Pelle erobreren, 1906-1910 (4 volumes; Pelle the Conqueror, 1913-1916)
Ditte Menneskebarn, 1917-1921 (Ditte, Girl Alive!, 1920; Ditte, Daughter of Man, 1921; Ditte, Towards the Stars, 1922)
Midt i en Jærntid, 1929 (In God’s Land, 1933)
Morten hin Røde, 1945-1957 (3 volumes)
Muldskud, Anden Samling, 1905
Soldage, 1903 (Days in the Sun, 1929)
Et Ille Krae, 1932
Under aaben Himmel, 1935 (Under the Open Sky, 1938)
For Lud og koldt Vand, 1937
Vejs Ende, 1939
Martin Andersen Nexø (NIHK-suh) was born in the working-class slums of Copenhagen, Denmark, the fourth of eleven children. His father, Hans Jørgen Andersen, a stonemason, spent most of his money on drink, and his mother, Mathilde Andersen, was frequently indisposed, so the boy and his older brother did odd jobs to help support the family. In 1877 his father took his wife and three surviving children to live in his hometown, the fishing village of Nexø on the island of Bornholm. Here the children received some education during the winters, but most of the time they helped in the quarry and tended cattle. At the age of twelve Martin Andersen left home and started work as a farmhand. The physical exertion was too much for him, though, so in 1884 he went to Rønne, where he apprenticed himself to a shoemaker.
During this time he enrolled in the local school, where he acquired a taste for books and education. In 1890, having decided to become a teacher, he was given the opportunity to attend Denmark’s foremost school at Askov, Jutland, where the widow of the poet Christian K. F. Molbech took an interest in the boy and took him into her home. It was here that he began to write and, taking the name of his father’s hometown, became Martin Andersen Nexø.
After two years at Askov, Nexø received an appointment to teach at a preparatory school in Odense, on the island of Fünen. He cherished this experience, but soon became ill with what was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. Mrs. Molbech retrieved him, nursed him back to health and then arranged for him to take a walking trip through southern Europe to recover his strength. She provided some funds, but Nexø helped to pay for his travels by writing travel articles for Danish newspapers.
The trip lasted until 1896. Much of it was spent in Spain and Italy, where he lived in the countryside among the peasants or in the working-class neighborhoods of large cities. It was at this time, he said, that he learned that “poverty is international.” It was at this time, also, that the memory of his own early poverty combined with these current observations to begin what was eventually a complete conversion to Marxism.
After returning to Denmark in 1896, Nexø held several part-time teaching positions, graduated from the Danish Normal School, became an instructor at Frederiksberg, married Margarete Thomsen in 1898, and began to write fiction in the evenings after work. His three collections of short stories Skygger (shadows), which contained the extremely popular story “Lotterisvensken” (the lottery Swede), Muldskud, and Muldskud, Anden Samling chronicle his development as a writer. The stories are characterized by angry, antibourgeoisie sentiment, often in the “decadent” style of 1890’s literature. In 1901, at the age of thirty-two, Nexø decided to concentrate entirely on writing, and he learned the craft of developing an extended story in his first novel, Dryss (waste). Nexø described these years as a time of confusion, but he felt that during this period he discovered the character he wanted to champion, “the common worker, the proletarian.” Nexø rose to international prominence with the publication of his next novel, Pelle the Conqueror, which appeared in four volumes from 1906 to 1910.
Pelle the Conqueror was his first proletarian novel, a lengthy undertaking in which Nexø proclaimed the triumph of Danish social democracy. Although the book was read by workers throughout the world, many socialist and communist leaders were uncertain how they should respond to it. This was not an angry, revolutionary statement trumpeting a party line. Instead, Pelle the Conqueror triumphs as a personal story of someone who is struggling but making his way in real life. That is the quality that made critics call it one of the best and most optimistic proletarian novels ever written.
After writing further stories, novels, and even a play, Nexø wrote his second great proletarian novel, Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte, humanity’s child), which appeared in five volumes, 1917 to 1921. In this work Nexø distances himself from the optimism of Pelle the Conqueror and creates a dark tale of the betrayal of the individual by the workers’ movement. This estranged Nexø from his previous associates; he joined the Communist Party and lived a lonely existence as a literary figure. The rest of his life was spent in producing fiction that was undisguised propaganda for the Marxist cause. After World War I he went to Germany to study the Communist movement there; he remained until Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
Upon his return to Denmark he continued his contributions to leftist periodicals and wrote a series of autobiographical works on the theme of his firsthand knowledge of poverty. He was arrested by the Nazis when they invaded Denmark during World War II but upon being released from prison fled to Sweden in 1943. After the war he settled in what then became East Germany, where he wrote his final masterpiece Morten hin Røde (Morten the Red). In this three-volume work (published in 1945, 1948, and, posthumously, 1957) he focuses on the years before and after World War I. Together, his major novels, Pelle the Conqueror, Ditte Menneskebarn, and Morten hin Røde, chronicle Nexø’s personal and political life.