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The Wilder the Starting Point: Some Critical Remarks to Michael Meyer’s Ibsen: A Biography

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 86, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 72-97 | 10.1353/scd.2014.0011

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Like most who have studied Ibsen, I have also thought that we now know all that is worth knowing about Ibsen’s life and works, and so we can just add some fancy details and new perspectives. The intention of the new critical edition Henrik Ibsens skrifter (2006–2010; Henrik Ibsen’s Writings) was accordingly to present and comment upon all his writings in order to give a contemporary reader an understanding of the original meaning of the texts. After the last volume of Henrik Ibsens skrifter was published in 2010, from a certain point of view, there should have been no more questions left to ask. But the very same year, 2010, the first contributions of a new school of thought in Ibsen studies were presented. The aim of this school was to find new answers to the important question: How could one of the most important dramatic writers in world history be born in a small underdeveloped country in the European periphery?

Henrik Ibsens skrifter and most Ibsen scholars had answered this question by declaring Ibsen as a genius, a wonder—and had explained and interpreted his writings through his reading of other authors. The new school wanted instead to try to find historical and “practical” explanations. Ibsen became important because he was born in Norway—and not despite the fact that he was born in Norway. His works had to be explained by what he actually had done and what he had learned from it.

In order to question the myth of the genius Ibsen, the new school both started to dig into the details of Ibsen’s biography and to explore his Norwegian background. The result showed how surprisingly little we actually know about Ibsen and how little of our knowledge is based on biographical and empirical facts. The search for details was therefore not an end in its own right, but a necessary condition for a re-evaluation of Ibsen’s life and work. The explanation of his Norwegian background is not just an expression of Norwegian national pride, but an attempt to underline the “otherness” of Norway, compared with other European nations and even its Scandinavian neighbors.

In this article, I will continue in this new school of thought in Ibsen studies by discussing the sources of the, by far, most comprehensive and important biography on Ibsen—Michael Meyer’s Ibsen: A Biography. Originally it was published in three volumes as The Making of a Dramatist 1828–1864 (1967), The Farewell to Poetry 1864–1882 (1971), and The Top of a Cold Mountain 1883–1906 (1971), and was then collected in one volume in 1971 as Ibsen: A Biography. Since then Ibsen: A Biography has been regarded internationally as the classic presentation of Ibsen’s life and work, and it was subsequently published in a one-volume version abridged by the author in 1974, 1985, and 1992. Also in Norway, Meyer’s Ibsen: A Biography has been regarded as the standard reference work on Ibsen, and it has been translated into Norwegian and published in one volume in three editions in 1971, 1995, and 2006. Meyer’s opinions and evaluations not only of Ibsen and his background, but also of Ibsen’s Norway are established so firmly that they have influenced recent presentations by Norwegian scholars such as Helge Rønning (2006), Toril Moi (2006), and Ivo de Figueiredo (2006, 2007), and even the commentaries and background information in the new edition of Henrik Ibsen’s writings, Henrik Ibsens skrifter.

In full recognition of Michael Meyer’s impressive knowledge of Ibsen’s life and work, which hardly any non-Norwegian has had before him or will have after him, it is still necessary to question his sources and his biases and assumptions. In this article, I will therefore take up the challenge of the new school launched by Narve Fulsås’ in his article “Ibsen Misrepresented” in Ibsen Studies (2011). He claimed that Scandinavian scholars, and I will underline especially that Norwegian scholars, have a responsibility to re-historicize and re-contextualize Ibsen’s works to counteract and correct the potential imperialism of what Casanova (1999), Moretti (2000), Damrosch (2003, 2009), and others...

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