SKS in a Nutshell

SKS:n perustava kokous 16.2.1831
Founded in 1831, The Finnish Literature Society, a learned and oral history organization, has engaged in a nation-builiding project over the years to enrich Finnish self-understanding, promote Finnish literature by making it better known both in Finland and abroad, and publish a significant portion of Finland’s belles lettres, information and scholarly literature.

SKS – a Kronohagen Club

A group of young university men met at the home of Carl Niklas Keckman, a lecturer in the Finnish language at the University of Helsinki. Elias Lönnrot wrote in the minutes of the meeting:

"And while they were there they began to talk of how the Finnish language could be revived by means of the book. And in the end it turned out that it was easier for the many to work together than the one, and the result of it was the foundation of a Society.”

A week later at the real founding meeting, the Society rethought the phrase “literary means” and invented the term kirjallisuus (“literature”), and thus the society was given the name of Finnish Literature Society.

The first decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of national cultures throughout Europe. The Finnish national awakening was also supported by the development of power politics in the region. In 1809 Finland was annexed to the Russian Empire, which had plans that were in harmony with the country’s mental distancing from Sweden. This provided an opportunity to raise the cultural level of the Finnish-speaking majority.

The Finnish Literature Society was founded in 1831 by men who were active in the circles of Helsinki University, and who were interested in the Finnish language, believing that it had a future in literary cultivation. They had received their education and the ideological impetus for the project at  Turku Academy, which at the end of the previous century had been dominated by the historian and folklore scholar H.G. Porthan. Their inspiration also came from the literary societies that began to be founded  in European university cities at around the same time.

In the Society's first rules it was stressed that "language is the foundation of nationality". The Society was not merely an academic debating club, but it was also a centre for the growth of a national spirit, it gathered among its members not only officials and university students but also educated peasants, and from the year 1846 also women.

The most far-reaching projects of the early years included the collection and publication of folk poetry. The Society supported  the folklore collection journeys of its first secretary, Elias Lönnrot, in Eastern Finland and Karelia, and it published the works that were based on the results of those travels: the Kalevala (1835, 1849) and the Kanteletar (1840).

Publishing folk poetry made it possible to make the small Finnish literature grow and at the same time enrich Finnish with living expressions of the language spoken by the people. The Society began to publish both theoretical works and belles lettres in Finnish: histories, language primers, dictionaries, popular works including works of natural science and law, and translations of world literary classics. Literary competitions were held in a search for new writers of narrative and drama. The first Finnish novel, Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers, was published by the Society in 1870.

Thus as a result of the work of SKS, the traditional creation, recording and transmission of knowledge and culture based on oral history, spoken and heard, turned into literature.  The change led to a growth in the literacy of the whole of society which affected not only the transmission and recording of knowledge, but also its production and conceptualisation of reality.

It was within the circle of SKS that all the important learned societies in the humanistic disciplines came into being, as well as many institutions. It contributed to the creation of the National Theatre, the birth of Finnish business life and capital as well as party politics. Although in 1890 SKS settled into its handsome quarters in the capital and was directed by Helsinki’s aristocratic gentlemen, it inadvertently became the axle passing through Finnish society and culture, at the other end of which were the local folklore artists.

Tuomas M. S. Lehtonen