Erich Heller
In The Age Of Prose

He became a tram conductor in Chicago and, unable to learn the names of streets, used to call out the wrong stops and lost his job. After once again working as a farm labourer, he made a slim living as the journalist he had promised to be and by lecturing to the many Norwegian communities in Minnesota. In the summer of 1888 he left America, sailed to Copenhagen, ready magisterially to pronounce on the culture of the new continent. The Cultural Life of Modern America is a witty, eloquent, amusing, and, more often than not, wrong-headed book. He might have been warned by what he himself said in print about Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad: that it was marred by the author's rather superficial acquaintance with European traditions, the inadequacy of his aesthetic perception, his provincial nationalism, and the all too blatant intrusion of his political persuasion. The persuasion was, of course radical-democratic.

Although Hamsun's own political or quasi-political convictions made themselves heard at least as loudly in his book on America, it certainly could not be said of them that they were democratic. Rather they were Nietzschean in their intellectual-aristocratic bearing, and radical only in their aversion to the tyranny wielded by the masses over the works of the mind, to the naive religiousness and the numbing of the tragic sense through the optimism of the therapeutic popular pedagogues. It is, certainly, Walt Whitman's 'marvellous naivete' that has won 'a couple of followers' for his mediocre 'tabular poetry, those impossible inventories of people, states, housewares, tools, and articles of clothing'; and it is Emerson's preachiness that made this 'Aesop of the American mob of moralists' the supplier of 'mottoes for their most ingenuous goody-goody books.' Later in his life Hamsun recanted his harsh pronouncements on America, called the book 'my youthful sin' and its views 'lopsided,' and opposed its republication. Yet many passages of it are magnified projections of his abiding belief that 'we become more and more civilized and lose in spirit.' After 1889 and 1890, the years in which America and Hunger were published, Hamsun's biography is that of a more and more successful novelist and—at least outwardly—secure family man until in old age catastrophe overtook him.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.