The genesis of the essay in Scandinavia is not a Northern phenomenon. Its origin and inspiration came from the English moral weeklies of the early 18th century such as Addison’s and Steele’s Tatler and Spectator. Dano-Norwegians and Swedes became familiar with the moral essay primarily through translation into French or German, if not directly through the original English.
By the same token, the evolution of the essay in Scandinavia is not a unified phenomenon. Although the presumed homogeneity of the region sometimes engenders the hope of a common literature, each country has pursued its own path. While it is true that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have inherited some shared experiences by dint of foreign literary influences and mutual political and cultural circumstances, the essay has more than any other genre retained its national character.
Notwithstanding, the essay in Scandinavia—linguistically speaking—can be traced to a single country; it was in Sweden, with the appearance in 1732 of Olof von Dalin’s (1708–63) journal Then Swänska Argus (1732–34; The Swedish Argus), that the Scandinavian essay began. The Swedish essay in turn heralded the rise of the Danish essay in the hands of Norwegian-born Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754), whose Moralske Tanker (Moral Reflections) appeared in 1744, a dozen years after the demise of Then Swänska Argus. Unlike Holberg, who after Moral Reflections wrote five volumes of epistles (1748–54), Dalin did not continue along the same lines for the remainder of his life. Thus while his Swedish Argus had some impact on Danish literature, its limited range—in both subject matter and the duration of publication—meant that it did not enjoy the international popularity or influence of Holberg’s essays. Dalin’s journal may have appeared first, but Holberg’s essays found a greater and more lasting place in literary history.
2. The Danish Essay
In point of fact, Ludvig Holberg was not Denmark’s first essayist. His essays were preceded by those of Christian Falster (1690–1752), who wrote three volumes of essays in Latin entitled Amoenitates philologicce (1729–32; The pleasance of learning) in a neoclassical style. His themes are diverse; most are, however, scrupulously areligious.
For both Danish writers, personal experience, moral philosophy, and the value of knowledge and philosophy are essential. While Holberg is still read today, Falster, whose essays were not translated into Danish until 1919, is only of historical interest.
By contrast, Holberg’s Moral Reflections were translated into Dutch, French, Swedish, and German, while the Epistles, of which there are over 540, filling some 2000 pages, were translated into German, Dutch, and partially into Russian. Moral Reflections and the Epistles are complementary: the earlier work comprises the serious literary essay in the classical tradition (with echoes of Lucilius, Cicero, and Seneca), while the latter evinces a blend of satire and moral philosophy more aligned with Montaigne. Irony and parody became Holberg’s main literary devices in addressing his public. His essays are of a dual nature: they reflect, on the one hand, individual experience, and demonstrate, on the other, the notion of common experience. The entertaining expert and occasional dilettante shows that he is well-read and informed on diverse subjects.
As the instigator setting the course of the Danish essay and the epistle, Holberg drew on foreign sources. It is difficult to speak of the essay tradition in Denmark—then or now—without taking account of foreign models. Both classical and French elements dominated the Danish essay up until Holberg’s death in 1754. In the latter half of the 18th century, Denmark was more and more influenced by the English Spectator tradition.
Twentieth-century Danish essays have likewise demonstrated a dependence on English and American authors.
Following Holberg’s death, the Danish essay lived on in the spirit of the English moral weeklies. J0rgen Riis’ Den Danske Spectator (1744–45; The Danish spectator) and Anti- Spectator (1744–45) were short-lived but nevertheless popular, inspiring a number of foreign-language Spectator publications. Among the most prominent were Johann E. SchlegePs Der Fremde (1745), La Beaumelle’s La Spectatrice Danoise (1749), and J.A.Cramer’s Der Nordische Aufseher (1758–61). Subsequently, another Danish-language publication, Jens Schielderup Sneedorffs (1724–64) Den Patriotiske Tilskuer (1761–63; The patriotic spectator), continued the tradition.
By the close of the 18th century, the essay in Denmark had been transformed from an expression of the neoclassical spirit into a sociopolitical undertaking which relied on the genre’s ability to affect opinion and taste. The sudden change of emphasis can be ascribed to an enlarged audience and its increasingly bourgeois character. Eighteenthcentury essays generally represented the learned class and in some cases, the learned elite. The transition from a theological to a secular society led, moreover, to new literary applications of the essay. Although the Spectator tradition was often the model for the popular Danish essay, the classical essay—the epistle in particular—remained the genuine representative of the genre. Toward the close of the 18th century, however, the epistle receded as a medium. The source of intimacy associated with epistolary dialogue became less and less compelling for both essayist and reader. Simultaneously, writers of essays developed a powerful sense of individualism and a diminished need to be morally instructive. What, then, had previously grounded itself in didactics transformed into an expression of individual experience. The resulting personal essay has since become the most practiced type of essay in Denmark. Whether Danish essayists describe life at home or abroad, they characteristically (and often ambivalently) express from an individual point of view what it is to be Danish and to live within Denmark’s borders.
During the first half of the 19th century, a number of Danish writers excelled as masters of prose, but few as essayists per se. The primary emulator of English essayists was Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791–1860), whose K0benhavns Flyvende Post (1827–37; The Copenhagen flying mail) includes critical essays which are both aesthetic and political. In considering the development of the Danish essay during the previous century, it becomes clear how the genre’s purpose and emphasis changed with the times—namely, from a genre preoccupied with tangible concerns to issues more esoteric in nature. The change can be explained in part by the reaction to Denmark’s political and ideological confrontations with Prussia. The Danish essay was no longer exclusively the domain of the privileged and learned, well-established critics of lesser means now took it upon themselves to give it new life. As a result, the essay gradually lost its entertaining quality; in its place emerged the serious treatise and polemical essay.
Georg Brandes (1842–1927) is recognized as one of Denmark’s principal essayists. He was, however, less an essayist than a master of polemic. In contrast to Holberg, who looked back to well-versed authorities of antiquity, Brandes turned to spokesmen of an empirical spirit consonant with his own age. Brandes’ particular blend of essay and polemic was symptomatic of works labeled “essay” during the first decades of the 20th century. Religion, morals, ethical values, and the limits and responsibilities of science provided the basis of public opinion through which modern essayists were inspired. As a result, essays in Denmark became for a time less artistic and more topical. Once again, the journal took on the role as the leading medium for the essay.
Just after World War II, a group of aspiring critics and poets identifying themselves as “Heretics” contributed to a journal entitled Heretica (1948–53). Internationally oriented, they concerned themselves with the condition of modern man. The essay, along with the lyric, was the primary genre of the journal’s first years. In this and like-minded literary journals, Danish writers appeared side by side with representatives from an international array of poets and essayists, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda, Bertrand Russell, and James Baldwin among them.
Heretica, and the essays it contained, brought new impulses for other genres and set the tone for the Danish essay in subsequent years. Despite the Danish essayists’ collective vision to improve society through the aesthetic qualities of language, stylistically they remained individuals as they contributed to the evolution of what is referred to as the literary essay. The final decade of the 19th century had experienced a rejuvenation of the literary essay, which became popular among modern-day moral philosophers and stylists.
The Danish literary essay acquired some new supporters of the genre who saw it not only as a literary form, but also as a tool for enacting social change. Today, one typically finds a blend and an exchange of philosophy and fiction in the Danish literary essay.
During the second half of the 20th century, an increasing number of essay collections by individual Danish authors have appeared. Jacob Paludan (1896–1975), known as the essayist who in modern times has done the most for the genre, fuses the subjective and the objective in a free-wheeling style. His essays have been likened to “jaunts.” Critics like Paludan have enthusiastically examined the nature and form of the Danish essay. Per Lange (1901–91) is best remembered for his characterization of the essay in “Om Essayets Form” (On the art of the essay). The critic Conrad Raun gave an account of the Danish essay in 1958 in the literary journal Vindrosen (Wind rose). Increased consciousness of the genre no doubt led to its use by social critics from the 1950s to the 1970s. For some writers of prose fiction such as Villy Sørensen (1929–), the essay is employed as a means of explaining that which has been concealed in the metaphors of imaginative literature, making symbols of human values perceptible when other genres have failed.
The youngest representatives of the Danish essay tend to hold their readers at a distance. Unlike their predecessors, they are not inclined to instruct. These aesthetically disposed essayists are often engaged critics, whose primary concerns are the interrelationships between ethics and art.
3. The Norwegian Essay
Ludvig Holberg, the father of Danish literature, is conventionally referred to by Norwegian literary historians as the first Norwegian essayist. Holberg’s internationalism and air of modernity extended to continental Europe. Although it may be argued that the contemporary Norwegian essay is in some ways still reflective of European culture, most essays from Norway are oriented toward the country’s national character and its concern for national identity. The dominance of Danish language and culture in Norway hindered the cultivation of an autonomous Norwegian essay. Following its political independence from Denmark in 1814 and the accompanying campaign for written Norwegian, the country witnessed the strengthening of the Norwegian essay. However, it has still not entirely emancipated itself from the didactic function and pedagogical tone it acquired through the patriotic efforts of the 1830s and 1840s.
Not unlike essayists in Sweden and Denmark, Norwegian essayists have concentrated on descriptions of nature and on essays which portray national literature. Some of the country’s leading essayists—Hans Ernst Kinck (1865–1926), Nils Kjser, and Arne Garborg (1851–1924)—provide outstanding examples of a nationally oriented literature with an awareness of landscape and language. Of particular interest has been the Norwegian essayist’s portrayal of contemporary Norwegian writers; Gunnar Heiberg’s (1857–1929) characterization of Henrik Wergeland and Knut Hamsun’s (1859–1952) characterization of Henrik Ibsen are but two examples. The abstract quality often associated with the essay is consequently less visible in the Norwegian essay. In keeping with Norway’s new national awareness, Norwegian essays have often resulted from internal social conflicts. Because of the popularity of this kind of writing, the social value of such pieces has from time to time dominated artistic elements. Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, the Norwegian essay took on the character of monologue and polemic.
While in Denmark the essay has sometimes exposed the Danes’ ambivalence toward their country, in Norway it has worked to create a mode of expression compatible with efforts to establish cultural unity. Linguistically, this is observed in the essays of Asmund Vinje (1818–70) in his periodical Dølen (1858–70; The dalesman). With his Spectatorlike treatment of topics such as education, folklore, politics, and philosophy, Vinje found a conversational style which complemented his efforts to promote the written Norwegian language nynorsk, which was based on western Norwegian dialects. The continuation of the tradition, using the essay to strengthen nationalism, can be observed in the epistles and essays of the so-called 20th-century Vinje, Tor Jonsson (1916–51).
The essay has affected Norwegian literature in another way. This point was made clear by Nils Kjær (1870–1924), who represents the last chapter of the era of Norway’s literary dependence on Denmark. In 1895, Kjaer wrote in the journal Tidssignaler (Signs of the times) that the critical essay was about to supersede the novel as the dominant genre. There, he points to the French writer Paul Bourget as an example of a belletrist and philosopher who considers the critical essay to be an organic whole—that is, more than merely a literary review. According to Kjær, the growing popularity of the essay in Norway just before the turn of the century could be ascribed to new expectations and a thirst for intellectual growth by readers. More and more, the Norwegian public looked to literature less for entertainment than for intellectual stimulation. Kjær found a further explanation for the essay’s popularity in the critics’ changed perception of their goals and means. Contrary to Hippolyte Taine, the new Norwegian essayist wrote with the conviction that criticism is art and not science. Norwegian essays at the turn of the century reveal their authors’ individual personalities. In Kjær’s words, those essayists sought to create “sjælemonographier” (monographic accounts of the soul) rather than “kulturbilleder” (pictures of civilization).
4. The Swedish Essay
Notwithstanding the fact that individual Swedish authors wrote essays during the 18th century, there was no organized effort then to further the genre in Sweden. To the brief list of 18th-century Swedsh essays belongs Count Johan Thuresson Oxenstierna (1666– 1733), whose Recueil de pensées du Comte J. O. sur divers sujets (1720–21; Collection of thoughts of Count Johan Oxenstierna on diverse subjects) attracted international attention. Oxenstierna has been referred to as “the Montaigne of the North”; the allusion is to the authors’ similar choice of topics, their use of quotations, and the general disposition of their works. Pensées was printed 18 times in French, but it was not translated into Swedish until 1767.
Swedish-language epistles can first be identified with En gammal mans bref till en ung printz (1756; An old man’s letter to a young prince) by Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695–1770).
The Swedish-language tradition continued, mostly in the form of Spectator literature.
Even before Olof von Dalin’s Then Swänska Argus, Sweden could boast of Carl (1703– 61) and Edvard (1704–67) Carleson’s Sedolärande Mercurius (1730–31; Didactic Mercury). In both of these publications, the essays were usually character portrayals.
Following the cessation of Then Swänska Argus, a number of Swedish moral weeklies appeared. Parallel with the moral weeklies emerged essays in the form of literary criticism. Den Swänska Mercurius (1755–61, 1763–65; The Swedish mercury) of Carl Christoffer Gjörwell (1731–1811) can be described as the beginning of Swedish literary criticism published on a daily basis and in brief essays.
The early 19th century is represented by P.D.A.Atterbom (1790–1855), Johan Erik Rydkvist (1800–77), and Louis Gerhard de Geer (1818–96). Rydkvist’s journal Heimdall (1828–32) was English- and French-inspired at a time when the Swedish cultural climate was dominated by Germany. Associated with the familiar essay, and an admirer of Francis Bacon, de Geer produced pieces such as “Om dans” (On dance) and “Om konversation” (On conversation).
During the so-called “breakthrough” of modern literature in the 1870s and 1880s, increasing influence from France was evident. Sainte-Beuve and Paul Bourget inspired Swedish literary essayists; Atterbom’s Litterära karakteristiker I–II (1870; Literary characteristics) was largely influenced by Sainte-Beuve. Both writers tended to create psychological portraits, using anecdotes and, at times, fictional enhancements of authors’ lives. In response to Atterbom, the number of literary, biographical, and historical essays increased in Sweden during the 1890s. The development of the Swedish essay during the latter half of the 19th century took its cues from SainteBeuve, as well as Taine and Brandes. Other noted essayists of this period are Gustav af Geijerstam (1858–1909) (Ur samtiden [1883; From our times]) and Ola Hansson (1860–1925) (Literära silhouetter [1885; Literary silhouettes]). Both works are compendia of literary portraits. Hansson, in particular, concentrated on the development of the critical-biographical essay as a literary form. Metaphor and lyric quality are essential elements in his writing. Sweden’s general awareness of the essay as a genre can be accredited to Hansson’s essays.
The dominant Swedish essayist during the period between 1890 and 1906 was Oscar Levertin (1862–1906), whose principal essay collection, Diktare och drömmare (1898; Poets and dreamers), reveals his distrust of contemporary movements. While some of his essays approach prose fiction, they retain personal elements which are identified with the essay.
Levertin’s successor was Frederik Böök (1883–1961). Although he attracted considerable attention for his affinity with Nazism, his essays nevertheless inspired aspiring essayists, and by doing so pointed to the role of the genre in shaping political opinion. As an essayist, Böök can be characterized as a critic and moralist who was dedicated to Germany and to nationalism. His major work, Essayer och kritiker (1913–
23; Essays and criticism), is a multi-volume collection of works often on literary topics and literary figures.
Most contemporary Swedish essayists evince a close familiarity with modern journalism and prose fiction. Characteristically, Levertin’s essays demonstrate an affinity with descriptive metaphor and hypotactic associations. Analogies often reveal a relationship to art. All of this contributes to essays in which subjectivity replaces fact.
Even an essayist as ideologically attuned as Book revealed a sensitivity to symbolism.
Frans G.Bengtsson (1894–1954) is recognized as the most widely read Swedish essayist. His style is largely associative, but also archaic and imitative. He is a master of the informal essay, holding his own with French and English essayists. Stylistically, Bengtsson is an anglophile, writing in the tradition of Charles Lamb, Thomas Carlyle, and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Bengtsson succeeds in mastering parallelism through the use of comic and musical elements. Analogies, anecdotes, and quotations create an ironic but also sympathetic pastiche.
During the second period in the development of the Swedish essay (1907–19), the essay emerged as a new form of expression, and developed dramatically. This growth can in part be attributed to a change in the structure of the reading public. Collections of literature and theater criticism increased. Some essayists and critics in Sweden felt that the term essay should be reserved for the literary essay. Even those who accepted the term “essay” recognized two forms: the aesthetic on the one hand, and the nationalistic on the other.
In Sweden, the term “essay” came to be used as a subtitle for literary, historical, and philosophical essays. “Essay” was accepted, for example, by Ola Hansson when he changed the name of his “silhouettes” to “essays,” and by Ellen Key (1849–1924) when she described her pieces in Människor (1899; Man) as “essayer.” During the decade between 1920 and 1930, however, consciousness of the essay in Sweden decreased, for various political and economic reasons. At the same time, however, new forms of the essay such as the travel essay, descriptions of nature, and the historical essay gained popularity.
Over time, the essay has taken on many styles in Sweden. Inspired by Rousseau, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793–1866) produced lengthy essays on national character. August Strindberg (1849–1912) wrote essays on cultural and social problems. Vilhelm Ekelund (1880–1949) gave expression to his search for truth and beauty in a long series of aphoristic essays. The 19305 saw a rash of critical essays in short-lived periodical publications such as Spektrum, the Fönstret (Window), and Fronten.
The essay flourished among 19th– and 20th-century Swedish speakers in Finland. In its origins, the Finland-Swedish essay can be traced to Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804– 77), who as an essayist wrote principally about Finland’s political and social conflicts and the problems of literary criticism, and to Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806–81), who despite his Finnish sympathies wrote in Swedish against Sweden.
A number of Swedish essays in Finland can be described as discourses on aesthetics, as self-portrayals, and as self-analyses. Literary journals have played an important role in the reception of the essay, as literary criticism was thought to be edifying. Viktor Rydberg (1828–95) was known for what is called the extended controversial essay or polemic. Elmer Diktonius (1896–1961) mastered the “conversational essay.” The critical essay is associated with Rabbe Enckell (1903–74). In general, however, the Swedish essay in Finland has remained local and historical, as it reflects literary history and national concerns.
As with other genres, it may be argued that the essay in individual Scandinavian countries is marked by certain affinities. The Danish essay might be called the subjective, personal essay; the Norwegian essay, the essay of national character; the Swedish essay, the literary essay. Scandinavia’s production of essays has also been affected by conditions outside the realm of literature; for example, the historian must consider the effects of the world wars on book production, the ensuing climate of intellectual debate, and the influence of the press. And in all three countries, the cultural and literary journal has played a role in keeping the essay alive in the minds of readers. The essay has not, however, been a traditional genre in all parts of Scandinavia. In fact, the only Icelandic writer who can be identified as an essayist is Guðmundur Finnbogason (1873–1944), one-time national librarian of Iceland. Women make up a proportionately small number of essayists; the largest group is represented by Sweden. In some literary histories the term “essay” is not even indexed. In others, the essay is generally treated as an author’s secondary preoccupation; little effort is made to clarify the relationship between the essay and other genres. Although the essay is much discussed, it is relegated to the less important corners of secondary and university instruction. Nevertheless, there are superficial efforts to insure the future of the essay. Editors of anthologies of Scandinavian essays tend to comb and excerpt every major author’s oeuvre.
To address the future of the essay in Scandinavia implies that solutions must be found to make it relevant to a wide range of readers, to portray ordinary and universal experience. In an essay entitled “Essayn,” the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist writes that the traditional gentleman’s essay must lose its elitism. In order to survive as an art form, it must speak to both the joys and the sorrows of life, and it must be instructive.
Norske essays, edited by Carl F.Engelstad, Oslo: Gyldendal, 1967
Billeskov Jansen, F.J., Holberg som epigrammatiker og essayist, Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 2 vols., 1938–39
Engelstad, Carl F., “Innledning,” in Norske essays, edited by Engelstad, Oslo: Gyldendal, 1967
Grepstad, Ottar, “Det nynorske essayet fra a ti Aa,” Vinduet 36, no. 3 (1982):24–34
Grepstad, Ottar, editor, Essayet i Norge: Fjorten riss av ein tradisjon, Oslo: Norske Samlaget, 1982
Hågg, Göran, Övertalning och underhallning: Den svenska essaistiken, 1890–1930, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1978
Sandersen, Vibeke, Essayet—Oprøret og tradition, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1975
Sandersen, Vibeke, Essayet—Filosofi og fiktion, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1977
Schoolfield, George, “The Literary Essay in Finland,” in The Nordic Mind: Current Trends in Scandinavian Literary Criticism, edited by Fred Egholm Andersen and John Weinstock, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1986:103–10
►→ back to ►→ Encyclopedia of THE ESSAY
Please contact the author for suggestions or further informations: firstname.lastname@example.org;
MORE INFORMATION ON MY OTHER SITES:
architecture, literature, essays, philosophy, biographies