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Scandinavia, Whitman in

The interest taken in Whitman and his poetry in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the closing decades of the nineteenth century reflected dominant social as well as literary concerns in each country. Norway, independent since 1814 but with close ties still to Denmark, was increasingly intent on establishing an unequivocal national identity; at the same time Norwegians were emigrating to America in numbers exceeded only by the Irish. Swedes and Danes were also emigrating but in smaller proportions. Concurrently, industry and commerce were transforming the Scandinavian countries. Unprecedented economic prosperity brought increasingly insistent popular demands for a democratic distribution of its benefits. Curiosity about life and literature in the American democracy was understandably intense in all three countries. When Whitman offered a Danish editor his recently completed Democratic Vistas for translation, it was quickly accepted and became a focal text for commentary on American democracy as well as Whitman's poetry.

Rudolf Schmidt, the translator of Democratic Vistas, was the enterprising editor of a new journal, For Idé og Virkelighed (Idea and Reality), in which he published in 1872 a long enthusiastic essay on Whitman. Alerted to Whitman's existence by an article in The Fortnightly Review, Schmidt had ventured to write to the poet in Washington; Whitman's grateful reply enclosed a copy of Leaves of Grass and of the newly published Democratic Vistas. Within months Schmidt's essay appeared presenting Leaves of Grass as "a new departure in humanity" (qtd. in Allen 357) better understood in Europe than in America, where it was more likely to be ridiculed than praised. Demokratiske Fremblik, Schmidt's translation of Democratic Vistas, followed in 1874.

No less a personage sat on Schmidt's editorial board than Norway's national poet, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, famous in Scandinavia as an unyielding exponent of free thought. He concurred in Schmidt's appraisal of Whitman, which he confirmed, with reservations, after a lengthy American tour in 1881. In that same year Kristofer Janson, a young Lutheran pastor who as a Bjørnsonian freethinker had been obliged to leave his post in Norway for a Unitarian church in Minneapolis, published Amerikanske Forholde, Fem Foredrag (American Life, Five Lectures) on the merits and risks inherent in American democracy as he had observed them at first hand and as they had been powerfully revealed in Whitman's poetry and Demokratiske Fremblik.

Janson had briefly in his employ in Minneapolis a talented but footloose Norwegian immigrant, Knut Hamsun, who soon left America after two failed attempts to establish himself as a novelist and poet among the Norwegian settlers. In 1889 he published in Copenhagen Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (The Cultural Life of Modern America), based on lectures given before the Student Union. He disparaged the positive views of America promulgated by Schmidt, Bjørnson, and Janson, and ridiculed Whitman's unorthodox poetics and lofty aspirations for American democracy. Hamsun privately discounted his book as being no more than a way of gaining notoriety (and a publication fee) for its indigent author—thirty years old, in debt, and virtually unknown except for the recent publication of a fragment of Hunger, the first novel in a career that would bring him the Nobel Prize thirty years later. The strategy succeeded all too well; in later years Hamsun repeatedly denied permission to reissue the book, dismissing it as worthless.

A decisive moment early in Johannes V. Jensen's Chicago novel Hjulet (The Wheel, 1905) directed Danish readers to his translations of several poems by Whitman read con amore by a young male character. Jensen had visited America in 1902–1903 and had sensed, he later reported in Den ny Verden (The New World, 1907), both the powerful regenerative force as well as the risks of self-deception present in Whitman's poems and in America itself. Nevertheless, the translations in Hjulet apparently served to introduce Whitman to many Scandinavian readers. Jensen later provided the introduction to translations by Otto Gelsted in a centenary volume (Copenhagen, 1919) that was adopted by a whole generation of Scandinavian readers as a basic text in literary modernism. In 1933 the Danish drama critic Frederik Schyberg published Walt Whitman (enlarged English translation, 1951), a remarkable, wide-ranging study of Whitman as an American poet whose achievement had made of him quite simply "a trend in world literature" (Schyberg 3). Schyberg skillfully analyzed textual revisions and rearrangements Whitman had made in successive editions of Leaves of Grass over the course of four decades. In a concluding chapter his findings allowed him to place Whitman in the company of major poets of worldwide renown. Translations continue to appear in Denmark: for example, Paul Borum's Fremtidens historie (The History of the Future, 1976) and Annette Mester's Demokratiske Visioner (1991).

The first display of Swedish interest in Whitman, apart from passing references, appeared in 1905 in a long essay by Andrea Butenschön, a Norwegian by birth who had traveled in India. She placed Whitman's poetry in the context of ancient Wisdom literature like that of India and translated "Proud Music of the Storm" in an inflated epic style. Whitman's real impact in Sweden came later, when a number of Swedish-language poets in Finland discovered in his poetry a primal source of their modernist ambitions. Edith Södergran's first volume of strikingly unconventional poetry appeared in 1916 and was soon followed by poetry and criticism by Elmer Diktonius. Both were quickly denominated the New Generation of poets by the critic Hagar Olsson. She attributed their power largely to the visionary force exemplified in Leaves of Grass. Whitman, she wrote, had shown these new poets how to restore poetry to its true function and rescue it from stale romantic lyricism. Revolution became a byword of the New Generation, not surprisingly in Finland, which had succeeded in asserting its independence in 1918 after a century of Russian rule. In mainland Sweden the New Generation of Finland-Swedish poets seemed dangerously radical to some critics, but the young poet Artur Lundkvist, describing himself as "a proletarian of the soil" (qtd. in Anderson 344), was completely won over. He later testified to a quickening of his own revolutionary spirit (carefully distinguished from communism) after having read in 1925 Gelsted's Danish translations of Whitman. Lundkvist became a leading spokesman in the following decades in Sweden for what he termed "dynamic modernism." In that role he paid tribute in both prose and poetry to Whitman as a "pioneer and path breaker" who "identifies himself with nature, the cosmos" (qtd. in Anderson 345). Lundkvist's enthusiasm drew together Harry Martinson and other writers in the important group known as fem unga (Five Youths), but late in life it soured as he perceived Whitman to have been a false prophet, given the failure of America to fulfill its lofty promise of freedom and democracy.

Translations of Whitman in Scandinavia, where English has increasingly become the second language of choice, have been limited to selections, never the whole of his corpus, as in Russia and France. Translators have gradually improved their skills in dealing with intransigent problems of syntax, diction, and prosody and in learning how to annul the lingering influence of their own great poets. Especially noteworthy translations of "Song of Myself" have been published, by Per Arneberg (1973, in Neo-Norwegian), and of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, by Rolf Aggestam (1983, in Swedish).


Allen, Gay Wilson. "Whitman in Denmark and Norway." Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 357–362.

Anderson, Carl L. "Whitman in Sweden." Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 339–351.

Naess, Harald. Knut Hamsun og Amerika. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1969.

Peltola, Niilo. "Whitman in Finland." Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 381–385.

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.

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