This article appeared in the 2012:2 issue.
Dramatist, novelist, poet, painter and photographer. The list of occupations in which August Strindberg excelled is a long one. Strindberg was a restless soul who moved impatiently from one endeavour to the next and who rarely failed to leave an indelible mark. Today, one hundred years after his passing, he remains Sweden’s most well known and controversial author and his fingerprints can be found all over Sweden’s literary and cultural world. The question is: when there are such glittering artistic achievements to be examined and analysed, does it really make sense to spend any time considering Strindberg’s work in journalism? Given that journalism never became a main occupation for Strindberg and that he himself more than once indicated that he had little love for it, might it not be better to leave this particular part of Strindberg’s oeuvre buried in piles of old newspapers collecting dust in dimly lit archives? Scholars certainly seem to think so; Strindberg’s journalistic output is remarkably under-researched and few works have been dedicated to this side of his writing career; none cover it in its entirety. Indeed, few members of the general public will now even be aware that Strindberg wrote for the press all his life; our interest tends not to extend far beyond his literary production. But before we decide to content ourselves with yet another browse through The Father (Fadren) or Miss Julie (Fröken Julie), I believe it would serve us well to take another good look at Strindberg as a journalist.
Journalism was the occupation that sustained the young artist while he found his way in this world. All his life, Strindberg found it difficult to settle. Never was this more apparent than in the years following his graduation from a much despised private school in Stockholm. His first attempt at university studies took place in Uppsala in 1867 and lasted only half a term. Strindberg returned to Stockholm virtually penniless and during the next three years cast about for a satisfying career and ways to support himself financially. He worked briefly as a school teacher and then as a tutor in the family of a wealthy physician. His contact with this family prompted him to commence medical studies but he failed an exam almost before he had started and immediately dropped out. He then turned to acting, working as an extra at the Royal Theatre to prepare for the entrance tests to the theatre’s acting school. When he failed in this too, Strindberg returned to Uppsala to study aesthetics and modern languages in 1870. This time he stayed on for two years before once again departing without a degree. His first major play, Master Olof (Mäster Olof), was rejected by the Swedish Academy. Disillusioned and very poor after five years of upheaval, disappointment and rejection, Strindberg retreated to an apprenticeship at a secluded telegraph office in Stockholm’s archipelago. At this point, the prospect of becoming Sweden’s most celebrated author must have seemed remote to Strindberg. But instead of giving up writing altogether, he turned to journalism instead.
During his brief time at the telegraph office, Strindberg wrote two articles which he sent to Dagens Nyheter, where they were accepted and published. Before that, he had intermittently submitted articles to several newspapers on a freelance basis but though he had been published neither he nor the editors involved had been inclined to make the relationship permanent. Now Strindberg begged, in his characteristically cantankerous and contrary way, for a job at Dagens Nyheter, writing to Rudolf Wall, the paper’s founder and editor:
I am convinced I would be unfit for every newspaper’s editorial staff and I have no intention of seeking any kind of employment, but for the novice to be robbed of the opportunity to write in a widely read and liberal paper is tantamount to certain death! Mr Editor! Show compassion and honour me with a response! Let me know if there is still room for a light essay, a travel story or a serial!
As it turns out, Wall showed both compassion and genuine interest in Strindberg. In December 1873, shortly after the publication of Strindberg’s second article in Dagens Nyheter, Wall sent a job offer to Strindberg’s telegraph office and days later, the striving young man was on his way back to the capital. Dagens Nyheter was at that time a relatively new paper, part of the wave of new print media that swept Sweden during the second half of the nineteenth century. Wall was already a newspaper magnate when he started Dagens Nyheter and he wanted his new paper to be Stockholm’s, and the nation’s, biggest. This had two obvious consequences, the first being that the employees were worked very hard. Strindberg worked 15 to 16-hour days and lived next door to the offices, always available at a moment’s notice. The paper covered every kind of story on every kind of topic and so Strindberg had to learn to write quickly and variedly. The second consequence was the efforts made by the paper to balance the ideological needs of as many constituencies as possible. Ostensibly, Dagens Nyheter was liberal but Wall was more interested in selling copy than in antagonistic, unyielding principles. This was less easy for Strindberg to adapt to and it soon became clear that he was unwilling to omit political and ideological critique from his articles. His disinclination inevitably rankled with Wall, who kept his employees on a short leash, often supervising their work personally both day and night.
Despite this, Strindberg did, in many ways, take to his new job, the only permanent position he would ever hold at a newspaper, like a fish to water. The two articles he submitted from Sandhamn prior to securing a position, an excerpt from the latter of which is translated below, show that he already had a knack for journalistic writing. Though the stories were ostensibly about the goings on in the small archipelago settlement, such as the salvaging of a shipwreck, the young Strindberg turns them into more complex pieces, incorporating poetic nature descriptions, wry observations of human behaviour, scathing social critique and political philosophising. Moreover, many aspects of journalistic work truly suited Strindberg. The fast pace agreed with him and reinforced the frenzied working style he already favoured. The urban environment of Stockholm was miles away from tired, conservative Uppsala and the paper’s ambition to innovate and modernise the written word played to Strindberg’s creative strength. Even the low esteem in which journalists were held in Sweden at that time was a boon; it afforded Strindberg an opportunity to develop further the underdog persona he had cultivated all his life and to turn it into a professional virtue. But more than anything, his wide-ranging assignments granted him access to every aspect of life in the capital. In his own words, journalism was ‘pleasant work that was never tedious. It was in its nature to always be new’. For a while, Strindberg was a regular in Parliament and at the parties of the rich and famous as well as in the houses of the working poor. As a reporter, Strindberg found many doors open to him, and he proved to be a natural observer of the human condition. He describes the journalist’s work in the autobiographical The Son of a Servant (Tjänstekvinnans son): ‘The newspaper offices captivated him like an observatory, from which one looked out across the world and saw the history of the world unfold’.
While he worked as a journalist, Strindberg’s strong social conscience mixed with his bitterness at being rejected as an artist and a thinker to form a potent blend. Strindberg was almost always furious and soon proved that he did not only possess the keen eye of an observer; he also had a very sharp pen and was not afraid to use it. His theatre reviews turned into satirical portraits of Stockholm’s elite, his reports from parliamentary sessions became scathing attacks on the political life of the realm and his account of criminal trials heaped social critique on the Swedish legal system. Strindberg had probably always been a contrary person but it was during his time as a professional journalist that he took his first steps toward becoming the polemical, fiery controversialist who would leave such a permanent impression on Swedish culture and discourse.
Given the mismatch between Strindberg’s combative style and penchant for offending important people, and Rudolf Wall’s preference for letting sleeping dogs lie, it was hardly a surprise when things came to a head between the two in a typically dramatic manner less than five months after Strindberg arrived at Dagens Nyheter. On a Sunday in April 1874, Strindberg, deeply affronted by the changes to his articles proposed by Wall, declared that if he was not implicitly trusted ‘there is nothing for me here!’, threw his pen down on his desk so hard it made a hole through several newspapers, and stormed out. Strindberg never returned to professional journalism but the short time he spent at Dagens Nyheter inspired and shaped his literary production for many years. In some ways, he owed his literary breakthrough, the novel The Red Room (Röda rummet), to it. The Red Room shows how Strindberg used his knowledge of the world of newspaper publishing to create milieu and characters, a technique he would return to later in life, for example in Black Banners (Svarta fanor) and Gothic Rooms (Götiska Rummen). It is also a clear example of how Strindberg’s journalistic experience enriched and revolutionised Swedish literature; its social criticism flows naturally from Strindberg’s texts in Dagens Nyheter and his groundbreaking use of colloquial Swedish, which ushered in the modern literary era in Sweden, can be traced to the innovation and progressive, democratising spirit of the press in the late nineteenth century. In the years that followed, Strindberg would use his experience as a reporter to vastly improve his writing by infusing his drama with the naturalistic currents that formed the foundation of journalistic investigation and writing. We can be certain that without Strindberg’s experiences as a journalist we would not have The Father or Miss Julie.
After his exploits at Dagens Nyheter, Strindberg never tried his hand at full-time journalism again, limiting himself thereafter to the occasional small contribution. And thus could have ended the story of Strindberg and journalism, a simple tale of the apprentice years of an artist, had it not been for Strindbergsfejden, the Strindberg Feud. After his Inferno crisis at the end of the nineteenth century, Strindberg had turned away from his earlier critical work, pondering instead religious philosophy and venting his anger on materialism and Darwinism rather than the establishment. But in the first few years of the new century, tensions were building in Swedish society. The workers’ movement was marching, and the battle for universal suffrage, for men and women, was getting heated. Public debate became ever more polarised and embittered, fuelled by a developing socialist and Social Democratic press. We can see in The Gothic Rooms and Black Banners, both penned in 1904, that Strindberg was turning his attention back to the issues he had grappled with in his younger days, but until 1909, Strindberg seems to have preferred to abstain from joining the public discourse, focusing instead on the study of Chinese and Hebrew. The young radical workers expected Strindberg, whom they idolised on account of his early work, to support them publically and were disappointed by his silence. Hjalmar Branting, leader of the Social Democrats and that party’s first parliamentarian, wrote in the paper on the occasion of the author’s sixtieth birthday that he hoped that Strindberg ‘may once again be himself, the poet of Master Olof and The Red Room who shall live and be remembered in our history’. The Social Democratic press was convinced that it was too soon to give up on Strindberg, warning their opposition: ‘May the conservatives celebrate his apostasy cautiously! A person like Strindberg is and remains a more dangerous revolutionary than a hundred of those who openly confess their faith in revolution’.
Two things eventually drove Strindberg to break his silence and to pick up his journalist’s pen once more. The first was that Selma Lagerlöf was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1909, making it abundantly clear that Strindberg was unlikely ever to receive it and rendering it unnecessary for him to hold his tongue. The second was an article in The Social Democrat, a Stockholm paper, called ‘De tigande diktarna’ (The Silent Poets), which lamented the wall of silence put up collectively by Sweden’s authors and intellectuals. Strindberg, who must have resented being thus grouped with the conservative colleagues he despised, could contain himself no longer. In April 1910 he wrote the article ‘Faraodyrkan’ (Pharaoh Worship) which triggered the Strindberg Feud, a cultural debate that consumed public discourse for two whole years, resulting in over 1000 articles written by almost 300 contributors in 80 newspapers. Strindberg himself wrote 75 articles in the seven months following ‘Pharaoh Worship’. At first these were aimed at scholars and artists venerating Karl XII, an unworthy national hero in Strindberg’s eyes, the adulation for whom pointed to defects in the Swedish psyche, but it soon turned into personal attacks against all those he deemed unworthy, particularly explorer Sven Hedin and poet Werner von Heidenstam, both of whom Strindberg declared to be charlatans and fraudsters. The tone of the debate was vitriolic and no person or establishment was off limits. This is what Hedin wrote about Strindberg:
Strindberg probably knows a thing or two, but one thing he doesn’t know - how to behave. He is like the Chinese swallow which builds its nest in its own saliva… Not one line in his articles is true, everything is a lie… And that is a shame because Strindberg has a phenomenal talent but also a corrupt character, an astonishing jumble of titan, sphinx, vampire and parasite. Like the jackal he prefers the dead but he also attacks the living so long as they don’t bite back. Yes, he should be pitied! Walking past his house here in Stockholm one gets a feeling of passing a house in mourning, where the bier is already laid out. And yet he still sits there, writing, alone with his hatred, and is consumed day and night by envy… Poor desolate, lonely pilgrim, who lives in the ruins of his own tragic life. It is as if he has already set off on his march, walking swiftly behind shrill pipes and flutes, under Black Banners which lead the way to Hades.
Topics ranged widely from agriculture and the military to art and religion. Before long the debate had turned into a bitter trench war between different generations of artists about cultural and literary legitimacy and about the big questions we still discuss today: what is the purpose of literature? What is its relationship with politics? How should power be distributed in society?
The Feud did not abate until after Strindberg’s death and in terms of volume as well as sheer passion it was and remains the most intense cultural debate Sweden has ever seen. Though the coarseness of the tone was disparaged by many, the Strindberg Feud forever redefined Sweden’s cultural and literary landscape, aligning art and politics and helping to give birth to modern Swedish society. Most important, perhaps, was that the debate led to a renaissance for Strindberg. The progressive forces of Swedish society rallied around him as their standard bearer and for a time, Strindberg set the agenda for the political life of the nation. His reputation and place in history, to which we owe the 2012 centenary, were cemented through his journalistic achievements. No longer an outsider, Strindberg found that his decision to return to journalism allowed him to reshape the Swedish canon and force it to include him in a central position. Strindberg was never to receive the Nobel Prize for his literature but, thanks in part to his journalism, both he and his literature attained the prominent status they still hold today. When Strindberg, once an outcast in Sweden, died, tens of thousands followed his funeral procession through Stockholm.
Journalism was where Strindberg started and where he ended. Some of his first published texts were newspaper articles, as was the very last thing he ever wrote. Before he was famous, journalism not only sustained Strindberg but trained him for brilliance. Near the end of his life, it helped him find the way back to ideology and social commitment and secured him an unrivalled place in Swedish literary history. Today Strindberg is remembered as a dramatist, novelist, poet, painter and photographer. But during this centenary we would do well to take a minute to remember Strindberg the journalist, whose relentless literary innovation and radical politics were the foundation for everything he ever did.
Some Suggestions for Further Reading
Postscript to Letter from Sandhamn
Excerpt from the article about a shipwreck in Stockholm’s archipelago which was published in Dagens Nyheter on 6 December 1873 and secured Strindberg his first and only permanent job in journalism.
It is Sunday morning. The snow falls ever so silently on the silent sand, no church bells remind us of the state of grace, the sky is black and the earth is white, (at a convenient time this could be turned into some beautiful poetic nonsense), the sea is silent too, it is coming to rest having concluded all shipping and claimed its share, the fire flickers on the hearth, sputtering whenever snow falls down the straight chimney; it feels like being in ‘Nordland’; the senses turn in on themselves, become almost visionary, prophetic. The feeling of isolation grows, it is like existing outside civilized society, and when from time to time a colourful cockade or the three-tongued customs flag is sighted one is reminded, I wouldn’t say unpleasantly exactly, that there is something called ‘the state’ – a vague, oppressive something, which is not a person, a fetish more revered than God, a concept devoid of substance, which is nonetheless as real as can be.
Now a male voice is heard through the wall, reading aloud – it is probably a sermon. I don’t know if it is my imagination, but today it sounds more solemn than usual; misfortune has come to the little settlement and everyone can sense it. From the lookout a sad sight can be seen six miles out to sea. The horizon is broken by two slanted lines and a dark mass, listing dramatically. It is the schooner Sjuli which ran aground on Brandsten on Thursday night, carrying 140½ tonnes of coke and 200 tonnes of iron as well as a local pilot. This last part is what upsets the pilots of Sandhamn and what will become of the man after the court-martial can hardly be in doubt. A respected, competent and well-to-do man, known to be careful, will lose his property, perhaps his job, be torn from his family and, most unnaturally, be thrown in gaol with hardened criminals, because he was unable, despite taking the utmost care, to guide a ship to harbour in the rough seas of a November night – the Law is a cruel master; may the judges be less cruel!
Excerpt from the polemic article that triggered the infamous Strindberg Feud, the most intense and comprehensive cultural debate Sweden has ever seen, published in Afton-Tidningen on 29 April 1910
For a nation to celebrate its worthy men, those who have contributed to the expansion and prosperity of the country, is surely in order, but the deification of the country’s destroyer can only be acceptable to madmen and interested parties. By interested parties we usually mean relatives of the deceased, who have served the great departed and who perpetuate the apotheosis for the sake of their family’s glory, whether its noble lineage is genuine or merely appropriated.
Sensible nations give thanks after a triumph, but the mad ones have taken to celebrating their defeats, and raising monuments to them, around which they sing paradoxes: that death is victory and that their enemy’s victories are defeats (Pyrrhic victories). […]
The life of Karl XII holds no secrets for us to search for. […] The great qualities imputed to ‘the beardless one’ he lacked entirely. He was not even a general, because at the ‘last battle’ he had placed his artillery with the luggage, and arranged the army in a manner that guaranteed defeat.
A general leads each battle, but does not himself take part in the massacre. Karl XII, however, joined in the slaughter with glee. As a young man, already a crowned monarch then, he had practised by beheading sheep, cows and horses, and near Kristianstad he shot a cow, simply for his own amusement. Like a coward, he abandoned his country, having first impoverished it; and finally, driven by a last remnant of shame, he appointed a plenipotentiary, whom he could blame instead. But as sovereign his actions were reckless and his person sacrosanct.
Every time the mummy of Karl XII is exhumed, there is a motive, a purpose, a vested interest […]. A grant application, a platonic yearning for autocracy and the privileges it can bestow. Sometimes it is just that the relatives need some restitution, since their families are in decline; or that mundane people are in want of a lofty interest, or it is a vainglorious urge to identify oneself with the fatherland and the fatherland with oneself, to the exclusion of the ‘other’. […] But when the nation congregates around its tormentor and infamous destroyer, then something is definitely unsound, not to say rotten!