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  • Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness by Paul Binding
  • Toni Thibodeaux (bio)
Paul Binding. Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness. Yale UP, 2014.

Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness is Paul Binding's extensive and thoroughly-researched account of the importance of Hans Christian Andersen's oeuvre in not only the history of Denmark but also in all of European literature. Binding spends considerable energy establishing Andersen's connection to and influence on Denmark and Europe as a whole and finds Andersen's literary fingerprints everywhere. Binding's book provides ample biographical information about Andersen as "European Witness" makes a significant connection between Andersen's personal life and his work. The author traces the narrative of Andersen's life to illustrate how his works were influenced by everything from his intimate relationships to world events. Binding finds echoes of Andersen's life experiences in the themes and situations in his writing and shows how Andersen fared outside of his native Denmark as he travelled widely throughout Europe, especially Britain, where he found wide critical acclaim and admiration from literary luminaries such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. In addition to Andersen's fairy tales, Binding also examines lesser-known Andersen works in detail, including novels such as The Improvisatore and O.T.

In his introduction, Binding asserts that "Andersen's work is born of the relationship between" Europe and Denmark (1). According to Binding, in addition to Andersen's love for the history of his native land, especially his affinity for Denmark's Golden Age, Andersen also revered the larger European literary tradition. This is evidenced by Andersen's admiration for Walter Scott, E. T. A. Hoffman, and Heinrich Heine, all non-Danish authors "who most deeply influenced him" (34). Binding analyzes pieces from selected works of these authors and compares them to excerpts from Andersen's writings, showing how Andersen imitated their styles and occasionally borrowed content. Additionally, Binding tells of the many friendships that Andersen enjoyed with other writers such as Ludwig Tieck and Adelbert von Chamisso, with whom he shared mutual admiration and had occasion to meet in his travels.

Despite Andersen's humility in the face of those he respected and admired, according to Binding Andersen was also a visionary who felt confident in his abilities as a writer and desired to be counted among the literary giants of his time. Binding shows that although Andersen was born in Denmark, he faced difficulties there due to the humble circumstances of his birth and his underlying feelings of inferiority, mostly in relation to his adopted family. These familial difficulties, coupled with Andersen's desire to be respected on the larger European literary scene, drove Andersen to travel widely. In his role as a cosmopolitan, Andersen exhibited decidedly more self-possession with other acquaintances than with his benefactor's son, Edvard Collin, to whom he felt inferior. As Binding shows, Andersen suffered profound pain [End Page 253] and rejection, with which he would struggle his entire life, at the hands of Collin and later Collin's son. In documenting these events in Andersen's life, Binding consulted the writer's detailed diary, which provides rich insight into Andersen's private thoughts and feelings. For example, Binding presents an excerpt from a letter written by Andersen, published in a newspaper, expressing his enthusiasm and attempting to encourage patriotism among his fellow Danes for the Three Years' War, part of Denmark's long and complicated dispute with the German Confederation over territory. In contrast, Andersen's journal entry, which "sees the war in less generic and more painfully individual terms" (283), dwells on the senseless loss of life. Binding implies here that Andersen tempered his public opinions and kept much to himself, and fortunately for us, recorded his thoughts in his diaries.

Ultimately, Binding's biographical narrative serves his greater purpose of demonstrating how specific historical events and literary figures influenced Andersen's work and how in turn Andersen's work influenced the work of others. For instance, Binding discusses Andersen's relationship with Dickens, including Andersen's controversial stay with the Dickens family in which Dickens later expressed his annoyance with the guest's presence in the household. However...


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pp. 253-255
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