Authors Today and Yesterday

Henrik Pontoppidan 1857-

Henrik Pontoppidan, Danish novelist and short story writer, part winner of the Nobel Prize in 1917, was born at Fredericia, in Jutland, Denmark, on July 24, 1857, the same year as his Danish contemporaries Hermann Bang and Karl Gjellerup. The son of a clergyman, he comes of a distinguished old family and is a descendant of the eighteenth century bishop, Erik Pontoppidan, the author of several books, including The Natural History of Norway.

Of Henrik Pontoppidan's many brothers, Morten Pontoppidan became a famous liberal clergyman and two others, Knud and Erik Pontoppidan, prominent doctors.

The author spent his childhood in the provincial town of Randers, in Jutland, whither the family moved. (He was made an honorary freeman of the town in 1933.) Of sturdy physique, he took part in boyhood sports and in holidays went on long walking tours. In school he was known for his radical opinions on astronomy and religion.

Pontoppidan rebelled against the family clerical tradition and studied engineering at the Polytechnic Institute in Copenhagen, but gave it up in 1877 before completing the training. After a visit to Switzerland, where he wrote his early sketches, he became a teacher at the folk high school conducted by his brother Morten in the north of Zealand. He was married to the daughter of a farmer in a neighboring parish and went to live there. A few years later he and his wife were divorced.

A collection of short stories called Clipped Wings was Pontoppidan's first book and it established him as a satirist. The stories pictured the unhappy social conditions among the peasants and made indirect attacks on the church and the higher middle class. The book appeared in 1881 when he was twenty-four years old. and from that time on, he devoted himself entirely to writing.

During the next nine years, he published a succession of short story volumes in the same satiric vein, culminating in 1890 with Clouds, a direct attack on the conservative government, and Chronicles, which contained the lines: "It is no use being hatched from the egg of an eagle if one is brought up in a poultry yard." His first novel, The Congregation at Sandinge, appeared in 1883, satirizing the folk high school culture. To earn his living during these years, he worked as a journalist. Awarded a traveling legacy in 1890, Pontoppidan visited Italy and Germany with his second wife (the daughter of a civil servant). Upon returning to Denmark, he lived for a time in the provinces, then settled in Copenhagen and became a leader in educational and literary life. He often gave advice to young writers. For a short period he took up journalistic work again, this time on a radical paper, the Politiken, which he made the target of a violent attack in two of his later novels.

In 1891 Pontoppidan began a group of novels with the main title The Promised Land. The opening volume, Mould, was followed in 1892 by The Promised Land and by The Day of Judgment in 1895. The trilogy is a cultural, ecclesiastical, and political satire, with a clergyman for the chief character. The period is 1880 and the setting northern Zealand. The Promised Land went thru six editions and sold 36,000 copies in Denmark.

From 1898 to 1904 Pontoppidan labored on an ambitious eight-volume cycle, Lucky Per. The title is ironic. Lucky Per was the son of a minister who, like Pontoppidan himself, revolted against his home and failed to realize his engineering ambitions. Readers of the book recognized a portrait of Georg Brandes among the minor characters. The work was praised for its scenes of Copenhagen at the turn of the century and for its picture of the Jewish aristocracy.

The third major project undertaken by Pontoppidan was The Kingdom of the Dead, picturing the political change which had taken place in Denmark in 1901. The five volumes, Torben and Jytte, Storeholt, Publicans and Sinners, Enslev's Death, and Favsingholm, appeared between 1912 and 1915.

Pontoppidan's method in each of his long works was to publish them first as a series of small books, each with its own title, then rewrite the books and collect them under the main title.

Lucky Per marked the peak of Pontoppidan's career and his popularity declined during the years that followed, altho he continued to write novels and short stories for more than twenty years afterward. On several occasions he tried his hand at drama, but none of his own plays had the success of Sven Leopold's adaptation of one of his short stories, "The Royal Guest."

When the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Pontoppidan in 1917 "for his profuse descriptions of Danish life today," there was widespread surprise. The American Scandinavian Review voiced the opinion of many that the author's productivity was past and that he did not have the "mastering genius that would entitle him to the prize." He shared the honor with Karl Gjellerup.

Pontoppidan ceased writing books in 1927 with Man's Heaven, a novel dealing with official Denmark during the War. Going into quiet retirement in Copenhagen, he wrote only an occasional newspaper article, and remained aloof from society. When a banquet was arranged in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday in the summer of 1932, he had it canceled.

The author's hair and neatly trimmed beard are snow white and there are deep furrows under his eyes. He is an honorary member of the Danish Society of Novelists and of the London P.E.N. Club.

H. G. Topsøe-Jensen says: "Henrik Pontoppidan is a realist true to his convictions, a merciless opponent of all that is visionary and of all obscurantism, but he directs his keen criticism also against both Naturalism and Individualism, altho he has an intellectual kinship with both. In his later works one notes a steady growth of his conviction as to the intellectual bankruptcy of the "Modern Awakening." This finds its most notable expression in his poem on the occasion of the seventieth birthday of Georg Brandes (1912). In his skepticism and his mordant irony he is reminiscent of Ibsen, whom he surpasses in clarity of thought, but with Pontoppidan criticism is often accompanied by intense sympathy and by a desire to understand those whose modes of thought differ from his own. His particular field is the realistic picture of his own times – occasionally with a somewhat indiscreet use of a living model."

The works of Pontoppidan have been translated into German, French, Hungarian, Swedish, and English. An American translation of Lucky Per was in preparation late in 1933.

Henrik Pontoppidan's principal works (Danish titles given in English):
Short Stories: Clipped Wings, 1881; Village Sketches, 1883; From the Cottages, 1887; Clouds, 1890; Chronicles, 1890.
Group Novels: The Promised Land (three volumes) 1891-95; Lucky Per (eight volumes) 1898-1904; The Kingdom of the Dead (five volumes) 1912-15.
Other Novels: The Congregation at Sandinge, 1883; Mimosa, 1886; Night Watch, 1894; Mayor Hoeck and His Wife, 1905; Hans Kvast and Melusine, 1907; Man's Heaven, 1927.
Play: The Wild Birds.

English translations of Henrik Pontoppidan's works:
Emanuel. 1892; The Promised Land, 1896.

About Henrik Pontoppidan:
Marble, A.R. The Nobel Prize Winners in Literature; Topsøe-Jensen, H.G. Scandinavian Literature.
American Scandinavian Review 21:7 January 1933; Contemporary Review 117:374 1920.