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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 Esther Everett Lape (1881–1981)

By Gustav Frenssen (1863–1945)

GUSTAV FRENSSEN was born at Barlt, in South Dithmarsch, on October 19th, 1863, After attending the gymnasiums in Meldorf and Husum, he studied theology at the universities of Tübingen, Berlin, and Kiel. In 1892 he was appointed pastor in the village of Hemme. Two years later, after the success of ‘Jörn Uhl,’ he resigned his charge.

Frenssen belonged to that group of Schleswig-Holsteiners who drew their real strength from the soil of their native district. Frenssen’s stories are full of the sea and the moor, and of the quiet reserved men and women who live half-isolated there, wresting a hard-won living from sea and shore. As he pictures them, they are hard, bitterly earnest, and stubborn, yet they can be soft and mild. Born and brought up among them, and then working among them, this Holstein country parson knows to the backbone the people he tells us about, and sets them before his readers, a real world.

His claim to fame rests mainly on his longest novel, ‘Jörn Uhl,’ which was published in 1901. It quickly became the most widely read book of the time in Germany, and ran into two hundred editions. Its theme is the moral force that can be derived only from hard work,—and the healing, elevating influence of severe sustained effort. The story is simple. The Uhls live on a large, pretentious farm, and consider themselves better than their neighbors. The father is easy-going and wasteful, and spoils his two oldest sons by letting them swagger around without working, wheedling money out of him for their dissipations. Jörn, the youngest, is slow and rather stolid; he is the only one that cares how things are going, and by and by is drafted into working like a hired man on the farm. The father is crippled by an accident just as a heavy mortgage falls due, and the burden of retrieving the family fortunes falls on Jörn. He puts in years of bitter toil in the vain endeavor to build up the run-down farm—or rather the run-down farm and family, for in ‘Jörn Uhl,’ as in ‘Frau Sorge,’ the family and the soil are the two elements out of which life is made. Frenssen, like Sudermann, makes everything grow out of these two things. Jörn leads a life full of toil and despair; he has one misfortune after another, as long as he feels like the lord of the manor. All his troubles, however, cannot break his Frisian peasant spirit, and at last he sees that he has made a mistake in trying to begin at the top, and that he must begin over again at the bottom.

Frenssen’s strength, and his weakness, as a writer are both clearly disclosed in ‘Jörn Uhl.’ It has been called the work of a village pastor whose moralizing tendency is stronger than his artistic impulse. It is long, and not of equal merit throughout, and there are parts that a greater artist would have pared away. It tells, however, the story of a strong, vigorous, straight, and simple man trying to hammer out some conception of God and of life that will work. And it is told with a remarkable power of making the scenes and the people live before the reader’s eyes.

‘Hilligenlei,’ Frenssen’s next book, shows the same thing even more clearly. Incomplete from the point of view of its construction; it nevertheless holds picture after picture of real people, people as they really are, that stick in the reader’s mind because they give the same sense of verisimilitude as an old Dutch portrait; the observer knows that he is looking at a faithful portrayal of someone who looked precisely like that, so pitiless and yet so amused is the painter’s manner. ‘Hilligenlei’ begins with a picture one cannot forget—the fat midwife and the grandmother of the nameless child just born in the next room are drinking coffee and telling the baby’s fortune with the cards, building air castles in case its father turns out to be a nobleman, and too busy to listen when the little girl pressed into service to watch the young mother comes to the door to tell them she is all red—and later that she is all yellow—and by and by that she is all white and dead.

Hilligenlei—“the holy land”—is a little village on the coast of the North Sea. The belief some of the villagers have, that their town is to be the true Holy Land out of which the Saviour will one day come to lead the world to higher things, runs all through the story, and finds its culmination in a sort of essay on the life of Jesus with which the story closes. Kai Jans writes it as he is dying; Kai is one of the village lads who has grown up to see that far from being a holy land, Hilligenlei is full of weaklings and fools—and human beings. The conception of Christ that Frenssen gives here is based on the beauty and greatness of true humanity; his Christ is a beautiful human figure, full of love of truth, and with warm devotion to the needs of the meanest of men, who finds God as the father of love in the depths of his own soul.

In ‘Klaus Hinrich Baas,’ published in 1909, Frenssen gives us the type of the Germans who have built up German commerce in foreign lands. Klaus is another peasant’s son who works his way up from the very beginning till he becomes a Hamburg businessman. He is dominated throughout by the grim Baas need for genuineness and truth that he inherits from his severe but warm-hearted mother, Antje Baas. This book deals with a theme common in many American novels—the rise of a man from poverty to wealth during a period of commercial expansion.

Frenssen is sometimes charged with too frank an acceptance of the physical side of life. What he really stands for, however, is that one must not be afraid of life: “Feigheit vor des Lebens,” fear of life, is to him the one irremediable mistake. Everything that is a part of life, of nature, must be met fearlessly and welcomed. The Christianity he preaches is joyous, not penitential.

Frenssen’s published works include: ‘The Sand Countess,’ 1896; ‘The Three Comrades,’ 1898; ‘Village Sermons,’ 1899; ‘Jörn Uhl,’ 1901; ‘Hilligenlei,’ 1906; ‘Peter Moor’s Journey to the Southwest,’ 1907; ‘Klaus Hinrich Baas,’ 1909; ‘The Loss of the Anna Hollmann,’ 1911; ‘Sönke Erichsen,’ 1913; ‘Bismarck,’ 1914.