David Gedin, ”Miserable Wretches Are We”, new light on Heidenstam’s attack on Fröding in 1896.
In 1896 Gustaf Fröding’s” poem ”En morgondröm” (”A morning dream”) was prosecuted for indecency. Fröding himself, who was popular with the public, was not held responsible for the poem. It was said he was sickly and lacking in judgment. Instead, the newspapers pointed to his close acquaintance, Verner von Heidenstam, as the responsible party. Heidenstam, it seems, panicked. He demanded that Fröding reject the accusation and tried not to take any part in defending the poem.
According to the established view, these events were solely the result of Heidenstam’s thoughtlessness, but newly released letters from Heidenstam to his closest friend, Oscar Lever-tin, sheds new light on the issue.
The letters show Heidenstam demeaning and disparaging Fröding long before any legal action took place. Probably, this was done as a part of Heidenstam’s effort to create a new rôle or position for himself as a writer. In contrast to the socially conscious authors of the 1880’s, Heidenstam established himself as an aristocrat, contemptuous of the bourgeois audience, whose sole artistic responsibility was aesthetic, not ethical.
Society, however, did not yet support that kind of artistic identity. There were only a few scholarships and the critics still regarded themselves more as servants of the public than interpreters and mediators of the authors. Though Heidenstam did more than anybody to change the situation, by the founding of the Swedish Writers’ Union in 1893 and by turning the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet into a forum for modern criticism in 1897, writers like Selma Lagerlöf and Gustaf Fröding could still succeed in combining a large audience with artistic status. Among them, Fröding was the most dangerous competitor to Heidenstam by also being a male poet.
At this particular time, when Heidenstam seemed about to conquer the larger public with his novel about Charles XII, Karolinerna, he was, in effect, directly challenging Fröding’s position. Privately discrediting Fröding among their colleagues meant he could not later officially defend him without losing respect. Also, if his actions were made public, it would be a fatal blow to the elitist position he had created (in contrast to the more savage rôle of the still dominating Strindberg).
At the time of the fast and dramatic development leading up to the trial, Heidenstam was in Norway. Because of the delay in the flow of information, his attempt to control the events turned into a bizarre farce, where his actions only kept making his situation worse, until he declared himself too ill to participate and withdrew into isolation.
During all of this Heidenstam was working on Karolinerna. Interestingly, at this time the novel changes from being a study of the Swedish people during a tragic time of hardship and sacrifices, into a hagiology of the misunderstood hero-king. Though it could be argued that Heidenstam already had begun shifting from what appears to be a genuine feeling for ordinary people towards the abstract notion of the Nation, events during those frantic weeks in 1896 seem to have had a decisive alienating effect on him. After this point popular culture in Heidenstam’s view was equivalent to vulgarity.
Svenska Litteratursällskapet, Uppsala , 2003. 96-133 p.