Nobel Prize for Literature 1916 - 1920

About the winners of the Nobel Prize for literature from 1916 to 1920 including Heidenstam, Spitteler, and Hamsun as well as behind the scenes information on the decision.


1916 Verner von Heidenstam (1859-1940), Swedish. Work: Nya Dikter.

1917 Karl A. Gjellerup (1857-1919), Danish. Work: Golden Bough.

Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943), Danish. Work: Kingdom of the Dead.

Behind the Award--Gjellerup was a Danish atheist who took up Buddhism, a German wife and residence. Pontoppidan was a patrician Danish recluse. Both were also writers. They won the prize while Bertolt Brecht, Maxim Gorki, Paul Valery, Sean O'Casey were alive and at their peak.

1918 No Award

1919 Carl F. G. Spitteler (1845-1924), Swiss. Work: Prometheus and Epimetheus.

Behind the Award--Spitteler was elected over Marcel Proust.

1920 Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), Norwegian. Work: Hunger; Growth of the Soil.

Behind the Award--In dissent against Hamsun, judge Per Hallstrom had stated: "For the most part he has exerted an anarchic influence, and the idealistic tendency which the Nobel Prize is intended to encourage he has probably never recognized as even legitimate." Hamsun, who had been a dairyhand in Dakota, a streetcar conductor in Chicago, a fisherman in Newfoundland, was dead broke when he won the prize. He was also very proud. Bowing before King Gustav as he received the award, he suddenly blurted, "Of course, I do not need this money! I have more than this at home!" The night of the ceremony, Hamsun got roaring drunk. He pulled the whiskers of one Nobel judge. He sidled up to another, the dignified Selma Lagerlof, and snapped his fingers against her new corset, exclaiming, "Y'know, sounds like a bell buoy!" Smashed out of his mind, he tried to share his Nobel money with 2 Swedish friends who were judges. When they refused his offer, he tried to give his money and diploma to his hotel room steward, but was again refused, and Hamsun wound up "by forgetting them in the elevator, where they were found the next morning." Pro-German, because his books sold well in that country, Hamsun welcomed the Nazis when they invaded Norway in April, 1940. He wrote articles backing Quisling, the Norwegian traitor, and he considered Hitler a "fatherly type." Yet, taken to Berlin in 1943 to meet Hitler, he proceeded to bawl out Der Fuhrer for his "mistakes and errors," which made Hitler furious. When Norway was liberated, 86-year-old Hamsun was arrested, confined in an old people's home, and his property was confiscated. Sad story.

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