Home  »  Skipper Worse  »  Biographical Note

Alexander L. Kielland (1849–1906). Skipper Worse.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

ALEXANDER KIELLAND was born in Stavanger, Norway, on February 18, 1849, of a wealthy family of shipowners. After studying law at the University of Christiania he bought a brick and tile factory at Malk, near his native town, and for some years it appeared as if he were to follow the family tradition and become merely a substantial citizen of provincial importance. But about 1878 he began to publish some short stories in the Christiania “Dagblad,” and in 1879 and 1880 there appeared two volumes of “Novelettes.” These were marked by a light satirical touch and a sympathy with liberal ideas, and were written in a style which may well have owed some of its clarity to the study of French models, made during the author’s visits to Paris. His first regular novel was “Garman and Worse,” a picture of the same small-town society which we find in the novel here printed. “Laboring People” followed in 1881, when Kielland sold out his business and became purely a man of letters. “Skipper Worse” was his third novel, and among the more important of his other works are “Poison,” “Fortuna,” “Snow,” “St. John’s Eve,” “Jacob,” and a number of dramas and comedies. He died at Bergen, on April 6, 1906.

Kielland’s method is realistic, and a number of his works are written with a fairly distinct “purpose.” As this purpose often involves sharp criticism of conventions and beliefs dear to the comfortable classes, Kielland roused no small amount of opposition and disapproval. But as it grows more possible to see his work in perspective, it becomes more evident that his clear-sightedness and honesty of purpose as well as his mastery of style will give him an honored place among Norwegian writers.

“Skipper Worse” is not only thoroughly typical of Kielland’s work, but, so far as there can be said to be general agreement, it is regarded as his masterpiece. Like so many of his books, it gives a picture of the well-to-do merchants, skippers, and fisher-folk of the west coast of Norway, the special subject being the workings of the Haugian pietistic movement. Although this particular movement was specifically Norwegian, it is sufficiently typical of a kind of revival familiar in many countries to make this study of it interesting to foreign readers. Kielland’s handling of the Haugians is remarkable for its fairness and restraint. The sincerity of the best representatives of the sect is abundantly exhibited, as well as the limitations of the weaker brethren; but this balanced treatment does not prevent the author from showing with great force and poignancy the deplorable crushing of the innocent human affections by unintelligent fanaticism.

The portraiture of individuals is as successful as that of the society in which they move. Worse himself is rendered with a rare mingling of humor and pathos; Hans Nilsen is a striking example of the religious enthusiast, drawn with feeling and subtlety; and Madame Torvestad, though belonging to a familiar type, is well individualized.

It requires a high degree of art to take a provincial group, in special local circumstances, and to present these in such a way as not only to interest the outsider, but to convince him of the truth of the presentation by showing the characters as acting from motives valid for human nature in general. This is what Kielland does, displaying in the doing of it, an uncommon delicacy of perception and accuracy of perspective. He is one of the writers who have done most to make Scandinavia count in the modern world.

W. A. N.