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.’ ”
Read some of Nansen’s letters to Brenda Ueland …