Notwithstanding the fact that individual Swedish authors wrote essays during the 18th century, there was no organized effort then to further the genre in Sweden. To the brief list of 18th-century Swedish essays belongs Count Johan Thuresson Oxenstierna (1666-1733), whose Recueil de pensies du Comte J. O. sur divers sujets (1720-21; Collection of thoughts of Count Johan Oxenstierna on diverse subjects) attracted international attention. Oxenstierna has been referred to as “the Montaigne of the North”; the allusion is to the authors’ similar choice of topics, their use of quotations, and the general disposition of their works. Pensées was printed 18 times in French, but it was not translated into Swedish until 1767.
Swedish-language epistles can first be identified with En gammal mans bref till en ung printz (1756; An old man’s letter to a young prince) by Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770).
The Swedish-language tradition continued, mostly in the form of Spectator literature. Even before Olof von Dalin’s Then Swänska Argus, Sweden could boast of Carl (1703-61) and Edvard (1704-67) Carleson’s Sedolärande Mercurius (1730-31; Didactic Mercury).
In both of these publications, the essays were usually character portrayals. Following the cessation of Then Swänska Argus, a number of Swedish moral weeklies appeared. Parallel with the moral weeklies emerged essays in the form of literary criticism. Den Swänska Mercurius (1755-61, 1763-65; The Swedish mercury) of Carl Christoffer Gjörwell (1731-1811) can be described as the beginning of Swedish literary criticism published on a daily basis and in brief essays.
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The early 19th century is represented by P. D. A. Atterbom (1790-1855), Johan Erik Rydkvist (1800-77), and Louis Gerhard de Geer (1818-96).
Rydkvist’s journal Heimdall (1828-32) was English- and French-inspired at a time when the Swedish cultural climate was dominated by Germany. Associated with the familiar essay , and an admirer of Francis Bacon , de Geer produced pieces such as “Om clans” (On dance) and “Om konversation” (On conversation).
During the so-called “breakthrough” of modern literature in the 1870s and 1880s, increasing influence from France was evident. Sainte-Beuve and Paul Bourget inspired Swedish literary essayists; Atterbom’s Litterära karakteristiker I-II(1870; Literary characteristics) was largely influenced by Sainte-Beuve. Both writers tended to create psychological portraits, using anecdotes and, at times, fictional enhancements of authors’ lives. In response to Atterbom, the number of literary, biographical, and historical essays increased in Sweden during the 1890s. The development of the Swedish essay during the latter half of the 19th century took its cues from SainteBeuve, as well as Taine and Brandes. Other noted essayists of this period are Gustav af Geijerstam (1858-1909) ( Ur samtiden [ 1883; From our times]) and Ola Hansson (1860-1925) ( Literära silhouetter [ 1885; Literary silhouettes]).
Both works are compendia of literary portraits. Hansson, in particular, concentrated on the development of the critical-biographical essay as a literary form. Metaphor and lyric quality are essential elements in his writing. Sweden’s general awareness of the essay as a genre can be accredited to Hansson’s essays.
The dominant Swedish essayist during the period between 1890 and 1906 was Oscar Levertin (1862-1906), whose principal essay collection, Diktare och drömmare (1898; Poets and dreamers), reveals his distrust of contemporary movements. While some of his essays approach prose fiction, they retain personal elements which are identified with the essay.
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Levertin’s successor was Frederik Böök (1883-1961).
Although he attracted considerable attention for his affinity with Nazism, his essays nevertheless inspired aspiring essayists, and by doing so pointed to the role of the genre in shaping political opinion. As an essayist, Böök can be characterized as a critic and moralist who was dedicated to Germany and to nationalism. His major work, Essayer och kritiker (1913-23; Essays and criticism), is a multi-volume collection of works often on literary topics and literary figures.
Most contemporary Swedish essayists evince a close familiarity with modern journalism and prose fiction. Characteristically, Levertin’s essays demonstrate an affinity with descriptive metaphor and hypotactic associations. Analogies often reveal a relationship to art. All of this contributes to essays in which subjectivity replaces fact. Even an essayist as ideologically attuned as Böök revealed a sensitivity to symbolism.
Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954) is recognized as the most widely read Swedish essayist. His style is largely associative, but also archaic and imitative. He is a master of the informal essay, holding his own with French and English essayists. Stylistically, Bengtsson is an anglophile, writing in the tradition of Charles Lamb , Thomas Carlyle , and Thomas Babington Macaulay . Bengtsson succeeds in mastering parallelism through the use of comic and musical elements. Analogies, anecdotes, and quotations create an ironic but also sympathetic pastiche.
During the second period in the development of the Swedish essay (1907-19), the essay emerged as a new form of expression, and developed dramatically. This growth can in part be attributed to a change in the structure of the reading public. Collections of literature and theater criticism increased. Some essayists and critics in Sweden felt that the term essay should be reserved for the literary essay. Even those who accepted the term “essay” recognized two forms: the aesthetic on the one hand, and the nationalistic on the other.
In Sweden, the term “essay” came to be used as a subtitle for literary, historical, and philosophical essays . “Essay” was accepted, for example, by Ola Hansson when he changed the name of his “silhouettes” to “essays,” and by Ellen Key (1849-1924) when she described her pieces in Människor (1899; Man) as “essayer.” During the decade between 1920 and 1930, however, consciousness of the essay in Sweden decreased, for various political and economic reasons. At the same time, however, new forms of the essay such as the travel essay, descriptions of nature, and the historical essay gained popularity.
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Over time, the essay has taken on many styles in Sweden. Inspired by Rousseau , Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866) produced lengthy essays on national character. August Strindberg (1849-1912) wrote essays on cultural and social problems. Vilhelm Ekelund (1880-1949) gave expression to his search for truth and beauty in a long series of aphoristic essays. The 1930s saw a rash of critical essays in short-lived periodical publications such as Spektrum, the Fönstret (Window), and Fronten.
The essay flourished among 19th-and 20th-century Swedish speakers in Finland. In its origins, the Finland-Swedish essay can be traced to Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77), who as an essayist wrote principally about Finland’s political and social conflicts and the problems of literary criticism, and to Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-81), who despite his Finnish sympathies wrote in Swedish against Sweden.
A number of Swedish essays in Finland can be described as discourses on aesthetics, as self-portrayals, and as self-analyses. Literary journals have played an important role in the reception of the essay, as literary criticism was thought to be edifying. Viktor Rydberg (1828-95) was known for what is called the extended controversial essay or polemic. Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961) mastered the “conversational essay.” The critical essay is associated with Rabbe Enckell (1903-74).
In general, however, the Swedish essay in Finland has remained local and historical, as it reflects literary history and national concerns.