Last reviewed: June 2018
Danish folklorist, novelist, poet, and dramatist
April 2, 1805
August 4, 1875
Rolighed, near Copenhagen, Denmark
Born on April 2, 1805, in the little town of Odense, Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen lived a life that followed the pattern of some of his fairy story characters. His father was a poor cobbler; his mother took in laundry to help support the family. His grandmother cherished her grandson, telling him stories and myths and handing down tales of horror, superstition, and romance—the very fabric of Danish folk culture as it had come to her. Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen
Andersen’s cobbler father implanted in his son the desire to lift himself above his humble cottage life. The father had read beyond his station in life; he questioned religion and abhorred superstition. He made toys as well as a small theater. He also gave the child companionship and passionately enjoined him to follow his imaginative interests so that he should not be bound to a menial trade.
When Andersen was eleven his father died, and the sheltered life he had led as a well-loved child came to an end. He attended the city school for poor children. There he learned rapidly what he wanted to learn, but he was jeered at by his schoolmates because of his gentle and artistic nature. He made friends with an assortment of adults who were more perceptive of his eagerness to make a mark in the world.
In 1819 he went to Copenhagen. Fiercely determined to find recognition, he tried ballet, singing, and acting, and he all but starved. He was snubbed by theater managers, but he attracted the attention of Jonas Collin, who was to be his lifelong friend. Andersen had already written a number of poems, and in 1829 his first play, Kjœrlighed paa Nicolai Taarn: Elle, Hvad siger Parterret (love on St. Nicholas Tower), was performed in the Royal Theatre. He fell in love with Riborg Voigt; she inspired poems and sketches but never became his wife.
Andersen traveled throughout Denmark and then through Europe to Italy, a country which impressed him vividly. He wrote The Improvisatore, a veiled autobiography which was well received, and a psychological novel, O. T., its scenes laid in Denmark. Thus only slowly did he approach the fairy tales that became his final basis for fame. By this time his social position was secure, and everywhere he was entertained by people of prestige. Nevertheless he frequently sought the astringent criticism of the Collin family, who saw him almost as a member of their household.
Andersen became the recipient of gifts and honors from various royal houses; his fairy tales were winning wide favor. He was acclaimed in Germany, Holland, and England. The Danish press, however, affronted him by its restrained attitude toward his foreign success. He was a friend of singer Jenny Lind; novelist Charles Dickens; and composers Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn. He was welcomed as a guest anywhere. Although he was considered eccentric, he was a genuine poet with the sensitive understanding of the artist. Andersen traveled extensively during his lifetime, completing thirty foreign trips and writing numerous travelogues about his experiences.
The first series of his Eventyr (wonder tales) appeared in 1835, to be followed by a second series in 1838 and a third in 1845. Andersen continued to write groups of these stories yearly until 1872, and it is upon these that his fame rests. The stories of fantasy and superstition that he heard from his grandmother, combined with her personal experiences, produced his legendary tales. “The Little Match Girl” is a replay of his mother’s childhood, and “The Ugly Duckling” was molded from his own childhood experiences. He longed to excel as a novelist or dramatist and tried his hand at both, but his genius lay in telling the ancient folktale with fresh perception. The fairy story took on new proportions because of Andersen’s remarkable ability to make the simplest description come alive. Moreover, the most ordinary objects can suddenly take on strange and haunting life. Andersen breathed new life into the folktale. He had a poet’s eye for detail, and to him reality was more marvelous than any imagined realm. A visual artist too, Andersen often illustrated these stories with drawings, collages, or paper cuts. Many of his 212 tales have been published in numerous languages throughout the world. They rank with the classics of world literature.
The much-loved Hans Christian Andersen died quietly at the country estate of friends in Rolighed, near Copenhagen, on August 4, 1875, but the books of fairy stories that he composed have never been closed. His literary efforts live on through the regular reissuance of fairy tale books. His stories have never been out of print and have been presented in many visual forms, including ballet and film. Such Andersen classics as “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” have been known by every generation since Andersen’s day in more than one hundred languages. Previously unpublished tales have been found and printed since his death; in 2012, Esben Brage discovered a story believed to be Andersen's first, "The Tallow Candle" (ca. mid-1820s), and had it published in both Danish and English. Andersen's legacy lives on in the half dozen awards for literature that have been named in his honor.