Nexø, Martin Andersen

(1869-1954)
   A Danish novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist, Nexø was born into the family of a poor laborer in Copenhagen but grew up on the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic, where his father worked as a stonecutter. Nexø did agricultural labor and was a shoemaker's apprentice before attending the Askov folk high school, after which he found work as a teacher. His literary achievement is to have chronicled the history of the Danish proletariat, to which he gave life in the unforgettable figures of Pelle and Ditte.
   After getting an education and finding work as a teacher, it is likely that Nexø's experience with grueling physical work as a young man became somewhat distant for him. His early novel Dryss (1902; Waste) indicates that he had bought into the essentially middle-class concerns of the literature of the 1890s. With a diagnosis of tuberculosis, however, he traveled to Italy and Spain to get well, and there he came into close contact with labor organizations. His sympathies were at times with the most radical ofthese, anarchists and syndicalists, and at other times with the more moderate social democrats. Soldage (1903; tr. Days in the Sun, 1929) tells about the radicalizing experiences Nexø had in Spain, after which he returned to Denmark ready to devote his life to the cause of socialism.
   After writing some short stories where political themes occur from time to time, Nexø allowed his anger at the injustice visited on the working class to give life to his greatest artistic achievement, the epic multivolume novel Pelle Erobreren (1906-1910; tr. Pelle the Conqueror, 1930). Pelle grows up in Bornholm, then goes to the factories and slums of Copenhagen, and finally becomes a leader in the cooperative movement, which was conceived of as a just alternative to capitalist exploitation. But Pelle is not without flaws; he has not understood that justice for proletarian men is not sufficient and that there must be justice for women too. Pelle the Conqueror has been immensely popular for a long time, and its reputation was enhanced when a film version received the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1989.
   Nexø's second great literary work, Ditte Menneskebarn (1917— 1921; tr. Ditte, 1931), is a five-volume series of novels. Born in the countryside, Ditte, like Pelle, is brought to the city by the process of industrialization, but as a woman she has challenges that Pelle avoids. She has a baby out of wedlock and becomes a seamstress to support herself and her child, and as a seamstress she is ruthlessly taken advantage of. Also, she shows compassion to whoever needs it, and the brutal world of exploitative capitalism does not allow her to generate the surplus resources that she would need to help others without harming herself. She is dying at the end of the novel, and her child has just been killed by a train while scavenging for lumps of coal.
   A third series of novels had been contemplated by Nexø. This series bears the title Morten hin Røde (1945—1957; Morten the Red) but was left unfinished; the last volume was published posthumously. While Pelle is a reformist socialist and Ditte is just a kind and rather apolitical human being, Morten is a revolutionary Marxist who also appears in Pelle the Conqueror, where he is critical of the direction Pelle is taking the labor movement. Morten hin Røde is less successful artistically than Pelle and Ditte. It is too much of a record of the infighting in the Danish labor movement and lacking in the mythic dimension that is present in the two former series.
   Nexø wrote other novels, but they are of less significance than Pelle and Ditte. The novel Familien Frank (1901; The Frank Family) displays a kind of direct realism that points toward some of the depictions of proletarian life in Nexø's later books. In the novel Midt i en Jærntid (1929; tr. In God's Land, 1933), Nexø assigns blame for the great financial crash of 1929; greedy and corrupt farmers are singled out for special treatment. Some of Nexø's short fiction, including a number of stories set in Bornholm, was collected in the three volumes of Muldskud (1900—1926; From the Soil). His memoirs, Erindringer (1932—1939; Recollections), offer many details about his early life. Nexø also wrote poetry, published a play, wrote numerous articles, and published a book about his travels in the Soviet Union. Disappointed with the political direction taken by Denmark's social democrats, he elected to spend his later years in communist East Germany, where he died.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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