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The Knickerbocker Press



I. Fear and Hunger
II. Breaking-In
III. Away from Home
IV. Intercourse with the Lower Classes
V. Contact with the Upper Classes
VI. The School of the Cross
VII. First Love
VIII. The Spring Thaw
IX. With Strangers
X. Character and Destiny


_From the Publication of "The Son of a Servant" to "The Inferno"_

A celebrated statesman is said to have described the biography of a
cardinal as being like the Judgment Day. In reading August Strindberg's
autobiographical writings, as, for example, his _Inferno_, and the book
for which this study is a preface, we must remember that he portrays
his own Judgment Day. And as his works have come but lately before the
great British public, it may be well to consider what attitude should
be adopted towards the amazing candour of his self-revelation. In most
provinces of life other than the comprehension of our fellows, the art
of understanding is making great progress. We comprehend new phenomena
without the old strain upon our capacity for readjusting our point of
view. But do we equally well understand our fellow-being whose way of
life is not ours? We are patient towards new phases of philosophy,
new discoveries in science, new sociological facts, observed in other
lands; but in considering an abnormal type of man or woman, hasty
judgment or a too contracted outlook is still liable to cloud the

Now, it is obvious that if we would understand any worker who has
accomplished what his contemporaries could only attempt to do, we
must have a sufficiently wide knowledge of his work. Neither the
inconsequent gossip attaching to such a personality, nor the chance
perusal of a problem-play, affords an adequate basis for arriving at
a true estimate of the man. Few writers demand, to the same degree as
August Strindberg, those graces of judgment, patience, and reverence.
And for this reason first of all: most of us live sheltered lives. They
are few who stand in the heart of the storm made by Europe's progress.
Especially is this true in Southern Europe, where tradition holds its
secular sway, where such a moulding energy as constitutional practice
exerts its influence over social life, where the aims and ends of human
attainment are defined and sanctioned by a consciousness developing
with the advancement of civilisation. There is often engendered under
such conditions a nervous impatience towards those who, judged from
behind the sheltered walls of orthodoxy, are more or less exposed to
the criticism of their fellows. The fault lies in yielding to this
impatience. The proof that August Strindberg was of the few who must
stand in the open, and suffer the full force of all the winds that
blow, cannot now be attempted. Our sole aim must be to enable the
reader of _The Son of a Servant_ to take up a sympathetic standpoint.
This book forms _part_ of the autobiography of a most gifted man,
through whose life the fierce winds of Europe's opinions blew into
various expression.

The second reason for the exercise of impartiality, is that
Strindberg's recent death has led to the circulation through Europe of
certain phrases which are liable to displace the balance of judgment
in reviewing his life and work. There are passages in his writings,
and phases of his autobiography, that raise questions of Abnormal
Psychology. Hence pathological terms are used to represent the whole
man and his work. Again, from the jargon of a prevalent Nietzschianism
a doctrine at once like and unlike the teaching of that solitary
thinker descriptions of the Superman are borrowed, and with these
Strindberg is labelled. Or again, certain incidents in his domestic
affairs are seized upon to prove him a decadent libertine. The facts of
this book, _The Son of a Servant_, are true: Strindberg lived them. His
_Inferno_, in like manner, is a transcript of a period of his life. And
if these books are read as they should be read, they are neither more
nor less than the records of the progress of a most gifted life along
the Dolorous Way.

The present volume is the record of the early years of Strindberg's
life, and the story is incomparably told. For the sympathetic reader it
will represent the history of a temperament to which the world could
not come in easy fashion, and for which circumstances had contrived a
world where it would encounter at each step tremendous difficulties.
We find in Strindberg the consciousness of vast powers thwarted by
neglect, by misunderstanding, and by the shackles of an ignominious
parentage. He sets out on life as a viking, sailing the trackless seas
that beat upon the shores of unknown lands, where he must take the
sword to establish his rights of venture, and write fresh pages in some
Heimskringla of a later age.

A calm reading of the book may induce us to suggest that this is often
the fate of genius. The man of great endowments is made to walk where
hardship lies on every side. And though a recognition of the hardness
of the way is something, it must be borne in mind that while some are
able to pass along it in serenity, others face it in tears, and others
again in terrible revolt. Revolt was the only possible attitude for the
Son of a Servant.

How true this is may be realised by recalling the fact that towards
the end of the same year in which _The Son of a Servant_ appeared,
viz., 1886, our author published the second part of a series of stories
entitled _Marriage_, in which that relationship is subjected to
criticism more intense than is to be found in any of the many volumes
devoted to this subject in a generation eminently given to this form
of criticism. Side by side with this fact should be set the contents
of one such story from his pen. Here he has etched, with acid that
bites deeper than that of the worker in metal, the story of a woman's
pettiness and inhumanity towards the husband who loves her. By his
art her weakness is made to dominate every detail of the domestic
_ménage_, and what was once a woman now appears to be the spirit of
neglect, whose habitation is garnished with dust and dead flowers.
Her great weakness calls to the man's pity, and we are told how, into
this disorder, he brings the joy of Christmastide, and the whispered
words of life, like a wind from some flower-clad hill. The natural
conclusion, as regards both his autobiographical works and his volume
of stories, is this: that Strindberg finds the Ideal to be a scourge,
and not a Pegasus. And this is a distinction that sharply divides man
from man, whether endowed for the attainment of saintship, for the
apprehension of the vision, or with powers that enable him to wander
far over the worlds of thought.

Had Strindberg intended to produce some more finished work to qualify
the opinion concerning his pessimism, he could have done no better
than write the novel that comes next in the order of his works, _Hemso
Folk_, which was given to the world in the year 1887. It is the first
of his novels to draw on the natural beauties of the rocky coast and
many tiny islands which make up the splendour of the Fjord whose
crown is Stockholm, and which, continuing north and south, provide
fascinating retreats, still unspoilt and unexplored by the commercial
agent. It may be noticed here that this northern Land of Faery has
not long since found its way into English literature through a story
by Mr. Algernon Blackwood, in his interesting volume, _John Silence_.
The adequate description of this region was reserved for August
Strindberg, and among his prose writings there are none to compare with
those that have been inspired by the islands and coast he delighted
in. Among them, _Hemso Folk_ ranks first. In this work he shows his
mastery, not of self-portraiture, but of the portraiture of other men,
and his characters are painted with a mastery of subject and material
which in a sister art would cause one to think of Velasquez. Against
a background of sea and sky stand the figures of a schoolmaster and
a priest - the portraits of both depicted with the highest art, - and
throughout the book may be heard the authentic speech of the soul of
Strindberg's North. He may truly be claimed to be most Swedish here;
but he may also with equal truth be claimed to be most universal, since
_Hemso Folk_ is true for all time, and in all places.

In the following year (1888) was published another volume of tales by
Strindberg, entitled _Life on the Skerries_, and again the sea, and
the sun, and the life of men who commune with the great waters are the
sources of his virile inspiration. Other novels of a like kind were
written later, but at this hour of his life he yielded to the command
of the idea - a voice which called him more strongly than did the
magnificence of Nature, whose painter he could be when he had respite
from the whirlwind.

_Tschandala_, his next book, was the fruit of a holiday in the country.
This novel was written to show a man of uncommon powers of mind in the
toils of inferior folk - the proletariat of soul bent on the ruin of
the elect in soul. Poverty keeps him in chains. He is forced to deal
with neighbours of varying degrees of degradation. A landlady deceives
her husband for the sake of a vagrant lover. This person attempts to
subordinate the uncommon man; who, however, discovers that he can be
dominated through his superstitious fears. He is enticed one night
into a field, where the projections from a lantern, imagined as
supernatural beings, so play upon his fears that he dies from fright.
In this book we evidently have the experimental upsurging of his
imagination: supposing himself the victim of a sordid environment,
he can see with unveiled eyes what might happen to him. Realistic in
his apprehension of outward details, he sees the idea in its vaguest
proportions. This creates, this informs his pictures of Nature; this
also makes his heaven and hell. Inasmuch as a similar method is used
by certain modern novelists, the curious phrase "a novel of ideas" has
been coined. As though it were a surprising feature to find an idea
expressed in novels! And not rarely such works are said to be lacking
in warmth, because they are too full of thought.

After _Tschandala_ come two or three novels of distinctly controversial
character - books of especial value in essaying an understanding of
Strindberg's mind. The pressure of ideas from many quarters of Europe
was again upon him, and caused him to undertake long and desperate
pilgrimages. _In the Offing_ and _To Damascus_ are the suggestive
titles of these books. Seeing, however, that a detailed sketch of the
evolution of Strindberg's opinions is not at this moment practicable,
we merely mention these works, and the years 1890 and 1892.

Meanwhile our author has passed through two intervals in his life of a
more peaceful character than was usually his lot. The first of these
was spent among his favourite scenes in the vicinity of the Gulf of
Bothnia, where he lived like a hermit, writing poetry and painting
pictures. He might have become a painter of some note, had it not come
so natural to him to use the pen. At any rate, during the time that he
wielded the brush he put on canvas the scenes which he succeeded in
reproducing so marvellously in his written works. The other period of
respite was during a visit to Ola Hansson, a Swedish writer of rare
distinction, then living near Berlin. The author of _Sensitiva Amorosa_
was the antithesis of Strindberg. A consummate artist, with a wife of
remarkable intellectual power, the two enfolded him in their peace, and
he was able to give full expression to his creative faculty.

Strindberg now enters upon the period which culminates in the writing
of _The Inferno_. From the peace of Ola Hansson's home he set out
on his wedding tour, and during the early part of it came over to
England. In a remarkable communication to a Danish man of letters,
Strindberg answers many questions concerning his personal tastes, among
them several regarding his English predilections. We may imagine them
present to him as he looks upon the sleeping city from London Bridge,
in the greyness of a Sunday morning, after a journey from Gravesend.
His favourite English writer is Dickens, and of his works the most
admired is _Little Dorrit_. A novel written in the period described in
_The Son of a Servant_, and which first brought him fame, was inspired
by the reading of _David Copperfield_! His favourite painter is Turner.
These little sidelights upon the personality of the man are very
interesting, throwing into relief as they do the view of him adopted by
the writer of the foregoing pages. London, however, he disliked, and a
crisis in health compelled him to leave for Paris, from which moment
begins his journey through the "Inferno."

A play of Strindberg's has been performed in Paris - the height of his
ambition. Once attained, it was no longer to be desired; accordingly,
he turned from the theatre to Science. He takes from their hiding-place
some chemical apparatus he had purchased long before. Drawing the
blinds of his room he bums pure sulphur until he believes that he has
discovered in it the presence of carbon. His sentences are written
in terse, swift style. A page or two of the book is turned over, and
we find his pen obeying the impulse of his penetrating sight....
Separation from his wife; the bells of Christmas; his visit to a
hospital, and the people he sees there, begin to occupy him. Gratitude
to the nursing sister, and the reaching forward of his mind into the
realm of the alchemical significance of his chemical studies, arouse
in him a spirit of mystical asceticism. Pages of _The Inferno_ might
be cited to show their resemblance to documents which have come to us
from the Egyptian desert, or from the narrow cell of a recluse. Theirs
is the search for a spiritual union: his is the quest of a negation
of self, that his science might be without fault. A notion of destiny
is grafted upon his mysticism of science. He wants to be led, as did
the ascetic, though for him the goal is lore hidden from mortal eyes.
He now happens upon confirmation of his scientific curiosity, in
the writings of an older chemist. Then he meets with Balzac's novel
_Séraphita_, and a new ecstasy is added to his outreaching towards the
knowledge he aspires to. Vivid temptations assail him; he materialises
as objective personalities the powers that appear to place obstacles
in the way of his researches. Again we observe the same phenomena as
in the soul of the monk, yet always with this difference: Strindberg
is the monk of science. Curious little experiences - that others would
brush into that great dust-bin, Chance - are examined with a rare
simplicity to see if they may hold significance for the order of his
life. These details accumulate as we turn the pages of _The Inferno_,
and force one to the conclusion that they are akin to the material
which we have only lately begun to study as phenomena peculiar to the
psychology of the religious life. Their summary inclusion under the
heading of "Abnormal Psychology" will, however, lead to a shallow
interpretation of Strindberg. The voluntary isolation of himself from
the relations of life and the world plays havoc with his health. Soon
he is established under a doctor's care in a little southern Swedish
town, with its memories of smugglers and pirates; and he immediately
likens the doctor's house to a Buddhist cloister. The combination is
typically Strindbergian! He begins to be haunted with the terrible
suspicion that he is being plotted against. Nature is exacting heavy
dues from his overwrought system. After thirty days' treatment he
leaves the establishment with the reflection that whom the Lord loveth
he chasteneth.

Dante wrote his Divine Comedy; Strindberg his Mortal Comedy. There are
three great stages in each, and the literary vehicle of their perilous
journeyings is aptly chosen. Readers of the wonderful Florentine will
recall the familiar words:

"Surge ai mortali per diverse foci
la lucerna de mondo."[1]

And they have found deeper content in Strindberg's self-discoveries.
The first part of his _Inferno_ tells of his Purgatory; the second
part closes with the poignant question, Whither? If, for a moment,
we step beyond the period of his life with which this study deals,
we shall find him telling of his Paradise in a mystery-play entitled
_Advent_, where he, too, had a starry vision of "un simplice lume,"
a simple flame that ingathers the many and scattered gleams of the
universe's revelation. His guide through Hell is Swedenborg. Once more
the note is that of the anchorite; for at the outset of his acceptance
of Swedenborg's guidance he is tempted to believe that even his guide's
spiritual teaching may weaken his belief in a God who chastens. He
desires to deny himself the gratification of the sight of his little
daughter, because he appears to consider her prattle, that breaks
into the web of his contemplation, to be the instrument of a strange
power. From step to step he goes until his faith is childlike as a
peasant's. How he is hurled again into the depths of his own Hell, the
closing pages of his book will tell us. Whatever views the reader may
hold, it seems impossible that he should see in this Mortal Comedy the
utterances of deranged genius. Rather will his charity of judgment have
led him to a better understanding of one who listened to the winds that
blow through Europe, and was buffeted by their violence.

We may close this brief study by asking the question: What, then,
is Strindberg's legacy for the advancement of Art, as found in this
decade of his life? It will surely be seen that Strindberg's realism
is of a peculiarly personal kind. Whatever his sympathy with Zola
may have been, or Zola's with him, Strindberg has never confounded
journalism with Art. He has also recognised in his novels that there
is a difference between the function of the camera and the eye of the
artist. More than this - and it is important if Strindberg is to be
understood - his realism has always been subservient to the idea. And
it is this power that has essentially rendered Strindberg's realism
peculiarly personal; that is to say, incapable of being copied or
forming a school. It can only be used by such as he who, standing
in the maelstrom of ideas, is fashioned and attuned by the whirling
storms, as they strive for complete expression. Not always, however,
is he subservient to their dominion. Sometimes cast down from the high
places whence the multitudinous voice can be heard, he may say and do
that which raises fierce criticism. A patient study of Strindberg will
lay bare such matters; but their discovery must not blind our eyes
to the truth that these are moments of insensitiveness towards, or
rejection of, the majestic power which is ceaselessly sculpturing our
highest Western civilisation.


[1] "There riseth up to mortals through diverse trials the light of the

The Son of a Servant



In the third story of a large house near the Clara Church in
Stockholm, the son of the shipping agent and the servant-maid awoke
to self-consciousness. The child's first impressions were, as he
remembered afterwards, fear and hunger. He feared the darkness and
blows, he feared to fall, to knock himself against something, or to
go in the streets. He feared the fists of his brothers, the roughness
of the servant-girl, the scolding of his grandmother, the rod of
his mother, and his father's cane. He was afraid of the general's
man-servant, who lived on the ground-floor, with his skull-cap and
large hedge-scissors; he feared the landlord's deputy, when he played
in the courtyard with the dust-bin; he feared the landlord, who was
a magistrate. Above him loomed a hierarchy of authorities wielding
various rights, from the right of seniority of his brothers to the
supreme tribunal of his father. And yet above his father was the
deputy-landlord, who always threatened him with the landlord. This last
was generally invisible, because he lived in the country, and perhaps,
for that reason, was the most feared of all. But again, above all, even
above the man-servant with the skull-cap, was the general, especially
when he sallied forth in uniform wearing his plumed three-cornered hat.
The child did not know what a king looked like, but he knew that the
general went to the King. The servant-maids also used to tell stories
of the King, and showed the child his picture. His mother generally
prayed to God in the evening, but the child could form no distinct idea
of God, except that He must certainly be higher than the King.

This tendency to fear was probably not the child's own peculiarity,
but due to the troubles which his parents had undergone shortly before
his birth. And the troubles had been great. Three children had been
born before their marriage and John soon after it. Probably his birth
had not been desired, as his father had gone bankrupt just before, so
that he came to the light in a now pillaged house, in which was only a
bed, a table, and a couple of chairs. About the same time his father's
brother had died in a state of enmity with him, because his father
would not give up his wife, but, on the contrary, made the tie stronger
by marriage. His father was of a reserved nature, which perhaps
betokened a strong will. He was an aristocrat by birth and education.
There was an old genealogical table which traced his descent to a noble
family of the sixteenth century. His paternal ancestors were pastors
from Zemtland, of Norwegian, possibly Finnish blood. It had become
mixed by emigration. His mother was of German birth, and belonged to a
carpenter's family. His father was a grocer in Stockholm, a captain of
volunteers, a freemason, and adherent of Karl Johann.

John's mother was a poor tailor's daughter, sent into domestic service
by her step-father. She had become a waitress when John's father met
her. She was democratic by instinct, but she looked up to her husband,
because he was of "good family," and she loved him; but whether as
deliverer, as husband, or as family-provider, one does not know, and it
is difficult to decide.

He addressed his man-servant and maid as "thou," and she called him
"sir." In spite of his come-down in the world, he did not join the
party of malcontents, but fortified himself with religious resignation,
saying, "It is God's will," and lived a lonely life at home. But he
still cherished the hope of being able to raise himself again.

He was, however, fundamentally an aristocrat, even in his habits. His
face was of an aristocratic type, beardless, thin-skinned, with hair
like Louis Philippe. He wore glasses, always dressed elegantly, and
liked clean linen. The man-servant who cleaned his boots had to wear
gloves when doing so, because his hands were too dirty to be put into

John's mother remained a democrat at heart. Her dress was always simple
but clean. She wished the children to be clean and tidy, nothing more.
She lived on intimate terms with the servants, and punished a child,
who had been rude to one of them, upon the bare accusation, without
investigation or inquiry. She was always kind to the poor, and however
scanty the fare might be at home, a beggar was never sent empty away.
Her old nurses, four in number, often came to see her, and were
received as old friends. The storm of financial trouble had raged
severely over the whole family, and its scattered members had crept
together like frightened poultry, friends and foes alike, for they felt
that they needed one another for mutual protection. An aunt rented two
rooms in the house. She was the widow of a famous English discoverer
and manufacturer, who had been ruined. She received a pension,
on which she lived with two well-educated daughters. She was an
aristocrat, having formerly possessed a splendid house, and conversed
with celebrities. She loved her brother, though disapproving of his
marriage, and had taken care of his children when the storm broke.

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