The Swedish-Jewish literary scene in the period around 1900

svju_litt_12010.10.05 – 2011.03.13

The city of Stockholm
The period around 1900 was truly a time of change – both in literature and ideas as well as in the city and the world at large.

In 1897 a universal exhibition was held in Stockholm, located in the royal park of Djurgården. More and more people moved to the capital. The population doubled during the decades round the turn of the century. Stockholm at the time was a rapidly growing city but nothing like what we know today. Stockholm was then a fairly homogeneous city in that the vast majority of the population were ethnic Swedes.

In Stockholm at this time there were some forty bookshops and many of the bookshops were also publishers. Many of these publishers were Jewish. The fact that reading is an important aspect of Jewish culture was, naturally, a contributory factor as was the Jewish intellectual tradition in general. Also, publishing was a relatively recent industry in Sweden and had yet to establish a fixed tradition. It was relatively easy for Jewish publishers to start a business.

An inventory of Stockholm Jews involved in the book trade tends to be something of a catalogue aria: Aron Samson from Gothenburg opened a bookshop, Samson & Wallin, on Drottninggatan in 1851 together with Erik Wallin.

The Bonniers
Many of the names are well-known ones. But none of the families has stuck to publishing over such a long period as the Bonniers. Their early history is well known. Gerhard Bonnier opened a bookshop with a publishing house in 1804 in Copenhagen. His sons soon moved over the water to Sweden. The family’s celebrity really began in 1839 when the oldest brother, Adolf Bonnier, moved his bookshop to the bazaar on Norrbro in Stockholm. This was where the fashionable citizenry liked to parade themselves. Adolf Bonnier became a successful publisher, responsible for many of the bestsellers of the day including Fredrika Bremer. His brother, Albert, had hardly reached his majority when he started a publishing business.

The publishing firm of Albert Bonniers grew more rapidly than did Stockholm. Some people have explained the success of the Bonnier family by the large number of children they had and the fact that they managed to keep down the cost of publishing books.

Albert Bonnier led the company until his death in the summer of 1900. His son, Karl Otto, was his assistant and, on this thirtieth birthday in 1886, was made a partner in the firm. His father retained ultimate responsibility for what was published but it was the thanks to the son that so many of the new authors made Bonniers their publishers.

Karl Otto Bonnier
Karl Otto Bonnier was a monumental figure. The publishing firm’s successful fictional list was very much the work of Karl Otto Bonnier. He had an eye for what was new, was genuinely interested in literature and he saw himself as a friend of his authors – all of which are valuable qualities for a publisher. He it was who strengthened the firm’s ties with Strindberg – Sweden’s literary giant.

Anti-Semitism at this time was a common practice and was often virulent with the Bonnier family frequently being used to symbolize Judaism in political cartoons of the time.

The Levertin family
Wilhelm Levertin and his family were Sephardic Jews who came to Sweden from the Dutch town of Leeuwarden at the end of the 18th century. Wilhelm married Sophie who was one of the beautiful Davidson girls from Norrköping. They had three children: Oscar, Lars and Anna. Two of them became authors. This was a secularized family in which it was the grandmother who sought to communicate the Jewish heritage. Perhaps one can regard the Levertin family as a sort of microcosm of the Stockholm Jewish culture’s macrocosm.

Oscar Levertin
The young Oscar Levertin (1862-1906) was a frail child and following a lung haemorrhage he was sent to the Continent at the age of nineteen prior to entering the university in Uppsala. He studied “aesthetics”, a subject that was later to be divided into literature and art history. Oscar Levertin became a literary scholar of an impressionist hue – he felt his way into literature but this did not mean that he avoided background study in any sense. On the contrary, his writings show that he was a very well-read man.

Levertin often felt like an outsider. He was very dark and extremely good-looking. In the town of Uppsala he was all the more unusual. Oscar Levertin combined his interest in literary history with his own literary production.

A number of authors making their débuts with other publishers joined Bonniers at a later stage.

Of all the firm’s authors, it was Levertin whom Karl Otto Bonnier and his wife Lisen were most fond of and, according to Tor Bonnier, the son, the only author whom the publishing couple mixed with on an equal footing. The men became friends and Mrs Bonnier’s infatuation in the beautiful poet was, at times, so obvious that her husband became jealous. Albert Bonnier, on the other hand, never liked him.

The best-known poem in Levertin’s first collection is “På judiska kyrkogården i Prag” (In the Jewish burial ground in Prague). The poem contains the following much-quoted lines:

Lägg icke blommor, band och fransar
på vården öfver deras ben,
ej lifvet gaf dem gröna kransar
men sten. På vårdarne lägg sten!

(Lay not blossoms, ribbons, wreaths
Upon the tomb that holds their bones,
No favours on them life bequeathed
But stones. Upon their tombs lay stones)

The poem is found in a section entitled “Jewish motifs”. In his longing for exoticism Levertin did not have to go as far as other people; he found much in his own background. And it was here that he created his own literary alienation. He was not just an artist but was also a Jew.

Oscar Levertin rapidly established himself as a triune master: He was a literary scholar, he was a critic, and he was an author of imaginative literature. Thanks to a donation from Karl Otto and Lisen Bonnier he was able to be installed as Professor of Literature at Stockholm’s University College – the same chair that both Warburg and Lamm were to occupy.

Some years into the 20th century Levertin had become famous at rock-star level. Readers adored him – not just his books but also his person. On 21st September 1906 Levertin contracted tonsillitis and, the same night he happened to drink a whole glass of gargle-water. This was supposed to be innocuous but Levertin died. He may possibly have been allergic to the substance. He was only forty-four years old at the time and so was mourned as a tragically early death.

The reaction of the public was more profound than one would expect on the death of an author today. Everyone wept. People remembered exactly where they had been when they learnt of his death. “Can it be possible?” the otherwise so cynical David Sprengel wrote to Bonniers. “I am totally paralyzed. I should rather be gone myself.

Other Jewish authors and literary scholars/historians
There were not many prominent Jewish authors in Sweden at this time. Sophie Elkan who lived in Gothenburg was an exception. But several of the major figures in Swedish literary history were of Jewish extraction. Greatest of them all was the noted polymath Henrik Schück, Dozent in Uppsala. He was born in 1855 and was, thus, seven years older than Levertin but he lived on to the mature age of ninety-two. His productivity and his knowledge were bottomless. It was jokingly claimed that he wrote on every aspect of Swedish literature, preferably in five or seven volumes. He wrote his Illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria (Illustrated History of Swedish Literature)(1st edition 1895-97) together with Karl Warburg – Jew, Professor of Literature and Liberal politician – and the book was published by Gebers.

Martin Lamm (1880-1950) belonged to a younger generation of Jewish literary historians. Like Levertin, his principal interest was 18th century literature. He became Professor at Stockholm’s University College. Both Schück and Lamm were members of the Swedish Academy for many years.

Times had changed in the 1930s
During the 1930s Josef Riwkin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, made great efforts to spread modernist literature. But times had changed and the profession of publishing had changed too since the turn of the century, despite the fact that Karl Otto Bonnier was still active as a publisher and Henrik Schück was still a member of the Swedish Academy.

The above text is a short version of the essay “The Swedish-Jewish literary scene in the period around 1900”, written by Carina Burman, Author and Literary Scholar, Senior Lecturer at Uppsala University. The exhibition texts written by Carina Burman are only printed in Swedish. The exhibition “The Swedish-Jewish literary scene is a parallel exhibition to “Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – masters of the borderlands”.


Walking through the exhibition


Karl Otto and Lisen Bonnier with their children



Brunkebergstorg in centrl Stockholm at the turn of the century



Oscar Levertin



Oscar Levertin and wife



Brunkebergstorg in centrl Stockholm at the turn of the century


Bilder: © Bonniers arkiv/© Stockholms Stadsmuseum

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