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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1848–1895)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
BOYESEN had thoroughly assimilated the spirit of his native Norway before he left it. In the small southern seaport of Friedricksvaern he had lived the happy adventurous boyhood depicted in those loving reminiscences ‘Boyhood in Norway.’ He knew the rugged little land and the sparkling fiords; his imagination had delighted in Necken and Hulder and trolls, and all the charming fantastic sprites of the Northland. So when he was far away, during his bread-winning struggles in America, they grew clearer and dearer in perspective; and in ‘Gunnar,’ ‘A Norseman’s Pilgrimage,’ ‘Ilka on the Hilltop,’ and other delightful books, he bequeathed these memories to his adopted land.  1
  He came of well-to-do people, and received a liberal education at the gymnasium of Christiania, the University of Leipsic, and the University of Norway. His father, professor of mathematics at the Naval Academy, had made several trips to the United States and had been impressed by the opportunities offered there to energetic young men. Upon his urgent advice, Hjalmar when about twenty-one came to America, and soon obtained a position upon a Norwegian newspaper, the Fremad of Chicago.  2
  From childhood he had longed to write, but had been discouraged by his father, who expatiated upon the limitations of their native tongue, and assured him that to succeed in literature he must be able to write in another language as readily as in his own. Even in his school days he had shown a remarkable aptitude for languages; not only for understanding and speaking them, but for a sympathetic comprehension of foreign literatures, and that sensitiveness to shades of expression which so rarely comes to any but a native. He now worked with all his energy to acquire English, not only as a necessary tool, but as the best medium for conveying his own thought.  3
  This whole-souled devotion to an adopted tongue was soon rewarded by a more spontaneous ease of expression than he possessed even in his native Norwegian. No one could guess from his poems that he was foreign to the speech in which he wrote them; few even among those born and bred to its use have had such mastery of its capacities.  4
  He soon left the Fremad and began teaching Greek and Latin at the small Urbana University, in Ohio. Thence he was called to Cornell University in 1874 as professor of German, and in 1880 to Columbia College, where later he became professor of German languages and literatures. He was a teacher of rare stimulus and charm. He had an attractive vigor of personality; his treatment of subjects was at once keenly analytic and very sympathetic, while his individual point of view was impressed in an easy and vivid style.  5
  The same qualities won for Boyesen a distinguished place in the lecture-field, where he gave his audiences an exceptional combination of solid learning and graceful and lucid expression. A series on the Norse sagas, at the Lowell Institute in Boston, are still valued as ‘Scandinavian Studies.’  6
  In critical work, of which these studies form a part, Professor Boyesen made his chief mark, as was natural, on the literature and legends of his native land. The best commentary on Ibsen yet published in English is his introduction to Ibsen’s works; he manages to compress within the space of a very few pages the pith of the great anarch’s social ideas and the character of his dramatic work. His ‘Goethe and Schiller’ is also excellent.  7
  In pure letters, his earliest poems collected into ‘Idyls of Norway,’ and his early stories of Norse life, of which ‘Gunnar’ was first and best, were never surpassed by him in later life, if indeed they were equaled. The best powers of his mind were gradually drawn into fields which solidified and broadened his intellect, but checked the free inspiration and romantic feeling of youth. In gauging his merit as a creative artist, we must set aside all but the work of these few enthusiastic years. An important part of this change must be credited to the influence of the Russian novelists and their American disciples. Whatever may be the final verdict on Turgenev and Tolstoy, their tremendous effect on American literature is one of the most striking facts in our recent literary history; its value is a more dubious matter, according to the point of view. Boyesen met Turgenev in Paris, and was deeply impressed by him; he also became intimate with W. D. Howells, and through the influence of the latter became an ardent disciple of Tolstoy. The result was to transform the romanticist of ‘Gunnar’—steeped in the legends of old Norway, creating a fairy-land atmosphere about him and delighting to live in the ideal,—into a so-called realist, setting himself to the task of brushing away all illusions and painting life as sterile and unpicturesque as it is in its meanest, most commonplace conditions. To do this, he claimed, was the stern function of the author. To help his readers to self-knowledge, although it might lessen their happiness, was the greatest service he could render them. ‘The Mammon of Unrighteousness’ and ‘The Golden Calf’ were written in accordance with this principle, but they failed to gain popular approval.  8
  A high place must be given, however, to his stories for boys in the children’s magazines, principally on Norwegian themes. These are among the best of their kind,—spirited, wholesome, strong in plot and workmanship, and containing some examples of his most perfect style. Even the more slender juvenile tales have passages of the finest poetic spirit, and a charm scarcely equaled in his more ambitious work. He won some laurels as a dramatist: ‘Alpine Roses’ was successfully acted in New York in 1883, and ‘Ilka on the Hilltop’ (taken from his story of that name) in 1884.  9
  Although he was in complete sympathy with the American life and character and wished to make them his own, Professor Boyesen was never quite an American. His descriptions of life in the United States are therefore always the result of a foreigner’s observation. His generous humanity appeals to all races, however, and his books have been successfully translated into German, Russian, and Norwegian. For years he had been collecting matter for an extensive history of Scandinavian literature,—a task for which his nationality, his scholarship, and his mastery of the English language especially fitted him. His sudden death at forty-seven prevented its accomplishment, and perhaps deprived him of a still wider and solider fame.  10

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