Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Author's Portrait: Jens Peter Jacobsen

As regards literature, Northern Europe has been fertile ground ever since the old Norse sagas were written down, notably the Icelandic Edda. The fact that fifteen authors from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature between 1901 and 2013 tells of a vivid narrative tradition. In fact, the names of Scandinavians can be found on bestseller lists regularly, but of course there are important classical writers from the region, too. Every bibliophile will at least have heard of Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen, Selma Lagerlöf, August Strindberg, and Sigrid Undset – to name just a few –, but how about Jens Peter Jacobsen, a late contemporary and fellow-countryman of Hans Christian Andersen?

Jens Peter Jacobsen was born into the family of a wealthy merchant in Thisted at the western end of the Limfjord in Jutland, Denmark, on 7 April 1847. He was the oldest of five children and early showed exceptional talent as well as passion both for science and literature, a double penchant which is visible in all his work. As a sixteen-year-old he moved to Copenhagen to finish secondary school and stayed there to study botany at university. He was a gifted scientist and in 1873, although he had never taken any exams, he presented his outstanding dissertation on freshwater algae which was rewarded with the prestigious Golden Medal of the University of Copenhagen. 

As a student Jens Peter Jacobsen became immediately fascinated by the still recent discoveries of Charles Darwin and, over a period of about five years, translated into Danish for the first time two of his key works, namely On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. He also wrote scientific articles for a radical Danish journal to promote and establish Darwin’s ideas in the north of Europe where they were hardly known until then. In addition his engagement in the Theory of Evolution helped the young man to get over disappointment in love and a deep religious crisis and it led him to adopt the atheistic, ie naturalistic view of the world which is reflected in his literary work. 

It was with a short story titled Mogens that Jens Peter Jacobsen made his debut as a writer in 1872. Since already in this first published literary work man is shown as an animal that can’t but follow its nature, it was considered highly revolutionary at the time. The story, however, is admired above all for its strong impressionistic language. In the early 1870s the author also set out to write Marie Grubbe. A Lady of the Seventeenth Century (Fru Marie Grubbe), a historical novel based on a Danish noblewoman who gave up her station to become the wife of a ferryman and be happy, but due to his scientific and translation work along with failing health it wasn’t finished before 1876. 

Already in 1873, during a travel around Italy, Jens Peter Jacobsen was severely struck with tuberculosis which cast a shadow on the rest of his life preventing him from pursuing his plans for the future. As from the mid-1870s he gave up for good science and fully devoted himself to literature. He returned to Thisted to live with his family and travelled to the South, especially Italy and France, repeatedly for reasons of health. He wrote his second novel titled Niels Lyhne, a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman about a young man who loses his faith and becomes an atheist, and published it in 1880. By then his health had deteriorated already considerably. 

After 1880 Jens Peter Jacobsen’s poor health no longer allowed him to write much. He finished a few tales like A Shot in the Fog (Et Skud i Taagen: 1875), Two Worlds (To Verdener: 1879) or The Plague in Bergamo (Pesten i Bergamo), There Should Have Been Roses (Fra Skitsebogen) and Mrs. Fonss (Fru Fønss) which he brought out in a collection, together with his first published work, under the title Mogens and Other Stories (Mogens og andre Noveller) in 1882. These stories, like all other literary works of the author, are characterised by an extremely precise and introspective style which uses to be labelled as naturalistic. Because their plots are made up of a string of picturesque scenes which remind of great impressionistic paintings his writing is also referred to as impressionistic. 

On 30 April 1885 Jens Peter Jacobsen died from consumption, as tuberculosis was often called then because it visibly ate up the body, in his family’s home in Thisted. Some of his late works, notably his poems were published posthumously and widely read not just in Denmark, but also abroad, above all in Germany. 

The influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen on other writers has been enormous, especially in Scandinavia and Germany. Rainer Maria Rilke is known to have been particularly passionate about his work because he mentioned him in his letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, which were later published as Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter: 1929). Of course, he had the advantage of speaking Danish. Also Thomas Mann was well acquainted with the innovative work of the Danish author. In his novella Tonio Kröger from 1903 the parallels to Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne are particularly obvious. Thus it is justified to call the Dane an important precursor of German symbolism. 

Since Jens Peter Jacobsen has been dead for almost 130 years, all his writings are in the public domain. English translations of his novels Marie Grubbe from 1917 and Niels Lyhne from 1919 as well as the collection Mogens and Other Stories from 1921 can be downloaded as free e-books from

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