Growth of the Soil
by Knut HamsunOne of my favorite novels from my teen years was Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag. I first read it as outside reading for my eighth grade English class and enjoyed it as much as My Antonia which I read at about the same time. More recently I read Pat Conroy’s memoir My Reading Life, in which he writes about his agent who gives him a copy of Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, telling him: “It’s an essential book. A necessary one. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read. I named my farm Sellanraa in honor of Isak the man who builds his home and raises a family out of nothing.” To which Conroy says: “I’ll read it.” His agent’s response: “You don’t just read this book. You must enter in. Live it. It contains the great truth.” Which his agent explains: “Everything of virtue springs from the soil. Civilization always comes along to ruin it. But you can always find the truth if it comes from the earth.”
"The long, long road over the moors and up into the forest--who trod it into being first of all? Man, a human being, the first that came here. There was no path before he came. Afterward, some beast or other, following the faint tracks over marsh and moorland, wearing them deeper; after these again some Lapp gained scent of the path, and took that way from field to field, looking to his reindeer. Thus was made the road through great Almenning--the common tracts without an owner; no-man's land." - (Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil)
Well after that recommendation and my own memories of Rolvaag I picked up Hamsun's book (I should have done this long before when I was amazed by Hunger which I have read and reread) and found it to be the life story of a man in the wilds, the genesis and gradual development of a homestead, the unit of humanity, in the unfilled, uncleared tracts that still remain in the Norwegian Highlands.
It is an epic of earth; the history of a microcosm. Its dominant note is one of patient strength and simplicity; the mainstay of its working is the tacit, stern, yet loving alliance between Nature and the Man who faces her himself, trusting to himself and her for the physical means of life, and the spiritual contentment with life which she must grant if he be worthy. Modern man faces Nature only by proxy, or as proxy, through others or for others, and the intimacy is lost. In the wilds the contact is direct and immediate; it is the foothold upon earth, the touch of the soil itself, that gives strength.
The story is epic in its magnitude, in its calm, steady progress and unhurrying rhythm, in its vast and intimate humanity. The author looks upon his characters with a great, all-tolerant sympathy, aloof yet kindly, as a god. A more objective work of fiction it would be hard to find—certainly in what used to be called "the neurasthenic North."
Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun. Vintage Books, 1972 (1917).