Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847-1885)

Novelist and poet, science writer, studied botany 1868-73.

J.P. Jacobsen was the most important populariser of Darwinism in Denmark in the nineteenth century. He translated the Origin of Species and Descent of Man and wrote several articles on Darwinism in the first half of the 1870s. His translation of the Origin of Species was based on the fifth edition (1869), and it was sent out as nine booklets in 1,500 copies from November 1871 to November 1872. The Descent of Man was published in 13 parts from October 1974 to November 1875. This time circulation was scaled down to 1,250 copies.

While translating Darwin, Jacobsen was engaged in both scientific and literary work. He wrote articles on Darwinism for the radical journal Nyt Dansk Maanedsskrift [New Danish Monthly] which sparked off polemics with the anti-Darwinian bishop D.G. Monrad, and worked on a dissertation on freshwater algae, which resulted in the prestigious University of Copenhagen Gold Medal in 1873. Meanwhile he was writing the novel Marie Grubbe – A Lady of the Seventeenth Century. From 1872 Jacobsen had been on friendly terms with the young journalist and freethinker Edvard Brandes, who was overwhelmed by what he regarded as Jacobsen’s exceptional poetical talent. The influential Edvard Brandes made sure that Jacobsen’s literary works were well received in the press and he played an important role in convincing Jacobsen that he should devote his life to poetry and prose instead of botanical work.

Jacobsen became part of the circle of freethinkers which developed around Edvard’s brother, the literary critic Georg Brandes, who embraced Jacobsen’s work on Darwinism and applied it in his liberal struggle against the Church and the conservative order. The polemical and anticlerical potential of Darwin’s work was thus exploited by Brandes and supported by Jacobsen in his translations and popular articles on Darwinism.

The translation work was by no means an easy task for Jacobsen. In June 1871 the Gyldendal editor Frederik Hegel accepted Jacobsen’s offer of translating the Origin of Species, but the translation was only completed 15 months later. Even worse with Descent of Man on which Jacobsen spent three years. There were, however, good reasons for this. From 1873, Jacobsen was severely debilitated by tuberculosis, which forced him to leave Copenhagen and live with his family in his native town of Thisted in Western Jutland, and moreover he spent much time and energy on his work on Marie Grubbe while translating Descent of Man. Hegel had to press Jacobsen for instalments, which were nonetheless delayed several times.  In June 1873 Jacobsen revealed to Edvard Brandes that he was “almost getting sick of translating Darwin”, and after submitting the last chapters of Descent of Man in the autumn of 1875, Jacobsen abandoned science writing and translating for good.

In his translations Jacobsen drew on the writings of Ernst Haeckel and his monistic interpretation of Darwinism. Notably, the original nine instalments containing the translation of the Origin of Species was entitled Naturlivets Grundlove. Et Forsøg på at hævde Enheden i den organiske Verden [The Basic Laws of Nature: An Attempt to Assert the Unity of the Organic World], while it was only the complete edition that had a literal translation. The title of the instalments emphasised the wider monistic aspects of the theory of evolution, and thereby connected it to Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschiche [Natural History of Creation] which was consulted by Jacobsen during his translation work and translated into Danish in 1877.

After 1875 Jacobsen lived as a full-time novelist, disturbed only by periods of bad health due to tuberculosis which finally ended his life in 1886. The literary critics Georg Brandes and Otto Borchsenius later claimed that Jacobsen’s articles in early 1870s were the first popular introduction to Darwin in Denmark and even in Scandinavia. The historian Johannes Steenstrup refuted this claim in 1883 and showed that Darwin and his theory were debated in the popular press of the 1860s.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

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