Martin Anderson Nexo’s Novel “Pelle, the Conqueror”. A Marxist Perspective

Scientific Essay, 2017

17 Pages




Literature Review

Debate and Discussion




Martin Andersen Nexo was the most eminent Danish Marxist proletarian fiction writer of the twentieth century. He came from the working-class family background and wrote short stories, novels and essays about the plights and sufferings of the proletariat class. His novel “Pelle, the Conqueror” (1906) is one of the greatest proletariat novels in world literature. Pelle, the protagonist of the novel emerged as the self-realised and class-conscious proletarian leader from the obscurity, drudgery and poverty of his rural peasant and shepherd background. He was a common labouring lad, who served as a herd, shoemaker's apprentice and qualified shoemaker. The novel enjoyed enormous success and popularity that conquered the hearts of the proletarians and peasants of the world. The novel is also neglected in academia, criticism, literature and the world of research. The purpose of this research paper is to conduct a textual analysis of this novel, as a research method on the bedrock of Marxist literary hermeneutics in an innovative and new way, tracing the all-round development of Pelle’s personality who succeeded to organise his fellow-proletarians on the platform of the Corporative movement, trade union and socialist revolutionary movement. He founded the garden-city for the betterment of his fellow-proletarian comrades.

Key Terms: Self-realised and class-conscious proletarian leader, Autobiographical notes, Social realism, Marxism, Reformist Socialism


The personality of Nexo is multidimensional and the short description provided here draws on details furnished by numerous sources (including Bras-Barret, J. L., 1969; Yde, H., 1994; Korst, S., 1998; Jespersen, O., 2007and Ipsen, K. E., 2008) which are not different in terms of the basic information they provide about the life and works of Nexo. Born into a large wretched and impoverished family in the area of the slums and squalors of the district Christianshavn in Copenhagen, on June 26, 1869, he was the fourth child of eleven children of an impoverished hardworking stonecutter. When he was eight years old, his family accepted the pauper’s repatriation offer and shifted to Nexo, a town on the Island of Bornholm in Baltic of whom he adopted as his last name. He spent his early childhood in the town Nexo on his beloved Island of Bornholm in the Baltic, where he served as the herd boy, shoemaker’s apprentice, stonecutter and bricklayer. After six years of doing these jobs, he helped his father with his stone cutting work. He attended a folk high school in Nexo with the help of a patron. In this school, he made his first acquaintance with literature and journalism. Actually, he was a passionate writer from an early age, making notes on any scrap of paper that he could find anywhere. After completing his school, he served as a teacher in a Grundtvigian folk school until he got tuberculosis. The donors of the school managed to send him to Spain and Italy for medical cure. His first book of stories was published when he returned to Denmark. Afterwards, he won his bread exclusively by his writing after 1901.

Nexo set out for travelling in Southern Europe during the mid-1890s. He got the wind of the economic plights and sufferings of the proletarians which prevailing everywhere. These feelings actually crushed and compelled him to write for class-rights of the peasants and proletarians. He discovered the proletarians’ sufferings, extreme economic exploitation and deprivation. Thereafter, his attention directly attracted towards the very issue, concerning to the proletarians which he put in his writings. While staying in Spain, he wrote his book “Days in the Sun” (1903) which was mostly based on his trips of Southern Europe. He was a highly introverted pessimist author in his early writings like his contemporary writer, Johannes Vilhelm Jensen. His early novels were based upon pessimism and themes of decadence in manner, which were mostly common trends in art and literature of Europe and America in the turn of the century. Afterwards, his world-view was gradually transformed from pessimism into optimism. He actively participated in the Social Democratic labour Party and later he joined the Danish Communist Party after the First World War. As F. Ingwersen and N. Ingwersen state that, “Martin Anderson Nexo had joined the Danish Social Democratic Party in 1910, but was dismayed by the craven response of European Social Democracy to the First World War in 1918; quit the party out of disgust with its right-wing leadership. From then on he was a committed and quite uncritical supporter of the USSR; he played a role in the formation of the Danish Communist Party in 1923 and was at one stage on its central committee” (Ingwersen, F and N. Ingwersen, 1984, Pp. 11-13). After signing the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO), he left Denmark in 1949, and settled forever in Eastern Germany as an honorary citizen, where he lived until his death. Nexo became a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union after World War I. Despite his hard political struggle for the proletariat cause, he remained a controversial author in Denmark between the first and second world wars, due to his communist political ideas and activities. During this time, he spent seven years in Germany and visited the Soviet Union a number of times. He spent many years in Denmark, the Soviet Union and East Germany after World War II.

Nexo’s novel “A Fighter” (1896) is about the miserable living and working ethos of hired labour and tenant peasants in Denmark of the era. It had far-reaching and profound influences through a large reading public in the Folk high schools. His outstanding novel “Life Drips Away” (1902) is based upon remarkably sensitive accounts of his sojourn among the poor people in the Mediterranean, where he had gone to discover from tuberculosis. His most famous novel “Pelle, the Conqueror” (1906-1910) was one of his best-known and the most translated works based upon the themes of the films DDR-FS “Pelle der Eroberer” (1986) and “Pelle Erobreren” film (1987). A four-volume English translation of “Pelle, the Conqueror” published in 1913–1916. In 1989 and 1991, a revised version of an English translation of parts, one and two was published. Bille August filmed the first part of the novel in 1989, which received the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Movie. Although the Academy Award-winning version was filmed in 1987 on Nexo’s novel bearing the same title, it alters the focus of story considerably. Today “Pelle, the Conqueror” forms a part of the Danish literary canon for teaching in Danish lower and upper secondary schools and the film adaptation of 1987 is now included in the Canon of Danish Art and Culture. Recently in 2013 the Danish National Open Air Museum used “Pelle, the Conqueror” in the production of educational materials for schools, focusing on rural life for children in Denmark at the end of the nineteenth-century. A musical adaptation of “Pelle, the Conqueror” aims at all ages, is also performed throughout the summer of 2013, set in the museum grounds. As part of the publicity for this production it is stated that despite the story being from the 1870s, it still addresses the problematic issues that young people face today as they form their identities and try to make the best out of life. The possibility of producing a film version of the last volumes of the novel is thus illustrating the interest in “Pelle, the Conqueror” that means the novel is still very much alive.

Nexo’s novel “The Living Land” (1916-20) is a trilogy about the wretched Danish rural workers and peasantry before the First World War. Nexo is massive naturalist and at his best particularly in “Ditte, Daughter of Mankind” in five volumes (1917–21), he approaches the most eminent American naturalist novelist Theodor Dreiser. It delineates the life of a wretched, impoverished but valiant and loving proletariat girl, Ditte for whom there is no escape from exploitation, oppression and deprivation. She has undergone an acute economic exploitation and oppression, representing what is best in the proletarian class. Her only weakness is a lack of hate and protest against those who rule her life. She is in fact the female counterpart of Pelle, who personifies the objective socio-economic and political ethos of the proletarian women of the time. While this novel gives a gloomy portrayal of the proletarians than “Pelle, the Conqueror”. Nexo’s optimistic views are observed in Ditte’s self-sacrifice and love, which she and many other characters of the novel reflect in their behaviours in spite of their appallingly impoverished living and working conditions. Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh, the most eminent Soviet astronomer discovered a minor planet in 1979 and named it Ditte. A Danish film entitled “Ditte, Daughter of Mankind” was based on the version of the first part of the novel that was released in 1946.

Nexo’s collected short fiction appeared under the title of “From the Soil” in three volumes. (1922-1926). His book “Toward the Dawn” (1923) provides the enormous material about his pleasant personal experiences and his nostalgic Reminiscences of ante-bellum years in the Soviet Union. Its English translation was published by the title of “Reminiscences” two volumes. (1932–39). Selections from these volumes appeared in the form of English translation entitled “Days in the Sun” or “Under the Open Sky” (1932-39) that is two volumes of memoirs about the years of Nexo’s youth in Denmark of the 1890s. It sheds light on his political commitment and dedication to the Corporative movement and Social Democratic movement until the First World War and his later conversion to the leftist Marxist politics. These books and his “Memoirs” (1932) give a fascinating account of his early life and conversion from social democracy to socialism. “In God’s Land” (1929), is his much-debated novel. It is a harsh critique of the complacency of wealthy Danish feudal lord during the period of agricultural inflation brought about by the First World War. It deals with the cabal of a majority of Danish farmers who has enriched themselves by profiteering during the First World War and in the years of hunger in Europe. These rich farmers believe that they are chosen by God. Nexo wrote a novel “The Sea King” (1930) in which combination of social realism and revolutionary romanticism about the miserable living and working conditions of Danish seamen prior, during and post the First World War, may be seen. His novel “Idealists” (1945) is a satire on the host of escapist theories and philosophies, such as World Federalism and psycho-analysis, which bemused factions of the European middle classes in general and those of Denmark in particular in the aftermath of the Second World War. Nexo’s novel “Frydenholm” (1962) is about the different responses and reactions to Nazi occupation of Denmark during the Second World War.

Nexo’s two-volume sequel to “Pelle, the Conqueror”, “Morten, the Red” (1945) is in fact a continuation of “Pelle, the Conqueror”. It is a story of the political upheavals of the late 1930s. The figure of Morten is one of the minor characters in “Pelle, the Conqueror” as an old comrade of Pelle. In this novel, he is a Copenhagen proletariat who develops as the protagonist of the novel and Marxist militant. He is antidote of the donothingism of the established trade unionists and Social Democratic leaders, as embodied in the person of the elder Pelle, on whom Morten occasionally comments. Nexo’s later novels reflect his political support to the Soviet Union. He wrote a trilogy “Morten, the Red”, “The Lost Generation” and “Jeanette in his later years from 1944 to 1956, which ostensibly followed “Pelle, the Conqueror” as its next part that unfortunately remained incomplete. It is considered Nexo’s masked autobiography. Nexo was arrested by Danish police in 1941 during the Nazi’s occupation of Denmark for his firm Marxist conviction. After releasing, he set out for Sweden and later for the Soviet Union where he began broadcasting to Norway and Denmark. Finally, he shifted to Dresden in East Germany after the Second World War. A Gymnasium High School in Dresden was dedicated to his name as Martin Andersen Nexo Gymnasium High School. He died in Dresden on June 1, 1954, where he had been living since 1951. He was entombed in the Assistens Soren Kierkegaard in the Norrebro beside Copenhagen.

Literature Review

The proletarian novel took a new turn in 1906 with the appearance of the most famous proletarian Danish novel of Nexo “Pelle, the Conqueror” (1906-10). He was one of the most eminent earliest Marxist proletarian novelists. He wrote for the landless agricultural peasantry and industrial proletarians, which had been signally non-existent in Danish literature. “Pelle, the Conqueror” is a remarkable novel by a remarkable man. The novel set Nexo in the first rank of Denmark's men of letters and internationally prominent novelists. The European Social Democratic critics highly appraised the novel everywhere for its interesting story of the marginalised, wretched and impoverished Swede immigrant-labouring lad, from his poverty, obscurity and drudgery to the proletarian leader in the urbanised and modern Marxist revolutionary proletariat movement (Houmann, B., 1975, Pp.121-122). Moreover, George Lukacs also hailed the novel with unrestrained enthusiasm in 1947 (Houmann, B., 1975, Pp. 290-294). “Pelle the, Conqueror” inspired Vladimir Lenin who met Nexo and received a copy of the first volume of the novel from him in 1922 with his signature (Shcherbina, V., 1974, p. 16).

“Pelle, the Conqueror” possesses autobiographical notes because Pelle shares many striking similarities with Nexo’s story of life. Otto Jespersen refers it as an autobiographical novel in the “Note” on “Pelle, the Conqueror” (Jespersen, O., 2007, p. 1). The reviews of The New York Times, 1913 and The Literary Digest, 1918 regarded the novel as an autobiographical (The New York Times, 1913, p. 1). The reviews of “Pelle, the Conqueror” published in the early 1900s in newspaper articles from a variety of countries, highlighted many parallels between the author and the hero of the novel. Furthermore, Nexo was able to draw on his own, early writings from his time on Bornholm. In 1893, Martin Andersen (later Martin Anderson Nexo) had written his first article entitled “St. Hansaften paa Bornholm” published in Fyens Tidende. It is a detailed and lively account of the Midsummer’s Eve’s festivities on Bornholm. Later, he reproduced much of this article in chapter XVIII of “Pelle, the Conqueror” whereby, he describes the Farm Workers’ Midsummer’s Eve Outing. Nexo wrote to Waldo Browne, referring to his personal experiences from his childhood (Nexo, M.A., cited in Houmann, B., 1975, p.377).

Borge Houmann incorporated several critiques and reviews of “Pelle, the Conqueror” in “Omkring Pelle Erobreren” (1975), written for various newspapers of Denmark between 1906 and 1910. Knud Gjesing describes Nexo as one of the four international eminent Danish writers (alongwith H.C. Andersen, Johannes Jorgensen and Soren Kierkegaard)” (Gjesing, K., 1994, cited in Nilsson, Sophie-Anne C., 2014, p. 15). Much of criticism of “Pelle, the Conqueror” revolves around Nexo’s realistic style. Ingerborg Peterson wrote to Nexo soon after the publication of “Pelle, the Conqueror”, that, “Your book is a realistic idyll without equal” (Petersen, I., cited in Houmann, B., 1975, p.26). The novel received some extremely positive reviews in America with praise being made with The New York Times, describing the novel excellent (The New York Times, 1913, p. 1). A review of The Literary Digest of 1918 calls attention to the realist portrayals of the novel (The Literary Digest, 1918, p. 40). Nexo became popular for his realism in America. The reviewer of The New York Times wrote about the popularity of Nexo that, “No reader with any sympathy for human nature can escape the charm of Pelle's boyhood. Martin Anderson Nexo is not destined long to remain, so far the American reading public is concerned, an unknown author” (New York Times, p. 1). Bojer particularly appraised him for his realism (Bojer, 1921, p. 52). Joel Johanson regarded “Pelle, the Conqueror” in The Sewanee Review Quarterly, as “… the true epic of labour” (Johanson, J., 1919, p.225). In his review for The Bookman, Rupert Scott first bemoans the general lack of Scandinavian literature available in English and the haphazard way in which it comes, before continuing to praise the 1913 translation of “Pelle, the Conqueror”. “A word of sincere thanks is due the publishers for the production, in a translation of remarkable excellence, of a work so big in actual physical scope, so big also in the portrayal of an existence, which is typical of thousands of other existences. The book is written with that care, that completeness of workmanship is a characteristic of modern Danish prose. There is an apparent jumping over important events to linger on details, a style which has been peculiarly Danish ever since J.P. Jacobsen … Yet when we have finished the book we realise that nothing essential has been missed, that the mass of detail has only served to fill in the picture, more completely to add richness to its vivid colouring” (Scott, R., 1916, cited in Houmann, B., 1975, p.133).

These reviews describe that, on its publication in 1913, English translation of “Pelle the, Conqueror” was extremely well received in the USA with a strong focus on the way in which Nexo portrays life of the proletarians and the humble life from within instead of viewing it from afar. Praise is also given to Nexo’s willingness to show life in all its ‘sordid’ and unpleasant details that are at times fascinating while at others repulsive. Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize winner Norwegian author in Literature, wrote in the oldest continuously published magazine in the English-speaking world, “The Spectator”, that it prides itself on being non-partisan and not afraid of controversy (The Spectator, August 9, 1913, p. 22). The review mentions that the novel is “something out of the common”. The review also draws attention to the realism in the book, stating that, “There is no plot, but the detailed realism of the life at the farm is presented firmly and vividly” (The Spectator August 9, 1913, p. 22). Other reviews also draw attention to Nexo’s realist portrayal of life among the proletarians with the insight of one who knows what it is really like. The reviews further comment on the starkness of the life, Nexo portrays and on his sympathy with the working classes. “Here in a stern and faithful book you have presented that life in contact with the earth, removed from ideas except as they are implicit in any work, and almost savage in its astonishing lack of idealism. It is not an attractive picture. One can feel that this existence is real and full- blooded, and yet lament its extraordinary coarseness, its cruelty, and its contempt for anything that is old and feeble. Pelle, the boy is beautifully drawn, and the gradual growth of his independence, as he realises that his old father is despised by the rest of the farmhands, even by the women, is rendered carefully and sympathetically. We hope that this initial volume will meet with a reception that will justify the translation of the others” (The Daily News and Leader, 1913, cited in Houmann, B., 1975, p.122).


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Martin Anderson Nexo’s Novel “Pelle, the Conqueror”. A Marxist Perspective
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