Voltairine de Cleyre, “Kristofer Hansteen” (1906)

“OF the earth, unearthly—”

The sentence remained unfinished as I had written it two years and a half ago when Disease laid its hand on me, and all my MSS. ended in a dash. It was a description of Kristofer Hansteen, an explanation of his work in Norway. And now that I am ready to pick up the thread of life again, I read that he is dead—of the earth no more, he who hardly ever belonged to it. At this moment the most insistent memory I have of that delicate, half-aërial personality are the words: “When the doctors told me that I might perhaps not live longer than spring, I thought: ‘If I die, what will become of Anarchism in Norway?'” He had no other idea of his meaning in life than this.

Somewhere fluctuant in my memory runs broken music—you have heard it?—”an ineffectual angel, beating his luminous wings within the void,”—something like that,—words descriptive of Shelley—they haunt me whenever I would recall Kristofer Hansteen. Perhaps to those who had known him in his youth, before his body was consumed like a half-spent taper, he might have seemed less spirit-like; but when I met him, three years ago this coming August, his eyes were already burning with ethereal fires, the pallor of waste was on the high, fine[53] forehead, the cough racked him constantly, and there was upon the whole being the unnameable evanescence of the autumn leaf; only—his autumn came in summer.

The utter incapacity of the man before the common, practical requirements of life would have been irritating to ordinary individuals. The getting of a meal or the clothing of the body with reference to the weather, were things that he thought of vaguely, uncomfortably, only with forced attention. What he saw clearly, entranced by the vision, was the future—the free future. He had been touched by the wan wizard of Olive Schreiner’s Dream of Wild Bees, and “the ideal was real to him.” The things about him, other people’s realities, were shadows—oppressive shadows, indeed, but they did not concern him deeply. It was the great currents of life he saw as real things, and among all the confusion of world-movements he could trace the shining stream that ran towards liberty; and with his hectic face and burning eyes he followed it, torn by the cough and parched by the fever.

The Hansteens are a well-known family in Norway, clever and often eccentric, Kristofer’s aunt, Aosta Hansteen, at the time of my visit an old lady over eighty, having fought many a battle for the equality of woman both in Norway and America. Artist, linguist, and literary woman of marked ability, but, after the manner of her cotemporaries, rather outlandish and even outrageous in her attacks on masculine prerogative, she is a target for satirists and wits, few of whom, however, approach her virility of intellect. Her father, Kristofer’s grandfather, was an astronomer and mathematician. In his youth Kristofer had gone afoot through the “dals” of Norway, and when he took me through the art galleries of Kristiania he was a most interesting guide, through his actual acquaintance with the scenes and the characters of the dalesmen depicted. He knew the lights upon the snow and rocks, just what time of the year shone on the leaves, where the wood-paths wound, the dim glories of the mist upon the fjords, the mountain stairways in their craggy walls, and the veiled colors of the summer midnight. And he knew the development of Norwegian art life and literary life, as one who wanders always in those paths, mysteriously lit.

Our hours of fraternization were few but memorable. He was a frequent visitor at the house of Olav Kringen, the editor of the daily Social Democrat, a big, kindly Norseman, who had remembered me from America, and who had defended me in his paper against the ridiculous charge in the ordinary press that I had come there to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm. Through the efforts of Hansteen and the kindliness and largemindedness of Kringen and his Socialistic comrades, I spoke before the Socialistic League of Youth in their hall in Kristiania. The hall was crowded, over eight hundred being present, and there was some little money in excess of expenses, which was given to me. I shared it with Hansteen, and he looked up with a bright flash in his dark eyes: “Now,” said he, “‘Til Frihet’ will come out one month sooner.” “Til Frihet” (Towards Freedom) was his paper; and would you know how it came out? He set it up in his free moments, he did the mechanical work; and then, being too poor to pay for its delivery through the post, except the few copies that were sent abroad, he took it from house to house himself, over the hills of Kristiania!—he, a consumptive, the cough rending him!

There was a driving rain the night I left the city; he wore no rubbers or gum-coat. I was in hopes that he might think the propaganda deserved that its one active worker should get a pair of rubbers, since he must carry papers through the rain. I reminded him that he should keep his feet dry; he only glanced at them as if they were no concern of his, and—”‘Til Frihet’ will come out one month sooner.”

It was in “Til Frihet” that he had been guilty of high treason. It happened once that King Oscar, in temporary retirement from public king-business, had left over to the Crown Prince the execution of certain matters, which according to the “Ground Law” of Norway could not be so left; whereupon Comrade Hansteen printed an editorial saying, “Oscar has broken the ground-law, and there is no more a King in Norway.” For this he was charged with high treason, and to escape imprisonment he went to England, where he remained about a year among the London comrades. On his return, there was some threat of carrying out the prosecution, but, probably to avoid wider publication of the king’s “treason,” the matter[55] was dropped. Previous to that Comrade Hansteen had had experience of prison life. In a May-day procession, ostensibly to include all labor reform or revolutionary parties, he, declaring that Anarchists should be given place too, marched, carrying a red flag. The chief of police directed a subordinate to take the flag away from him. Easily enough done, but not, as an evidence of unwilling submission, before he had struck the official in the face with his hand. That little hand, weak and delicate as a woman’s! An ordinary man would have pushed it aside like a feather and thought no more of it; but the official paid tribute to the big will behind the puny flesh by sentencing him to seven months in prison.

My ignorance of Norwegian prevents my giving any adequate idea of his work. I know he was the author of a little pamphlet, “Det frie samfund” (Free Society), and that he had translated and published one of Krapotkin’s works (whether “The State” or “The Conquest of Bread,” I do not now remember), which he had issued in a series of instalments, intended ultimately to be bound together. As I recall the deep earnestness of his face in speaking of the difficulties he had had in getting it out, and the unsolved difficulties still facing its completion, I find myself wanting to pray that he saw that precious labor finished. It was so much to him. And I prophecy that the time will come when young Norwegians will treasure up those sacrificial fragments as dearer than any richer and fuller literature. They are the heart’s blood of a dying man—the harbinger of the anarchistic movement in Norway.

I cannot say good-bye to him forever without a word concerning his personal existence, as incomprehensible to the practical as his social dreams perhaps. He had strong love of home and children; and once he said, the tone touched with melancholy: “It used to pain me to think that I should die and have no son; but now I am contented that I have no son.” One knew it was the wrenching cough that made him “contented.” A practical man would have rejoiced to be guiltless of transmitting the inheritance, but one could see the dreamer grieved. His eyes would grow humid looking at his little daughters; and indeed they were bright, beautiful children, though not like him. In his early wanderings he had met and[56] loved a simple peasant woman, unlettered, but with sound and serviceable common sense, and with the beauty of perfect honesty shining in her big Norse-blue eyes. It was then and it is now a wonder to me how in that mystical brain of his, replete with abstractions, generalizations, idealizations, he placed his love for wife and children; strong and tender as it was, one could appreciate at once that he had no sense of the burden of practical life which his wife seemed to have taken up as naturally hers. The whole world of the imagination wherein he so constantly moved seemed entirely without her ken, yet this did not seem to trouble either. Nor did the fact that his unworldliness doubled her portion of responsibility seem to cause him to reflect that she was kept too busy, like Martha of old, to “choose that good part” which he had chosen. Thinking of it now, still with some sense of puzzlement, I believe his love for human creatures, and especially within the family relation, were of that deep, still, yearning kind we feel towards the woods and hills of home; the silent, unobtrusive presence fills us with rest and certainty, and we are all unease when we miss it; yet we take it for granted, and seldom dwell upon it in our active thoughts, or realize the part it plays in us; it belongs to the dark wells of being.

Dear, falling star of the northland,—so you have gone out, and—it was not yet morning.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “Kristofer Hansteen,” Mother Earth 1 no. 3 (May 1906): 52.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2301 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.