Knut Hamsun Biography

(One of the Most Influential Norwegian Writers & Winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Birthday: August 4, 1859 (Leo)

Born In: Lom Municipality, Norway

Knut Hamsun (born Knud Pedersen) was a Norwegian writer, poet, dramatist, and social critic. Considered by some as the father of modern literature, his works spanned over 70 years in a myriad of subjects, environments, and perspectives. During his career, he published 20 novels, short stories, essays, a travelogue, and a collection of poems. His works have led to many attributing to him the status of “the leader of the Neo-Romantic revolt at the turn of the 20th century”. Many of his greatest novels, ‘Hunger’, ‘Mysteries’, ‘Pan’, and ‘Victoria’ were published during his initial writing years. These novels dealt with aggressive characters who fight the system and are outsiders or alone. As his writing matured, so did the themes in his work and focussed on civilizations instead of individuals. His greatness is sometimes marred by his choice of politics. He was a conservative with anti-egalitarian views. He was a Nazi sympathizer and invited the wrath of many of his readers. Despite his political affiliations, many famous authors have cited him as a great author and have been influenced by his work. His fans included H.G.Wells, Franz Kafka, Henry Miller, Herman Hesse, Charles Bukowski, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Koestler, and Thomas Mann.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Knut Pedersen Hamsun, Hamsun

Died At Age: 92


Spouse/Ex-: Bergliot Bassøe-Bech, Marie Hamsun

father: Peder Pedersen

mother: Tora Olsdatter

children: Arild Hamsun, Cecilia Hamsun, Tore Hamsun, Ursula Pistor, Victoria Hamsun

Born Country: Norway

Nobel Laureates In Literature Poets

Died on: February 19, 1952

place of death: Grimstad Municipality, Norway

More Facts

awards: Nobel Prize in Literature

Childhood & Early Life
Knut Hamsun was born on August 4, 1859, to Peder Pedersen and Tora Olsdatter, in Gudbrandsdalen, Norway. He was the fourth of seven children in this poverty-ridden family.
At the age of nine, he was sent to live with his uncle Hans Olsen. Hans abused his nephew by beating and starving him at times. This led to chronic nervous difficulties later in his life.
He escaped to Lom in 1874 and found odd jobs such as a shoemaker's apprentice, road worker, stonemason, peddler, store clerk, junior-level teacher, tram driver, and an assistant sheriff. During his initial struggle to become a writer, he continued to do odd jobs for 14 years in Norway and America to sustain himself.
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His literary pursuit began at the age of 17 when he was a rope maker’s apprentice. A significant amount of financial assistance was provided by tradesman and island owner Erasmus Zahl. Hamsun would later use Zahl as the model for the character “Mack” who appears in his novels.
The many odd jobs he did were the subject of his first novel, ‘Den Gaadefulde: En Kjærlighedshistorie fra Nordland’ (The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway), published in 1877.
His second novel, Bjørger (1878) was a melodramatic love story published under the pseudonym Knud Pedersen Hamsund. In this, he tried to emulate an Icelandic narrative influenced by the writing style of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
His travels in America were the basis of his publication, ‘Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv’ (The Intellectual Life of Modern America), published in (1889).
He received critical acclaim with the novel ‘Hunger’ published in 1890. The novel was an account of his experiences as a starving writer. The mixture of emotions, seen through the protagonist’s eyes, gave a glimpse into the physical and mental state of his reality.
He used the theme of a wanderer who immerses himself and becomes one with the rural community he encounters in many of his novels. These include: ‘Mysteries’, ‘Pan’, ‘Under the Autumn Star’, ‘The Last Joy’, ‘Vagabonds’, and ‘Rosa’ among others.
His prose saw gregarious depictions and descriptions of Norwegian woodlands and coastline. He used this pantheistic view of man being one with nature in a mystical way in his monumental piece, ‘Growth of the Soil’, in 1917.
His political views also played a part in his writings. He was racially conscious as is depicted in ‘Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv’. His advocacy of Germany during the First and Second World War led to many controversies.
He wrote many articles during the war, siding with the Germans and Hitler. During a meeting with Hitler, he requested the release of imprisoned Norwegian citizens, which angered Hitler. He also complained about the administrative activities of Josef Terboven, which further fuelled Hitler’s ire.
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After Hitler’s death in 1945, Hamsun published a eulogy describing him as a “warrior for humankind” and “reformer”. This did not go down well with many and his books were burned in major cities. As a result, he was confined to a psychiatric facility for several months. This also affected the reception of his later works.
His last book, ‘Paa giengrodde Stier’ (On Overgrown Paths) was published in 1949. It was written in order to prove that he was mentally stable and is part fiction and part memoir.
Major Works
The earlier period of Knut Hamsun’s writings consisted of aggrieved, vagabond characters who oppose societal norms. This led to some great novels such as ‘Hunger’ (1890), ‘Mysteries’ (1892), ‘Pan’ (1894), and ‘Victoria’ (1898).
His middle period focussed on youth and their losses. This theme is explored in novels like ‘Under the Autumn Star’ (1906), ‘Benoni’ (1908), and ‘A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings’ (1909).
His later works were a criticism of civilization with writings such as ‘The Road Leads On’ (1933) and ‘The Ring is Closed’ (1936).
’Markens Grøde’ (1917), his Nobel Prize winning work, is the story of a man who works in harmony with nature and creates a farm out of wilderness.
Awards & Achievements
For his 1917 novel, ‘Markens Grøde or ‘Growth of the Soil’, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1920. It was based on Norwegian New Realism, a genre he experimented with in his later works.
Personal Life & Legacy
Knut Hamsun was married to Bergljot Göpfert (née Bech) from 1898 to 1906. He sired a daughter, Victoria, during this time.
He then married writer and actress, Marie Andersen, in 1909. They had four children Tore, Arild, Elinor, and Cecilia.
During World War II, he suffered two intracranial haemorrhages. By the age of 80, he was almost deaf.
He passed away on February 19, 1952, at the ripe old age of 92. His ashes were buried on his farm in Nørholm, Norway.
The life and times of Knut Hamsun were made into a biopic, ‘Hamsun’, in 1996. It starred Max Von Sydow as Hamsun and was directed by Jan Troell.
Over 25 of his works have been adapted to the screen. These include film and television mini-series adaptions such as ‘Sult’ (1966), ‘Mysteries’ (1978), ‘Landstrykere (Wayfarers)’ (1990), and ‘The Telegraphist’ (1993).
His novel, ‘Pan’ was adapted four times between 1922 and 1995. The latest film was a Danish production and was directed by Henning Carlsen.
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