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literature

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Danish Literature  

In the last two centuries, Danish writers have explored gay male and lesbian issues both indirectly and directly.

Any discussion of modern Danish gay literature must begin by considering the vexed case of the renowned writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875). Although it is a mistake to attribute a modern homosexual identity to Andersen, there is no doubt that the eccentric and virginal bachelor fell in love with both men and women. His letters provide unmistakable evidence of his romantic friendships with male bourgeois contemporaries.

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Perhaps more important, many of his fairy tales about ugly ducklings and suffering mermaids sacrificing themselves for the unrequited love of princes naturally lend themselves to gay and lesbian interpretations that emphasize impossible loves and existential feelings of deviance.

The first significant Danish male homosexual writer (in the modern sense of the word) is Herman Bang (1857-1912), an important literary innovator of the impressionist style. Although his dense and tragic novels never touch directly on homosexuality, they do focus on frustrated and abused women--probably modeled on his mother, who died at the age of 43--and lend themselves to obvious allegorical readings.

Bang created for himself a flamboyant persona as a decadent aesthete and perverse aristocrat. A journalist, critic, and theater director, as well as a novelist and short-story writer, Bang was enshrined as the Danish "public homosexual" in 1906 when he was attacked by Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950), the notoriously Nobel Prize-winning writer and translator of Whitman.

After Bang's death in 1912 (while on tour in Ogden, Utah), he was succeeded in his role as public homosexual by his disciple, the journalist and memoirist Christian Houmark (1869-1950), who, unlike Bang, wrote explicitly about male homosexuality. Two autobiographies by Houmark published in 1950 focus on the tragic destiny of the male homosexual.

In a different tone, neorealist writer Christian Kampmann (1939-1992) represents gay identity as a challenge to repressive normality. Kampmann, already widely read for his depictions of bourgeois, suburban family life, became a prominent member of the Danish gay liberation movement after a public coming out. He was murdered by his lover and fellow writer, Jens Michael Schau (b. 1948), in a crime of passion.

Apart from a single short story from 1890 by Wilhelmine Zahle (1868-1940), modern Danish lesbian literature begins with a pseudonymous writer, Agnete Holk, whose 1941 novel Strange Friends relates the successful life of a mannish businesswoman who ends up with the lost love of her youth and an adopted child.

Far more ambitious and experimental are the works of poet and playwright Ulla Ryum (b. 1937) and poet Marianne Larsen (b. 1951). Neither author deals explicitly with lesbian themes; however, an avant-garde sensibility pervades their work.

Feminist writers Bente Clod (b. 1946) and Vibeke Vasbo (b. 1944) both represent the Danish lesbian movement; their novels feature realistic depictions of working-class life.

Perhaps the greatest modern Danish literary figure associated with homosexuality is the eccentric, cosmopolitan, and bilingual writer Karen Blixen (1885-1962). Most likely she was not a lesbian herself. However, her magnificent first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1935), written under her male pseudonym Isak Dinesen, is a perverse and exotic celebration of every kind of sexuality except conventional, marriage-based heterosexuality. Male homosexuality is often portrayed as a norm in her work. This fact, although seldom acknowledged, has secured her writings a devoted gay male and lesbian readership.

Dag Heede

     

 
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Karen Blixen, perhaps the greatest modern Danish writer associated with homosexuality, celebrated every kind of sexuality except marriage-based heterosexuality in Seven Gothic Tales (1935).
  
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   Related Entries
  
social sciences >> Overview:  Denmark

Denmark has a reputation for sexual liberation, tolerance, and progressive social policy in regards to glbtq issues.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Male

Critics use the term male romantic friendship to describe strong attachments between men in works ranging from ancient epics and medieval romances to Renaissance plays, Gothic novels, westerns, and war movies.

literature >> Andersen, Hans Christian

Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen was probably bisexual in orientation, though he may well have remained a virgin.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


    Bibliography
   

Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen: The Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Bech, Henning. "A Dung Beetle in Distress: Hans Christian Andersen Meets Karl Maria Kertbeny, Geneva, 1860." Scandinavian Homosexualities. Essays on Gay and Lesbian Studies. Jan Löfström, ed. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1998. 139-161.

Bjørby, Pål: "The Prison House of Sexuality: Homosexuality in Herman Bang Scholarship." Scandinavian Studies 58 (1986): 321-345.

Holk, Agnete. Strange Friends. Trans. Anthony Hinton. New York: Pyramid Books, 1963.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Heede, Dag  
    Entry Title: Danish Literature  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 28, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/danish_lit.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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