Last reviewed: June 2018
July 24, 1857
August 21, 1943
Henrik Pontoppidan was born in Fredericia, Denmark, on July 24, 1857, one of sixteen children of Marie F. Oxenbøll and provincial clergyman Dines Pontoppidan. At age seventeen he went to Copenhagen to study engineering at the Polytekniske Læreanstalt (College of Advanced Technology), now Danmarks Tekniske Universitet (Technical University of Denmark). He began writing after a summer trip to Switzerland and soon realized that he wished only to be a writer, so he left school to pursue his new vocation and supported himself as a schoolteacher. Pontoppidan hated the facile religious sentimentality prevalent in the school, and he disliked the easygoing way of life of the Danish people, feeling that it lacked the emotional and intellectual intensity that he respected. Henrik Pontoppidan
Pontoppidan’s early work, of which Det forjættede land (1892; The Promised Land, 1896) is representative, protests against the injustices of peasant life; Pontoppidan’s hopes for reform rested with liberal politics, though he was aware that the hardness of human hearts cannot easily be overcome. A little later, in the eight volumes of Lykke-Per (1898–1904; Lucky Per, 2010), he used autobiographical material to portray the life of a prototypical Dane in modern Denmark. In his five-book series De dødes rige (The kingdom of the dead, 1912–16), Pontoppidan reached the nadir of his pessimism; the five volumes show his disappointment with the results of liberalism and despair of social progress. He never fully emerged from this pessimism.
Though Pontoppidan had entered politics and had served a short time in the Danish legislature, he withdrew from public life entirely during his last years. He wrote little after his retirement; his last novel, Mands himmerig (Man’s heaven, 1927), is a bitter attack on those who failed Denmark during World War I: the politicians, the journalists, the isolationists, and the war profiteers.
Pontoppidan, under the influence of Georg Brandes, took up the techniques of realism and wrote with great accuracy of various social groups. His style is smooth and seemingly effortless. He represents the most modern elements in Danish thought; it was for this that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1917. He died at his home in Charlottenlund, Denmark, on August 21, 1943.