Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793–1866)

ALMQVIST, one of the most versatile writers of Sweden, was a man of strange contrasts, a genius as uncertain as a will-o’-the-wisp. His contemporary, the famous poet and critic Atterbom, writes:—

  • “What did the great poets of past times possess which upheld them under even the bitterest worldly circumstances? Two things: one a strong and conscientious will, the other a single—not double, much less manifold—determination for their work, oneness. They were not self-seekers; they sought, they worshiped something better than themselves. The aim which stood dimly before their inmost souls was not the enjoyment of flattered vanity; it was a high, heroic symbol of love of honor and love of country, of heavenly wisdom. For this they thought it worth while to fight, for this they even thought it worth while to suffer, without finding the suffering in itself strange, or calling earth to witness thereof…. The writer of ‘Törnrosens Bok’ [The Book of the Rose] is one of these few; he does therefore already reign over a number of youthful hearts, and out of them will rise his time of honor, a time when many of the celebrities of the present moment will have faded away.”
  • Almqvist was born in Stockholm in 1793. When still a very young man he obtained a good official position, but gave it up in 1823 to lead a colony of friends into the forests of Värmland, where they intended to return to a primitive life close to the heart of nature. He called this colony a “Man’s-home Association,” and ordained that in the primeval forest the members should live in turf-covered huts, wear homespun, eat porridge with a wooden spoon, and enact the ancient freeholder. The experiment was not successful, he tired of the manual work, and returning to Stockholm, became master of the new Elementary School, and began to write textbooks and educational works. His publication of a number of epics, dramas, lyrics, and romances made him suddenly famous. Viewed as a whole, this collection is generally called ‘The Book of the Rose,’ but at times ‘En Irrande Hind’ (A Stray Deer). Of this, the two dramas, ‘Signora Luna’ and ‘Ramido Marinesco,’ contain some of the pearls of Swedish literature. Uneven in the plan and execution, they are yet masterly in dialogue, and their dramatic and tragic force is great. Almqvist’s imagination showed itself as individual as it is fantastic. Coming from a man hitherto known as the writer of textbooks and the advocate of popular social ideas, the volumes aroused extraordinary interest. The author revealed himself as akin to Novalis and Victor Hugo, with a power of language like that of Atterbom, and a richness of color resembling Tegnèr’s. Atterbom himself wrote of ‘Törnrosens Bok’ that it was a work whose “faults were exceedingly easy to overlook and whose beauties exceedingly difficult to match.”

    After this appeared in rapid succession, and written with equal ease, lyrical, dramatic, educational, poetical, æsthetical, philosophical, moral, and religious treatises, as well as lectures and studies in history and law; for Almqvist now gave all his time to literary labors. His novels showed socialistic sympathies, and he put forth newspaper articles and pamphlets on Socialism which aroused considerable opposition. Moreover, he delighted in contradictions. One day he wrote as an avowed Christian, extolling virtue, piety, and Christian knowledge; the next, he abrogated religion as entirely unnecessary: and his own explanation of this variability was merely—“I paint so because it pleases me to paint so, and life is not otherwise.”

    In 1851 was heard the startling rumor that he was accused of forgery and charged with murder. He fled from Sweden and disappeared from the knowledge of men. Going to America, he earned under a fictitious name a scanty living, and became, it is said, the private secretary of Abraham Lincoln. In 1866 he found himself again under the ban of the law, his papers were destroyed, and he escaped with difficulty to Bremen, where he died.

    One of his latest works was his excellent modern novel, ‘Det Ġr An’ (It’s All Right), a forerunner of the “problem novel” of the day. It is an attack upon conventional marriage, and pictures the helplessness of a woman in the hands of a depraved man. Its extreme views called out violent criticism.

    He was a romanticist through and through, with a strong leaning toward the French school. Among the best of his tales are ‘Araminta May,’ ‘Skällnora Quarn’ (Skällnora’s Mill), and ‘Grimstahamns Nybygge’ (Grimstahamn’s Settlement). His idyl ‘Kapellet’ (The Chapel) is wonderfully true to nature, and his novel ‘Palatset’ (The Palace) is rich in humor and true poesy. His literary fame will probably rest on his romances, which are the best of their kind in Swedish literature.