A Hero’s Heart
Love letters reveal the inner spirit of Norway’s greatest humanitarian
Photo montage by Christine Sunde
The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to some truly inspiring heroes: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela, to name a few. To know not just the crafted public face of these remarkable people but also to peer into their innermost souls would be priceless. That is what Eric Utne has done by publishing the love letters to his stepgrandmother Brenda Ueland from Norway’s great explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, who was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize and whose bold work with the League of Nations and the Red Cross repatriated countless prisoners of war and saved the lives of millions of international refugees.
The Norwegian statesman met Ueland, author of the best-selling If You Want to Write, only in one flaming-hot weekend, when he was 67 and she was 37. The two fell immediately in love and wrote letters across the ocean for a year until his death. The charismatic Ueland once told Utne that she had “three husbands and a hundred lovers”—but Nansen earned a special place. “A letter from [Nansen] was the light of my days, and I have never in my life felt just this way at any time. . . . And all the time, you understand, it was a sort of dream love affair, a literary one.”
Nansen’s letters to his extramarital lover show a powerful contrast to his austere public persona. They are vulnerable, sensual, and startlingly candid about his emotional isolation, his disgust with life and politics, and his uncertainty and humility. He bares his inner self to Ueland, who years later wrote in an essay: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing. . . . My attitude is: ‘Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. . . .Then he will be wonderfully alive.’ ” —The Editors
April 25th, 1929
You cannot possibly understand what your letter means to me, it is as if a flood of strength suffuses my whole body and soul. How very sweet of you to write so soon. I needed it badly. And what a letter! Just you as I was sure you must be. Free and upright, who scorns to pose as another than what you are. With the full confidence and real love, not wishing to hide anything, knowing that I will understand everything, and will love you if possible still more. What an irresistible attraction, what a warm feeling of tenderness, also because you wish me to know you exactly as you are. And I feel the same desire; there is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into—not because I think that there may not be much which is ungraceful or offensive. I have a feeling that I could talk to you about everything, as I have never had before, and you would always understand.
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