After years at sea, Anders Johan Stenvall, grandfather of the writer Aleksis Kivi, returned in 1811 to his birthplace Nurmijärvi, where his family had fled from war. He worked first as a crofter on land belonging to Pekkola Farm and then as a landless agricultural labourer in the district. Kivi's father, Eerik (Eric) Johan Stenvall (who was registered as Anders Johan's son but was also claimed to be the illegitimate son of the nobleman and law counsellor Carl Henrik Adlercreutz) is recorded as being a Swedish-speaker in the Nurmijärvi confirmation register. Eerik Stenvall, a respected local tailor, moved in 1825 to Palojoki, where his jobs included acting as a scribe for the villagers. In 1824 he had married Annastiina Hamberg from Nahkela, Tuusula, some five kilometres from Palojoki. Her father Antti Hamberg (originally named Hannula after the family farm) lived there, working as a smith, with his brother, who ran the farm. The Hamberg brothers' father was a master builder who had, amongst other things, been in charge of repairs to the Tuusula church. In Palojoki a mansard-roofed house larger than the normal cottage was built for the young couple. They had four sons - Johannes, or Juhani (b. 1825), Emanuel, or Manu (1828), Albert, or Alpertti (1831), and Alexis, later Aleksis Kivi (1834), as well as a daughter, Agnes (1837), who died at the age of fourteen.
Nurmijärvi was hardly any different from other rural parishes of the time - though the 'Nurmijärvi robbers' were a well-known nuisance throughout the province; Eerik Stenvall's uncle Matti was a member of the gang. The careers of his seafaring grandfather and robber great-uncle provided subjects and colour for Kivi's literary imagination. Kivi's father seems to have been something of a model for the author's craftsman characters; and it was presumably from his father that Kivi acquired both his tendency towards occasional drinking bouts and his sense of the comical. For her part, Annastiina Hamberg - an industrious person, the mother of a flock of children and a busy caterer to village banquets - is the prototype of many of Kivi's bustling female characters. It was also through his mother that early in his childhood Kivi came into contact with local Pietists, whose leader was the minister Juhana Bergh. At the age of six, Kivi was given his first religious instruction - i.e. reading and writing - by the able local schoolmaster Malakias Costiander, a man of literary talent who furnished the model for the parish clerk in Seitsemän veljestä (English title: Seven Brothers).
An entire mythology has been constructed concerning Kivi's sunny childhood, with Aleksis as the leader of the village children's games: Mount Taaboor at Palojoki, the nearby woods with their rocky outcrops, the glades and heaths and the verdant banks of the River Vantaa with their swimming places are Kivi's paradise; the surroundings of Palojoki are reflected in the future author's works as a kind of 'basic landscape'.
Сhildhood was cut short in 1846 when Kivi left for school in Helsinki. Biographers have overdramatised this phase: under the conditions of the time, setting out on the path of learning was always a depressing experience; but it was surely no more unsettling for Aleksis than for other Finnish boys coming from the country to the city. Kivi's first school was run by a former seaman named Granberg, and the main aim was to inculcate a reasonable amount of Swedish; in the course of time Kivi did indeed acquire a complete mastery of Swedish - written as well as spoken. Lodgings were found for him at the home of the prison warder Christian Winblad.
In 1847 (at the very time when the young university generation was experiencing a Snellman-inspired awakening; when, for example, the student August Ahlqvist and others were following in Lönnrot's footsteps on poem-collecting trips, and when the Finnish-language newspaper Suometar had just begun publication) Aleksis was starting lower elementary school in Helsinki. The start was promising. By contrast, problems began to appear at higher elementary school, where the headmaster was the university lecturer Fredrik Cygnaeus. Aleksis struggled on until 1853, fairly unsuccessfully. It is perfectly clear that one of the problems was constant deprivation, and the situation did not improve when he left the school and began private education. Aleksis was then living at the home of a well-to-do master tailor named Palmqvist, and he fell in love with Albiina, the sister of his schoolmate Edmund Palmqvist. His courting came to nothing. This was certainly due in part to the suitor's lack of means - a fact that was made clear to him. After this Aleksis never again visited the Palmqvists, whose large library had been a wonderful treasure trove and a doorway to world literature.
Kivi's interest in play writing had already become evident while he was living at Winblad's home. A 'robber play' by Aleksis was presented in the prison hall, and the play writing continued both at the Palmqvists' home and at Raala Manor, where Aleksis was a friend of the Lindfors boys, the sons of the estate manager. His first serious ventures into literature also occurred: the tale Eriika, the short story Koto ja kahleet ('Home and Shackles'), a few poems in Swedish and the play Bröllopsdansen på Ljungheden ('Wedding Dance at Ljungheden'); by a roundabout route this manuscript came to the attention of Fredrik Cygnaeus. Kivi's literary talent was noted, and Cygnaeus is known to have shaken with laughter while reading the manuscript.
Though exhausted, Aleksis survived the required studies at a 'matriculation factory' which operated in both Helsinki and the country. In 1859 he passed a private examination conducted by Fredrik Cygnaeus and entered the University, enrolling in the department of history and languages. This was the last occasion on which a student was admitted via a private route. His mother was informed by Aleksis that he was not going to become a minister, as she had wished, but intended to become a poet like Runeberg.
The community with which Aleksis became associated through personal ties was a remarkable one. Firstly, the Finnish Party and its Young Fennoman wing led by Yrjö Koskinen was starting to become a powerful influencing force. It had its own mouthpiece, the Kirjallinen kuukauslehti (Literary Monthly), and one of those enlisted as 'assistants' was the promising young writer Aleksis Stenvall. Early on, Cygnaeus and the great Snellman himself became supporters and - through small financial contributions - even backers of Aleksis; but he had opponents of equal calibre: August Ahlqvist and Agathon Meurman, who had entrenched themselves as the party's conservatives.
His circle of friends and supporters consisted of Swedish-speaking Fennomans. They included his "best friend" Robert Svanström, Edmund Palmqvist, Thiodolf Rein (later a professor and university rector, who took care of many of Aleksis' practical affairs), the Lindfors brothers and Emil Nervander (journalist and founder of the Kivi cult). Though Kivi was some five years older than the others, this group of comrades long supported the student Aleksis (with loans and direct aid funded by money from their fathers), seeing in him some exceptional talent, even though his university studies were getting nowhere. Character descriptions of Kivi (which mention a nervous streak, a certain loneliness and reserve, a conspicuous asceticism and a tendency towards tortured self-examination) are based on the reports of precisely these friends.
Kivi did not participate much in the activities of the Uusimaa Students' Association, which was going through a period of Viking romanticism and Freudenthalism. He was considered a "violent and incorrigible person" who preferred to seek company in the Northern Ostrobothnian Students' Association, which was dominated by the Young Finns.
The literary terrain on which Aleksis Stenvall began to make his appearance as Kivi (the Finnish word kivi = Swedish sten = English 'stone') was dominated by Runeberg. The cultivators of Finnish-language poetry included August Ahlqvist (under the name of A. Oksanen) and Julius Krohn (as Suonio). Of earlier figures, only Runeberg's contemporary S. K. Berg, who died young, is worth mentioning here. His nom de plume, Kallio (= 'rocky hill'), was supplanted by the Aleksis Kivi hatching from Aleksis Stenvall.
Kivi actually stepped into the limelight of Finnish literature for the first time in 1860, when he won a competition held by the Finnish Literature Society (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura; SKS) with a play submitted under his nom de plume and entitled Kullervo; the prize money had been donated by a wealthy merchant named Kiseleff. He worked on his play Aino, a new version of Kullervo and the play Nummisuutarit ('The Heath Cobblers') in 1861 - 63. It is known that at around this time (according to C. G. Swan, as early as 1859) Kivi was also thinking about a large novel. He was living at Purnus in the Siuntio district and Myllymaa in Nurmijärvi, at both of which places his brother Juhani was working as a tenant farmer. The course of Juhani Stenvall's life was in decline; he eventually dropped out of society altogether.
When he reported in 1864 that he was already writing "feuilletons", "short stories", for a volume called Maiden ja merien takaa ('From beyond Lands and Seas'), Aleksis was living in Siuntio, at first in a cottage belonging to a parish hunting officer named Karelius and then at the Fahnjunkars soldier's croft, the home of Charlotta Lönnqvist. Circumstantial evidence gathered by Jaakko Puokka gives reason to suspect that the Adlercreutz family, which owned the manors at both Raala and Siuntio, felt responsible for looking after the Stenvalls. A further indication is the fact that the double wedding of the Stenvall brothers Juhani and Emanuel was held at Raala Manor in 1855, after Svante Gustav Engelbert Adlercreutz had acted as the matchmaker. At the manor Emanuel worked for his whole life as a tailor, and his son Arvid as the postmaster. Is the entanglement with the Adlercreutzes merely a quirk of fate?
In any case, personal sacrifices on the part of Charlotta Lönnqvist gave Aleksis Stenvall the chance to develop into the national author Aleksis Kivi, since he would otherwise have been financially adrift during his most creative years.
That Kivi's vocation was that of a writer was obvious at the latest in 1865, when he won the State Prize for his Nummisuutarit, toppling the faltering Runeberg's Kungarne på Salamis, J. J. Wecksell's Daniel Hjort and A. Oksanen's Säkeniä. Kivi had never had any other calling - and, as far as is known, had never even embarked on any other activity - if one ignores his sudden and fanciful idea of becoming a farm foreman in 1869!
In 1866, during his period in Siuntio, Kivi published his plays Karkurit ('The Escapees'), Kihlaus ('The Betrothal') and Olviretki Schleusingenissä ('Beer Outing at Schleusingen') and, at his own expense, the poetry collection Kanervala. The following year saw the publication of the plays Leo ja Liina ('Leo and Liina'), Yö ja päivä ('Night and Day'), Sankarteos ('Heroic Deed'), Lea and Canzio. Finland was suffering from famine at the time, and beggars arrived in Siuntio from as far away as northern Finland. Diseases spread along with the famine. Kivi had his first bout of typhoid, an illness which recurred and which affected the writer's shaky general health.
Kivi's career and profile as a writer were clouded by constant abuse on the part of August Ahlqvist. The first target was Kullervo. Ahlqvist refused to understand Kivi's tragic view of Kullervo - after all, he considered that as a Kalevala scholar it was he who was the custodian of Lönnrot's legacy. As a professor of Finnish, he had entirely different views concerning the techniques and language of prose, drama and poetry than did Kivi, behind whom stood the authoritative figures of Fredrik Cygnaeus and Kaarlo Bergbom. There was also a fairly wide gap between Kivi's views on poetry and those of his benefactor Julius Krohn, who made the mistake of tinkering with Kivi's texts; in this respect, Kivi regarded Krohn as a "German lalala, apple-German".
Kivi's mental constitution, which was neurasthenic at the least, prevented him from enjoying even the few moments of triumph that came his way. Thus he fled to Nurmijärvi in 1869 and missed the première of Lea. This triumph of Finnish drama was performed at the New Theatre. The main role was played by the enchanting Danish actress Hedvig Charlotte Raa, who had learned her Finnish lines by heart; the "white scarf" that was part of her costume has been interpreted as a symbol of billowing, secret love in Kivi's lyric poetry.
By this stage Kivi had entirely exhausted even the funds provided by his benefactress Charlotta Lönnqvist. Whether there had been an erotic relationship between them is uncertain; in any case, it was no longer possible for Charlotta, who was fifteen years older than Kivi, to maintain him. Paavo S. Elo, in his monograph Aleksis Kiven persoonallisuus ('The Personality of Aleksis Kivi'), and Veijo Meri, in his book Aleksis Stenvallin elämä ('The Life of Aleksis Stenvall') and in the play which emerged from it, interpret the relationship between Kivi and Charlotta as strongly erotic. The theme of a young man's relationship with an older, unmarried woman also appears in Kivi's Leo ja Liina, which brings to mind the couple at Fahnjunkars; there was whispering or semi-open talk about them in the area. Jaakko Puokka for his part stresses Charlotta's social role as a part of the Adlercreutzes' care system.
During these difficult years, Kivi's efforts were concentrated entirely on the writing and publishing of Seitsemän veljestä. It would seem that this work was in progress throughout the 1860s. The back cover of Kanervala, which appeared in 1866, displyed the announcement: "The distinguished public is invited to order the following work: 'Seven Men', an entertaining story of the lives of seven brothers in the forests of Häme. Author A. Kivi." In 1869, helped by Cygnaeus and Bergbom, Kivi had reached the stage where he was ready to bring his manuscript to be read. When the appointed day dawned, the writer was so drunk that nothing came of the reading.. The Finnish Literature Society (SKS), with which the manuscript was officially lodged, took its time over it, so that Kivi suspected that Bergbom and the other members of the poetry committee would reject it. He was nevertheless firm in his convictions. At the end of the year the committee issued a statement in which it emphasised the work's merits as a depiction of the Finnish character and landscape, though it regarded some of the "long dramatic dialogues" as tedious. In any case, the committee concluded that "it would be a great detriment to the literature of our fatherland if it were not made available to readers through publication". Murmurs were caused by the fact that 100 marks of the prize money of 700 marks was to be paid to the editor, Antti Törneroos - a poet well known and respected under his nom de plume Tuokko - whom Kivi irritatedly referred to as "like a little brother-in-Apollo". The proofreading was done by Julius Krohn, who on hearing of the author's financial plight sent the 100 marks that he received to Kivi.
The SKS published Seitsemän veljestä in four volumes in 1870. Kivi had placed all his hopes in the book - both as a artist awaiting respect and as a professional writer badly in need of remuneration. The statements of the SKS's belles-lettres committee made him optimistic. All the more devastating, then, was August Ahlqvist's panning of Kivi's epic in the newspaper Finlands Allmäna Tidningen. The indictment was directed at both the author and his publisher. The reviewer summed up his opinion as follows: "It is a ridiculous work and a blot on the name of Finnish literature. In particular, it contains a vicious defamation of the Finnish peasantry, since the author's portraits are allegedly drawn from life. No peasantry exists such as the heroes of this book; the quiet and serious people which has cleared the wildernesses of Finland for cultivation is made of quite another stuff than are the colonists of Impivaara."
Despite the criticism, the SKS decided to publish the work in one volume. B. F. Godenhjelm defended the novel against Ahlqvist in the magazine Kirjallinen kuukauslehti in 1871, but not even Cygnaeus ventured to launch a counterattack in the same journal that had published Ahlqvist's drubbing - despite Kivi's hopes. In March, Eliel Aspelin gave a lecture on Kivi's life and literary activities at the Ostrobothnian Students' Association; but by then Kivi was gradually nearing his end. In practice, the SKS was so frightened by Ahlqvist's criticism that Seitsemän veljestä was put on ice for three years. It came out only when it was already too late from the author's point of view - in April 1873, after Kivi's death. A preface by Cygnaeus was added to the novel, as well as a section written by Snellman himself explaining the ideas contained in the work. Snellman's contribution was also published in the newspaper Morgonbladet; this prompted Ahlqvist to attack Kivi and Seitsemän veljestä in the Helsingfors Dagblad in an article sarcastically entitled 'Ett finskt snilleverk' ('A Finnish masterpiece'). He reiterated his criticism in 1874 in his journal Kieletär.
Kivi spent his last months in the rented cottage of his brother Albert and Albert's second wife Wilhelmiina. In summer Charlotta Lönnqvist came to see him, and later, his friends Emil Nervander and Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä as well. According to Aspelin, the kindly and devout Albert cared for the "insane" author as best he could.