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Hans Christian Andersen - a short biography
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Hans Christian Andersen - a short biography

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Hans Christian Andersen (2 April 1805 to 4 August 1875)
A Short Biographical Introduction.

Hans Christian Andersen was a product of two towns, two social environments, two worlds and two ages. Both as a man and as a writer he thus continually developed and changed, but was also in constant dialogue with himself and even at times at war with himself. Thus his social rise provides the direct and indirect motif in many of his tales, novels and plays, both as a productive source in his search for a new and more comprehensive identity and as a source of perpetual and unresolved traumas.

Two Towns

The two towns which had such a decisive influence on him were his native town of Odense, and Copenhagen, where he lived and worked for the greater part of his adult life.

As a poor child in the small but self-satisfied provincial centre of Odense, Andersen received throughout the first 14 years of his life impressions and experiences that were to be decisive for his literary production. In the autobiography of his youth, Levnedsbogen (not published till 1926), Andersen emphasised that the way of life in Odense had preserved popular old customs and superstitions unknown in Copenhagen and therefore available to him as a colourful stimulus to his imagination. However, even more decisive were the disturbing social experiences from the lowest ranks of society and his own urge to cast off the trammels of poverty, break with his social inheritance and realise his potential in the only outlet the times provided, the world of art, an urge that became ever more dominant throughout his childhood.

Furthermore, the elderly female inmates at Odense Hospital (the workhouse) told him the folk-tales that were later to provide a starting-point for his paraphrases of the old stories and for the tales he created himself. In this respect Andersen also stands between two worlds: the popular old oral narrative tradition and the modern world with its culture of books and focus on the role of the author.

A decisive factor that determined the direction of Hans Christian Andersen's life and his fantastic flight to Copenhagen in 1819, with the social and literary rise that followed, is the fact that, as the only town outside the capital, Odense had a theatre. In addition to his early escape into the world of reading (his father, the poor shoemaker Hans Andersen, owned books, among them the Bible, Holberg's comedies and the Arabian Nights) there was contact with the theatre (including the chance to see travelling players from the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen) to provide knowledge and direction to Andersen's dreams and aspirations. He left home as a 14-year-old 4 September 1819, a few months after his confirmation, to seek his fortune at the theatre in Copenhagen. Although this venture was unsuccessful, Andersen was tied to the theatre for the rest of his life, as the author of numerous plays and as the translator and adapter of foreign plays. The theatre became his fate, so it can truly be said that if he had been born in any other Danish provincial town, his career would never have been the same.

During Andersen's first years in Copenhagen (1819-22), he fought desperately to gain a foothold in the theatre as a ballet-dancer, actor or singer. Finally, when none of these attempts succeeded, he tried his hand as a playwright; this was also in vain, but resulted in the director's deciding to send him to school so that something proper might be made of him, and this experience was thus as decisive for his later life and work as the Odense years. In Copenhagen he gained access to two families - the Collins and the Wulffs - who were to become his spiritual kin. Here, too, he came to know both the bourgeois upper class of the capital and the very lowest stratum of its proletariat. He came to know the fight for survival at subsistence level and the bitterness of being a supplicant dependent on the good will of others.

Having left Odense and opted for art, Andersen had only one option: to get up and get on. However, this was exactly the point at which he experienced the suffering and humiliation that follow from leaving one world without having quite been accepted by another and higher one, an experience shared by the Little Mermaid (1837) and the protagonists in Andersen's novel O.T. (1836) and his play The Mulatto (1840).

Nevertheless, after his school years in Slagelse and Elsinore, Copenhagen also came to mean something positive in his development: here the proletarian Andersen acquired the culture and education associated with bourgeois circles in the Golden Age that encompassed the last years of absolute monarchy, and Andersen, fundamentally sensitive and sentimental, learned to use the light and ironic Copenhagen wit, particularly the lethal form he knew from the Collin family and from the dominant circle around the dramatist and critic Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Andersen's entire production of tales is, as it were, suspended between these two poles, heart and wit, sensitivity and irony, nature and culture, creating a field of tension that finds its expression as early as in his tour de force, Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Amager i Aarene 1828 og 1829 (A journey on foot from Holmens Canal to the east point of Amager in the years 1828 and 1829), his first work, which was published in 1829.

Denmark and Europe

Andersen's journey or flight from Odense to Copenhagen was continued as a lifetime of shuttling between Denmark and the rest of Europe, where Germany, in particular, became his second home. At the same time his journeying paved the way for international literary fame. Andersen also felt at home temperamentally elsewhere in Europe, Italy especially leaving him with decisive impressions of nature, popular life and art. Andersen had a very ambivalent relation to Denmark, a country he could not do without, but which he sometimes detested thoroughly for its pettiness. He was the first great victim of what was later to be known as the Jantelov, a victim closely followed by Søren Kierkegaard in the later phases of his work. But in contrast to Kierkegaard, who never travelled further afield than Berlin, Andersen became the most widely travelled Danish writer of his day. Altogether he went on 29 trips abroad and all in all spent over 9 years of his life outside Denmark. Read about HCA's travel books.

Two Ages

With his rise from the bottom of society to the top, Andersen gradually came to be a regular guest at Danish and foreign manor houses and at the residences of kings and princes in Denmark and abroad. Thus Andersen's life became a paradigm for the social mobility that was only really brought about by bourgeois democracy following the signing of the constitution in 1849. Andersen's life and work are firmly rooted in the culture of the last years of absolute monarchy, but as a social outsider, one who had had to acquire the ideas inherent in the culture of the times, he became more modern and progressive in his ideas than the majority of contemporary Danish writers. He had every reason to reject the worship by the Romantics of the past as "the glorious peak, from which we have fallen, but now again seek" (Adam Oehlenschläger), and instead to place all his hopes on future developments. Throughout his oeuvre Andersen put his trust in a movement in the direction of increased humanity and enlightenment (see, for example, chapters VI and IX in his travel book Rambles in the Romantic Regions of the Hartz Mountains, Saxon Switzerland, &c. (1831) and his story "Godfather's Picture Book" (1868)), just as he enthusiastically learned to profit from the revolution with respect to the means of travel (see his ode to the railway in the eponymous chapter in his travel book A Poet's Bazaar (Danish ed. 1842)), communication (the telegraph, which he thought would turn the world into "a single spiritual state", just as we envisage the Internet doing today) and industry (see his article "Silkeborg" (1853)). This article, like the stories "The Ice Maiden" (1862) and "The Dryad" (1868), reveals that sometimes he could view developments more pessimistically. Particularly because everywhere in his work, he appears as a spokesman of "nature" as the great measure of value, particularly in his perception of art and literature (see tales like "The Nightingale" (1843), and "The Bell" (1845).

From a literary as well as a mental and political point of view Andersen thus spans two cultures, two ages, two social systems and two literary periods (Romanticism and the dawn of Realism).

Religious Observance

His religious feeling, which provides an undertone to all that he wrote, stems from an undogmatic sort of Christianity, a religion of the heart and the emotions bound to human nature and to the natural world around us as a starting point for the yearning for God (see "The Little Mermaid" (1837) and "The Last Dream of the Old Oak Tree" (1858)). In his religious attitude Andersen was anything but childish or naive (as he has often been accused of being). His attitude can be seen, for instance, in the chapter "Tro og Videnskab. Prædiken i Naturen" (Faith and science. A sermon inspired by nature) in his travel book Pictures of Sweden (1851). This work also contains his statement of belief in the unification of nature and poetry, a belief inspired by his friend H.C. Ørsted, in the chapter "Poesiens Californien" (The California of Poetry). Similar statements can be found in the religious expository novel To Be, or Not to Be? (1857) and the chapter "Cordoba" in the travel book In Spain (Danish ed. 1863). However, Andersen's faith was not unchallenged. Spread throughout his diaries, stories and novels are also many expressions of bitterness, scepticism, existential angst and emptiness, for instance in the novel Only a Fiddler (da. 1837), the fairy tales "The Shadow" (da. 1847), "The Fir Tree" (da. 1844), "Aunty Toothache" (da. 1872), "The Wind Tells about Valdemar Daae and His Daughters" (da. 1859) and the poem "Psalme" ("Hymn", da. 1864), which is now admitted to the danish hymn book.

Fame

Andersen's literary fame grew rapidly from the mid-1830's, when his novels enjoyed widespread circulation in Germany. From 1839 onwards it was the fairy-tales that created his quite exceptional reputation in that country. It is from the mid-1840's that we date the great breakthrough in England and America for both tales and novels.

Honorary Citizen

Andersen had only occasionally revisited his native town of Odense since his youth. However, in 1866, when he was made a titular Councillor of State, Odense wished to contribute to the celebration of a famous son and granted him the freedom of the town in December that year. This event brings to an end the annalistic sequel to Andersen's autobiography The Story of My Life (original ed. 1855, the sequel is from 1869).

Worker's Association

It contributes to our picture of Hans Christian Andersen that he attached great importance to the fact that he was the first Danish writer to break the ice and accept an invitation to read from his own tales to the newly formed Workers' Association of 1860. Throughout the last 20 to 25 years of his life he read in turn to the Students' Association, the Workers' Association, to the Royal Family, the seamstresses, and the nobility and gentry. In the Workers' Association, he encountered an enthusiastic audience - often 500 to 1,000 people at a time - and he read to them about 20 times. For this reason he was repeatedly acclaimed by the Workers' Association, whose members also - together with the Students' Association - formed a guard of honour at his funeral in the Cathedral of Copenhagen.

Burial Place

Andersen is buried at Assistens Kirkegård in Copenhagen in a burial plot he originally shared with his friend, Edvard Collin, and Collin's wife, Henriette. Around 1920, when certain public criticisms arose concerning the treatment by the Collins of their "adopted son", Andersen, a descendant of the Collin family had Edvard and Henriette's tombstone moved to the family plot, so that Andersen's tombstone now stands alone.

Johan de Mylius.

Footnote: Janteloven, derived from a novel by Aksel Sandemose, specifies that you are not supposed to feel superior or exceptional in any way. Back to the text