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Viljo Tarkiainen

Viljam (Viljo) Tarkiainen
Born 18 April, 1879, Juva. Died 20 May, 1951, Helsinki

Master of Arts 1903 (incl. Finnish Language and Literature, Aesthetics and Contemporary Literature), Licentiate of Philosophy 1911 (Comparative Literature) and Doctor of Philosophy 1917 (Comparative Literature), the Imperial Alexander University

Acting Professor of Finnish and Comparative Literature (1916–17 and 1919–24) and Professor of Finnish Literature (1924–46), University of Helsinki
Docent 1913–24, University of Helsinki

Other occupations:
Director and teacher at The Finnish National Theatre (1905–09)
Literary editor, Helsingin Sanomat (1911–15 and 1918–20)
Literary editor Uusi Suometar (1916–17) and Finnish language teacher at large
Board member of The Finnish National Theatre (1919-33)
Chancellor of the Civic College (1947–51)
President of The Union of Finnish Writers (1920–22)
Vice-chairman (1922-34) and Chairman of The Finnish Literature Society (1934-46)
Chairman of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters (1945–46)

Written by Tero Juutilainen
Translated by Johanna Spoof
Revised by John Calton

The Burnt-out Author

At the beginning of his university studies, Viljo Tarkiainen showed an interest in the study of languages. However, he also attended lectures on literature. He visited France in the early part of the twentieth century, an experience which led him to condemn language sciences: “a terribly dull discipline, full of trouble and strife.” Notwithstanding his first academic paper ‘Äänenhistoriallinen tutkimus Juvan murteesta’ ('A historical-phonological study of the Juva dialect'), which dealt unambiguously with language, Tarkiainen began to turn his attention to literary studies. He graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 1903.

Tarkiainen spent the next few years studying in Denmark and writing for various newspapers. The main purpose of his sabbatical was to get acquainted with Danish literary studies and its local academic titans. Even though he was able to immerse himself in the Danish milieu and meet people working in the field, his academic attention began to wander, back to the land of his birth. And it was during his time in Copenhagen that the topic for his doctoral thesis was determined: the great author from Nurmijärvi.

Aleksis Kivi was not particularly popular in academic circles: “According to both Aspelin and other men of his generation, the fault in Kivi's oeuvre lay in the fact that he was too uncivilised and hence unfit to be elevated to the ranks of the world's finest authors.” Only Eliel Aspelin had given academic lectures on Kivi. Among the Finnish people, however, Kivi's works were as popular as ever.

The challenge in conducting any academic study of Aleksis Kivi was to gather the sources. Almost all of Kivi's closest friends and acquaintances were long dead, and there had been no prior effort to archive his achievements. Viljo Tarkiainen was afraid that the source material would disappear if he did not act fast. The eventual body of research material was made up of various kinds of documents, correspondence and interviews with individuals who had known Kivi.

In support of his thesis, Tarkiainen made excursions to Nurmijärvi to get a clearer idea of how the locale would have appeared to Kivi. Basing his approach on the ideas of the German professor Wilhelm Scherer, his research took full account of the author's surroundings. The thesis was not so much a historical overview as an immersive examination of Aleksis Kivi's style of writing and the contingent effects of life in agrarian Finland.

As the research progressed, the analysis of Kivi's life and literary works proved too great an undertaking for a thesis. Tarkiainen thus hived off the section on Seitsemän veljestä ('Seven Brothers') as a separate work. The thesis was published in 1910. The incumbent professor of comparative literature, Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä, was selected to formally oppose the thesis. Even though respondent and opponent disagreed on some of the viewpoints and conclusions concerning Kivi, the opponent was impressed by the research, judging it to have more than met the required academic standard.

Aleksis Kivi: elämä ja teokset (‘The life and works of 'Aleksis Kivi’), Tarkiainen's magnum opus, was completed in 1914. It was based on the thesis, and although Tarkiainen had modified his views and refined his argument, the actual interpretations remained unaltered. The book “laid the foundations for the idea of Kivi, the suffering poetic genius, who had burned himself out for the sake of his art,” a reputation which has lived on until to the present day. Tarkiainen revised the biography with each new edition of the works.

The years following the publication of the thesis were full of work for Tarkiainen, as a university docent, acting professor, and a lecturer at the Summer University. At best, his lectures at the Summer University drew audiences of four hundred or so. In the late 1910s, with a professorial vacancy in mind, Tarkiainen wrote a book about the famous Spanish Golden Age author, Miguel de Cervantes, who had also served as a role model for Aleksis Kivi. And in 1924, after a tightly contested vote, Tarkiainen secured the chair.

Viljo Tarkianen gained a reputation as an active student advisor. In addition to his professorial post, he served as the vice-chairman and chairman of The Finnish Literature Society for over two decades.


  • Kari Tarkiainen, Viljo Tarkiainen. Suomalainen humanisti ('Viljo Tarkiainen. A Finnish Humanist'). Mäntän kirjapaino Oy: Mänttä, 1987 (In Finnish)
  • Kari Tarkiainen, ”Tarkiainen, Viljo”. Finnish National Bibliography online. Accessed 1.12.2014 (In Finnish)
  • Wikipedia, ”Viljo Tarkiainen”. Wikipedia. Accessed 1.12.2014. In Finnish.
Photo: Museovirasto.​


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