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|Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943)|
Danish novelist whose realistic and pessimistic novels depicted the social evils and the miserable situation of the peasant proletariat. Henrik Pontoppidan shared with Karl Gjellerup the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917. Thomas Mann called him "a born epic poet... a true conservative, who in a breathless world has preserved the grand style in the novel." Although Pontoppidan was a sharp critic of modern Danish society, he did not join the ranks of doctrinaire naturalism writers. First and foremost, he modestly considered himself a "popular storyteller."
"In the years before and after our last war, a pastor named Johannes Sidenius lived in one of the small market towns of East Jutland that lie hidden among green hills at the base of a thinly wooded fjord. He was a pious and stern man. In his outer appearance as in his whole way of life he differed sharply from the other inhabitants of the town who, for many years, viewed him as a troublesome alien whose peculiarities left them, by turns, cool and resentful." (from Lucky Per, 1898, translated by Naomi Lebowitz)
Henrik Pontoppidan was born in the town of Fredericia, on the Jutland Peninsula. His father was a follower of N.F.S. Grundtvig, a radical theologian. The family moved to Randers, which was briefly occupied and sacked by Prussian and Austrian troops. This period of destruction left a deep impression on Pontoppidan, who later returned into the invasion in his works.
As a protest against his family, Pontoppidan did not continue its ecclesiastical traditions. Instead he entered Copenhagen's Polytechic Institute but by 1879 he interrupted his nearly completed engineering studies. Pontoppidan left Copenhagen and until 1910 he lived in North Sealand. Between 1877 and 1882 worked as a teacher at a folk high-school, run by his brother. During this period Pontoppidan wrote a collection of short stories, Clipped Wings, which was published in 1881. His first story, 'Et Endeligt', had been published in the journal Ude og Hjemme.
While living in the Zealand countryside Pontoppidan married Mette Marie Hansen and thereafter he supported himself by writing. After travels in Germany and Italy, Pontoppidan settled in Copenhagen.
In his early works Pontoppidan studied the contrast between nature and culture, environment and human aspirations. In the short story 'Kirkeskuden' (The Ship Model) from Clipped Wings an orphaned gypsy youth, Ove, is raised by a minister and his wife. He sets a votive ship from the church into the water, and it immediately sinks. Like Herman Bang (1857-1912), another major writer of the period, Pontoppidan turned his back to Brandes's call of naturalism in literature. "I turned to the novel," he recalled in his autobiography, "an artistic form which had in former days been neglected and had thus acquired a bad reputation, but which during the nineteenth century had developed and elevated itself to the ranks occupied by drama and the ancient epic."
Up to 1890, Pontoppidan produced over 10 books, but he is most famous for his later works, three large novel series, Det forjættede Land (3 vols, 1891-95, The Promised Land), Lykke-Per (8 vols, 1898-1904), and De Dødes Rige (5 vols, 1912-16). All the protagonists in these ironic novels try to change their own life or society, but their attempts lead to disillusionment and downfall under the burden of environment. Pontoppidan analyzed many of the ideas and beliefs of the age, but especially he attacked religious orthodoxies.
The trilogy The Promised Land was about followers of Grundtvig and his rival, the evangelical Indre Mission. It drew a psychological portrait of the aspirations, temptations, and ultimate destruction of the pastor Emanuel Hansted, a religious idealist. Pontoppidan wanted to create a work, in which a picture of modern Denmark is presented through individuals and their fates in social, religious, and political conflicts. Trade unions were established from 1879, the cooperative movement began in 1882, The Peasant Party became the largest party, but the issue of parlamentarism and the refusal of the ruling Right to share power caused much political bitterness and passivity. Emanuel Hansted participates in the spiritual and political life of his community. His idealism is shattered, Emanuel leaves his family and moves to Copenhagen, starts an affair with a cosmopolitan woman, and sinks into mystical religiosity, and ends in a mental institution, where he dies.
In 1888 Pontoppidan's first marriage ended when his wife returned to the country to live with her parents – she was a peasant girl with whom Pontoppidan tried to share a Tolstoyan life. In 1892 he married Antoinette Cecilia Caroline Elise Kofoed; they had two children. When a number of other writers devoted themselves to personal themes and were tired of continuous parlamentary crisis, Pontoppidan mocked failures of the government. Skyer (1890) was a collection of stories, in which he attacked the cowardice of people, who tolerate backwardness.
Between 1898 and 1904 Pontoppidan wrote the eight-volume novel Lykke-Per, the saga of the aspirations and the defeat of the engineer, surveyor, and highway inspector Per Sidenius, an opposite to Emanuel Hansted, who purseud unselfish goals, but a soulmate of Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Per is the son of a priest, he rebels against his upbringing, and devotes himself into a great industrial project. After failures due to his weakness to act, he finds again traditional Christianity. The restless protagonist shared many of the experiences of Pontoppidan himself, but the character has also been regarded as a national type. The Marxist critic Georg Lukács wrote: "Pontoppidan's irony lies in the fact that he lets his hero succeed all the time, but shows that a demonic power forces him to regard everything he has gained as worthless."
In spite of the Nobel prize, Pontoppidan remained relatively little known outside Denmark, and only a few articles appeared on him in English. The last of Pontoppidan's major novels, De Dødes Rige (The Kingdom of the Dead), painted a pessimistic social panorama of the political change of Denmark. In the gloomy story a Jutland estate owner, a Danish Prince Myshkin, wishes to aid the workers on his properties, and sees them turn against him. Enslev, a politician, pursues his career without really caring the people whose support he needs. "Now I am dying, and yet I have never lived," says one of the characters. Pontoppidan's later works include four plus one volume memoirs (1933-43). From 1928 he lived in Charlottenlund, a suburb of Copenhagen, where he died on August 21, 1943. Pontoppidan's last novel, Man's Heaven (1927), told the story of a ruthless man in a currupt country who wants to benefit from the war. Thorsen, a journalist, supports participation in the war, against the view of the unconcerned people.
For further reading: Henrik Pontoppidan by K. Ahnlund (1956); 'Henrik Pontoppidan as a critic of modern Danish society' by Ernst Ekman, in Scandinavian Studies, 29 (1957); 'Henrik Pontoppidan: The church and Christrianity after 1900' by Glyn W. Jones, in Scandinavian Studies, 30, (1958); The Theory of the Novel by G. Lukács (1971); Henrik Pontoppidans samfundskritik by Bent Haugaard Jeppesen. (1977); Henrik Pontoppidan by P.M. Michell (1979); A History of Scandinavian literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); 'A History of Danish Literatures', ed. by Sven H. Rossel, in A History of Scandinavian Literatures, vol. 1 (1992); World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Scandinavian novel' by George C. Schoolfield in Encyclopedia of The Novel, Vol. 2 (1998); Den umulige kærligheds nødvendighed hos Henrik Pontoppidan by Elsebeth Diderichsen (2002)