The concept of the Übermensch had disastrous consequences in that it led to two world wars, and was destroyed only with the collapse of Germany in 1945. In the course of opposing this fallacious doctrine, I have arrived at a new interpretation of the theory of evolution and its moral implications."

The first saga takes place in the most primitive times near a huge volcano and introduces a Prometheus. In the next book an outcast with his woman becomes the father of the Nordic race, rediscovers fire, and founds a new civilization. In the third saga another genius invents wagons and boats driven by oar or sail. The later sagas take the reader to historical times: Cimbrians march to Rome and the Vikings go on their raids. Finally the story ends with Christopher Columbus's voyage to America and his dream of a tropical paradise – the longing for the distant, warm places was central in this and other of Jensen's works.

In 1939 Jensen again visited the United States. After the German army invaded Denmark in 1940, he destroyed much of his diaries and letters. Jensen was strongly critical of Fascism and anti-Semitism. Because of the war, no presentation ceremonies were held in Stockholm in 1944, when the author was awarded the Nobel Prize. "Were one to determine the degree of maturity of each nation according to its capacity for reasoning and comprehension, England would come out on top for her sense of realism, and the man who put forward these basically English ideas in a simple, unaffected manner was Charles Darwin." (in 'Nobel Acceptance Speech', 1944) As in the case of the Finnish writer F.E. Sillanpää, who was awarded the prize on the eve of the Winter War in 1939 between Finland and the Soviet Union, the decision of the Swedish Acamedy was undestrod as a gesture of moral support toward the Danish people. Jensen died in Copenhagen on November 25, 1950. During the last years of his life, his writings mostly dealt with the theory of evolution. Africa, which came out in 1949, reflected his interest in natural science.

For further reading: 'Scientific Spirit, Spirituality and Spirited Writing: – Spiritualism Between Science, Religion and Literature' by Christiane Barz, in Tijdschrift voor Skandinavistiek, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2010); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to Present, ed. Michael D. Sollars (2008); 'Americanism, Popular Culture and the Primitive: Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, Madame D'Ora (1904)' by Michael Cowan, in Orbis LitterarumVolume 60, Number 2 (2005); 'Johannes V. Jensen's Nobel Prize – the Story of a Homecoming' by Aage Jørgensen, in Studi Nordici, vol. 10 (2005); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century , Vol. 2, ed. Stephen R. Serafin (1999, vol. 2); Menneskelinien - mellem Johannes V. Jensen og Herman Bang by Poul Houe (1999); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1995); Johannes Jensen by S.H. Rossel (1984); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Den unge Johannes V. Jensen by O.Friis (1974); Johannes V. Jensen: Liv og forfatterskab by Leif Nedergaard (1968); Denmark's J.V. Jensen by M.L. Nielsen (1955); Modern Danish Authors, eds. E. Heepe & N. Heltburg (1946) 

Selected works:

  • Jim Blacksools Revolver. Roman fra der Fjerne Vesten, 1896 (as Ivar Lykke)
  • Falskmønterbandens Blodig Bog, 1896 (as Ivar Lykke)
  • Nihilistens Ed, 1896 (as Ivar Lykke)
  • Danskere, 1896
  • Milliontyvenes Høvding eller Den Røde Tiger, 1897 (as Ivar Lykke) 
  • Einar Elkjær, 1898
  • Himmerlandsfolk, 1898
  • Intermezzo, 1899
  • Kongens Fald, 1900-1901
    - The Fall of the King (translated by P. T. Federspiel and Patrick Kirwan, 1933; Alan G. Bower, 1992)
    - Kuningas murtuu: romaani (suom. Aukusti Simojoki, 1946)
  • Den gotiske renæssance, 1901
  • Skovene, 1904
  • Nye Himmerlandshistorier, 1904
  • Madame d'Ora, 1904
    - Tiedemiehen onneton kohtalo (suom. 1920)
  • Hjulet, 1904
  • Digte, 1906
  • Eksotiske noveller, 1907-15
  • Den nye verden, 1907
  • Singaporenoveller, 1907
  • Myter, 1907-45
  • Nye myter, 1908
  • Den lange rejse, 1908-22 (6 vols.)
    - The Long Journey (translated by A. G. Chater, 1922-24) - I: Den tabte land, 1919; II: Bræen, 1908 (I-II, Fire and Ice, 1922); Norne Gæst, 1919; IV: Cimbrernes tog, 1922 (III-IV: The Cimbrians, 1923); V: Skibet, 1912; VI: Christofer Columbus, 1922 (V-VI: Christopher Columbus, 1924)
    - Jäätikön poika: tarukertomus pohjolan jääkaudesta  (alkuteos: Bræen, suom. Impi Sirkka, 1913)
  • Lille Ahasverus, 1909
  • Himmerlandshistorier, Tredje Samling, 1910
  • Myter, 1910
  • Nordisk ånd, 1911
  • Myter, fjerde samling, 1912
  • Rudyard Kipling, 1912
  • Olivia Marianne, 1915
  • Introduktion til vor tidsalder, 1915
  • Skrifter, 1916 (8 vols.)
  • Årbog, 1916, 1917
  • Johannes Larsen og hans billeder, 1920
  • Sangerinden, 1921
  • Æstetik og udviking, 1923
  • Årstiderne, 1923
  • Hamlet, 1924
  • Myter, 1924
  • Skrifter, 1925 (5 vols.)
  • Evolution og moral, 1925
  • Årets højtider, 1925
  • Verdens lys, 1926
  • Jørgine, 1926
  • Thorvaldsens portrætbuster, 1926
  • Dyrenes forvandling, 1927
  • Åndens stadier, 1928
  • Ved livets bred, 1928
  • Retninger i tiden, 1930
  • Den jyske blæst, 1931
  • Form og sjæl, 1931
  • På danske veje, 1931
  • Pisangen, 1932
  • Kornmarken, 1932
  • Sælernes ø, 1934
  • Det blivende, 1934
  • Dr. Renaults fristelser, 1935
  • Gudrun, 1936
  • Darduse, 1937
  • Påskebadet, 1937
  • Jydske folkelivsmalere, 1937
  • Thorvaldsen, 1938
  • Nordvejen, 1939
  • Fra fristaterne, 1939
  • Gutenberg, 1939
  • Mariehønen, 1941
  • Vor oprindelse, 1941
  • Mindets tavle, 1941
  • Om sproget og undervisningen, 1942
  • Kvinnen i sagatiden, 1942
  • Folkeslagene i østen, 1943
  • Digte 1901-43, 1943
  • Møllen, 1943
  • Afrika, opdagelsesrejserne, 1949
  • Garden Colonies in Denmark, 1949
  • Swift og Oehlenschläger, 1950
  • Mytens ring, 1951
  • Tilblivelsen, 1951
  • Denmark’s Johannes V. Jensen. Translations from his works and an introductory essay by Marion L. Nielsen, 1955
  • The Waving Rye, 1959 (tr. R. Bathgate)
  • Grundtanken i mit Forfatterskab, 1968 (foreword by Aage Marcus)
  • Myter og Digte i Udvalg, 1969 (edited by Leif Nedergaard)
  • Himmerlandshistorier, 1973 (edited by Aage Marcus)
  • Mørkets frodighed. Tidlige myter, 1973  (edited by Niels Birger Wamberg)
  • Nordisk foraar: myter, 1999 (edited by Niels Birger Wamberg)
  • Samlede digte, 2006 (edited by Anders Thyrring Andersen et al.)

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