Henrik Pontoppidan

Henrik Pontoppidan
(1857 - 1943)

Realist writer who shared with Karl Gjellerup the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1917 for "his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark." Pontoppidan's novels and short stories--informed with a desire for social progress but despairing, later in his life, of its realization--present an unusually comprehensive picture of his country and his epoch.
The son of a clergyman, Pontoppidan partly revolted against his environment by studying engineering in Copenhagen in 1873. In 1879 he broke off his studies and became for several years a teacher. His first collection of stories, St?kkede Vinger, was published in 1881, and thereafter he supported himself by writing, until 1900 partly as a journalist with various Copenhagen papers.

Pontoppidan's output--mainly novels and short stories written in a cold, aloof, epic style--stretches over half a century and covers most aspects of Danish life.

His first books were about country-town life. Landsbybilleder (1883; "Village Pictures"), Fra Hytterne (1887; "From the Cottages"), and Skyer (1890; "Clouds") are all characterized by social indignation though also by ironic appreciation of the complacency and passivity of country people. The trilogy Det Forj?ttede Land, 3 vol. (1891, 1895; The Promised Land), describes the religious controversies in country districts. In the 1890s Pontoppidan wrote short novels on psychological, aesthetic, and moral problems--e.g., Nattevagt (1894; "Night Guard"), Den Gamle Adam (1895), and Hojsang (1896; "High Song"). These were followed by a major work, the novel Lykke-Per (1898-1904; "Lucky Peter"), in which the chief character bears some resemblance to Pontoppidan himself. He is a clergyman's son who rebels against the puritanical atmosphere of his home and seeks his fortune in the capital as an engineer. The book's theme is the power of environment, and national tendencies toward daydreaming and fear of reality are condemned.

Pontoppidan's third great novel cycle, De dodes rige, 5 vol. (1912-16; "The Empire of Death"), shows dissatisfaction with political developments after the liberal victory of 1901 and anxiety over the barrenness of the new era. The bitter novel Mands Himmerig (1927; "Man's Heaven") describes neutral Denmark during World War I and attacks carefree materialism. His last important work was the four volumes of memoirs that he published between 1933 and 1940 and that appeared in a collected and abridged version entitled Undervejs til mig selv (1943; "En Route to Myself").

P.M. Mitchell, Henrik Pontoppidan (1984), provides an introduction to Pontoppidan's life and work.


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