Moa Martinson

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Moa Martinson
Moa Martinson, 1957.jpg
Moa Martinson in 1957
Born Helga Maria Swarts
(1890-11-02)2 November 1890
Vårdnäs, Sweden
Died 5 August 1964(1964-08-05) (aged 73)
Sorunda, Sweden
Language Swedish
Nationality Swedish
Notable works Women and apple trees
My Mother Gets Married

Moa Martinson, born Helga Maria Swarts, (2 November 1890 – 5 August 1964) was one of Sweden's most noted authors of proletarian literature.[1] Her ambition was to change society with her authorship and to portray the conditions of the working class, but also the personal development of women.[2] Her works were about motherhood, love, poverty, politics, religion, urbanization and the hard living conditions of the working-class woman.[3]

Early life[edit]

She was born in Vårdnäs, Linköping Municipality. The identity of her father was unknown to Martinson her entire life, but her speculations about who it could be were an inspiration for her work. In her book Pigmamman ("The Maid Mother") she portrays her mother's situation, pregnant with a married man's child.[4] At one point she thought that her father was a married man, whom her mother, Kristina, had worked for. Her romantic view of her mysterious father decreases as time goes by. In her book Mor gifter sig (My Mother Gets Married), written twelve years later, it is clear how Martinson despises the father. In Fjäderbrevet (The Feather Letter), written another six years later, she never mentions the father at all.[5][6]

During the first years of her life, Martinson lived with her grandparents and their youngest daughter Hulda while Kristina worked.[7] In 1892, her grandfather became ill and died. Carin could no longer take care of Martinson so she moved to her mother Kristina. There is no record of where they lived until 1894, when they moved to Norrköping. Kristina earned very little money. In 1894–1896, she worked at Norrköping's wool weaving mills, where working conditions were extremely bad and wages low. In Martinson's book Kvinnor och äppleträd ("Women and Apple Trees"), which is set in Norrköping, she described the hard and ruthless situation that she and her mother was in during the 1890s. Because of the book, Martinson was accused for denigration by right-wing critics, but Martinson said that what she did was the opposite.[8]

At the age of fifteen, she trained to become a pantry chef. In 1906, Martinson moved to Stockholm in the hope of getting a job, but it turned out to be harder than she expected. During the financial depression of 1907–1909, she had to move back to Norrköping. At this time, she followed events related to concerns about the labour market. This period of Martinson's life had a significant impact on her political engagement. She also wrote poems and sent a collection to a notary interested in literature, but her work was rejected.[9]

First marriage[edit]

In 1908–1909, Martinson worked as a pantry chef at restaurants and hotels in Sweden. In the winter of 1909, she met Karl Johansson in Ösmo. He was nine years older than her, a stone worker who lived with his brother Valfrid and his father Johan Petter in the Johannesdal cottage deep in the woods.[10] She became pregnant in the beginning of March 1909 and Johansson proposed, but Martinson was very doubtful about marrying him. Despite this, she and Karl moved to Johannesdal and in her book Den osynlige älskaren ("The Invisible Lover") she wrote about her first year as mother and wife, the hard life in Johannesdal and how she desperately wanted to get away.[11]

In 1910, her first son Olof was born, and in 1922 she and Johansson were married. The reason she hesitated for such a long time to marry him, was partly due to Johansson's drinking and partly because she did not want to live in the dark forest.[10] After the birth of Olof, the family soon expanded. In 1911, their second son Tore was born, followed by three more sons: Erik in 1913, Manfred in 1914 and Knut in 1916.[12] The birth of Knut was especially hard, since she had to deliver him all alone on the kitchen floor in the cottage.[13] Martinson recounted the birth in Kvinnor och äppelträd,[14] it has been called "one of Swedish literature's most powerful depictions of a childbirth".[15] Life on Johannesdal was very poor and hard but the upbringing of her sons was very important to Martinson. She was opposed to spanking children and disliked the militant nationalistic romanticism taught in schools at the time.[16]

Political involvement[edit]

Statue of Moa Martinsson in Norrkoping, by Peter Linde

Martinson's political interest started to develop in 1921, when unemployment in Sweden was higher than ever before, and in 1922 she and Johansson joined the Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden where Martinson became very active.[3] Because of her political interest and ability to speak in any context, she was elected to the municipal council in Sorunda where she represented the labour party. She resigned from office in 1926.[17] In November 1922, Martinsson wrote her first article[18] for the syndicalist paper Arbetaren's ("The Worker's") page for women.[19] She continued writing for the paper and in 1923 she had articles published weekly in Arbetaren. In her articles she wrote about how men and women should work together for a better world. She engaged in many debates and especially those involving women's issues.[20]

With her work for Arbetaren she developed her writing skills, but even though she often pushed the boundaries in her articles, she went too far in 1924, when she wrote that women and men should receive equal pay for equal work. Quarrels started at the magazine, resulting in Martinson resigning from the paper, but due to her contributions in Arbetaren she was now known to the public although mostly in syndicalistic circles.[21]

One author who had significant impact on Martinson was Martin Andersen Näxö. It was the first time she recognized her own experiences in a literary work. She wrote a letter to him, telling him about her own life and also sent an article she had written for Arbetaren. Näxö responded positively, telling her she should write a book about her life. Shortly afterwards Martinson started writing the book Pigmamman ("The Maid Mother"). In 1925, she worked for a new magazine called Vi kvinnor ("We women"), where she contributed with articles, novels and causeries.[22]

Magazine articles[edit]

In April 1925, Martinson's two youngest sons, Manfred and Knut, went through the ice and drowned in the lake Styran by the cottage and she was devastated.[7][23][24][25] She worked incessantly to keep her grief at bay.[10]

In September 1925, Vi Kvinnor was discontinued and soon after Martinson started working for Arbetaren again. She also worked for the paper Brand ("Fire") in April 1925, and became part of the political circles in Stockholm. In June 1926, her first article for Arbetarekuriren ("The Workers Courier")[26] was published and in 1927 she had her work was published in Brand, Arbetare-kuriren,[7] Templar-kuriren ("The Templars Courier"), Arbetaren and Nynäshamns-posten ("The Nynäshamn Post").[24] In October that year, she was also writing for Tidevarvet ("Turn of Time") which was a politically radical magazine for women published by the Fogelstad Citizen School for Women with Elin Wägner as editor. Her first contribution was an article about unemployed men's women. She wrote it under a new signature, Moa, because she did not want the syndicalistic circles she moved in to see that she worked for a liberal magazine. However, her work for Tidevarvet was mostly novels and stories, her political articles was still published in the syndicalistic press.[27] She found the name "Moa" in the novel Jökeln (Bræen) by Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, where the character "Moa" was described as the first mother of humanity.[10]

In November 1927, Martinson traveled to Gothenburg at the request of chief editor Welinder at the Arbetare-kuriren. She was hoping to be offered a job at the paper, but instead Welinder wanted her to work as a housemaid for him and do some writing for the magazine in exchange for food and shelter in his house. Martinson turned down the offer.[10] While she was at the editorial office, she met Harry Martinson for the first time. He was a former sailor,[24] now hobo writer who had been published in Brand and Arbetare-kuriren so she had heard of him and read some of his works.[28]

Johansson's death[edit]

Shortly after Martinson's return to Johannesdal her husband was afflicted by a nervous disorder. He started hallucinating and could not eat or sleep. She tried to get him to a doctor but he refused. On 14 January 1928, Karl committed suicide by putting a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lighting the fuse.[24] By then, Martinson had considered divorcing Johansson for a long time since theirs had not been an easy marriage. After Johansson's death her economical situation was hard. Martinson's friends in Stockholm started a fund-rising and manage to collect SEK 3,300 to ease her financial situation. Having lost two sons and one husband, she became very depressed. In March 1928, she took a typing course at the Fogelstad Citizen School for Women and when she left the school it was as "Moa".[29] During her stay at Fogelstad, she received a letter from Harry Martinson, he asked if he could come and stay for a while at the cottage in Johannesdal so he could work. He arrived in the summer of 1928.[30]

Second marriage[edit]

During the summer of 1928, Martinson and Harry fell in love. However, in 1928–1929 she became more depressed and in March 1929, she was hospitalized at Södertälje hospital. During Martinson's stay at the hospital, she and Harry communicated through letters while he stayed at Johannesdal.[31] On 3 October 1929, they got married. Shortly thereafter, in May 1930, Harry was diagnosed with tuberculosis leaving Martinson devastated.[32]

The couple had very little money so in 1932, Martinson sent a draft called En man byggde ("A man built") to publisher Tor Bonnier. She continued to develop the draft during the following year and when it was finalized into a book, the title was change to Kvinnor och Äppleträd. It was published in 1933, and the author was named as "Moa Martinson".[33] Because of the timing and the theme, the book was categorized as "modernist literature".[34] This became Martinson's literary debut and it gained a lot of attention. Simultaneously, Harry was diagnosed with neurosis and Martinson was deeply concerned for him. He was fourteen years younger than her and their marriage had not been easy.[33]

During the winter of 1933, their financial situation improved and they rented an apartment in Saltsjöbaden in the hope of solving their marriage problems. At the beginning of 1934 Harry suffered from depression. Up until then, he had never stayed in one place for such a long time as he had done with Martinson at Johannesdal. He started to leave the apartment now and then without any explanation of why or where he was going and be gone for days. Harry's friends blamed Martinson for his disappearance, there were even those who believed that she was to blame for both his physical and mental pain. Not knowing where her husband was, Martinson soon became desperate with despair and jealousy, she even hired a private detective but when this yielded nothing, she soon gave up. Unknown to Martinson, Harry had started to see a new woman, Karin L., during his disappearances. In the summer of 1934, Harry confessed that he had been seeing another woman but said that he had ended the affair. Martinson became furious, but she forgave him.[35]

However, Harry's affair with Karin was not over and the same summer they traveled to Tällberg in Dalarna. Harry told Martinson that he needed to be alone and that it would be good for them to be apart for a while. After a couple of weeks, Harry grew tired of Karin and returned to Johannesdal. During the last years of their marriage, he continued wander off now and then from Martinson and Johannesdal.[35]


In the autumn of 1935, the tension between Martinson and Harry seemed to have disappeared. She was now working on Mor gifter sig.[36] In 1937, she decided to leave the Bonnier publishing company, instead she joined the Tidens publisher which was owned by the Swedish social democratic party. Martinson decided to leave because she had been having disagreements with Tor Bonnier since 1934. He was one of the Bonnier-founder's two grandsons who jointly ran the company at the time. Her choice of Tidens was also partly due to political reasons. Starting with a collection of poems called Motsols ("Counterclockwise") Martinson's works were now published by Tidens. She had been working on Motsols for ten years, it consisted of poems about politic, love and nature.[37]

During the 1930s, Martinson was experiencing severe stomach pains. Despite several diagnosis made by different doctors, no remedy could be found and the pain continued. In June 1937, she was hospitalized at the Södertälje hospital wher it was dircovered that shots had accumulated in her appendix. She had an operation and during her stay at the hospital, she and Harry kept in contact through letters. Harry's letters were love letters, while Martinson still had difficulties with trusting him after what he had done and her letters did not show the same concern. She no longer trusted him and their relationship was shattered.[38] In 1939, Harry became ill again and was hospitalized. He stayed there during the entire spring and their marriage was now in a crisis. In June 1939, Harry was discharged from the hospital, however he did not return to Johannesdal or Martinson again.[39]

Later life and death[edit]

Over six years Martinson had published eight books and had gained most critics' respect. In September 1939, World War II broke out, which she saw as the biggest threat to the working class. In her opinion, the non-socialist ruling countries were sending out workers to fight for values they did not share. When it came to the Soviet war, Martinson had a different opinion and believed that Russian workers were defending their revolution.[40]

In order to make more money and avoid loneliness Martinson entered a new area, the film industry. She had help from her friend Naima Wifstrand, who was an actress. Martinson wrote a lengthy screenplay that she sent to director Per Lindberg, who became interested. She proposed that they would contact AB Svensk Filmindustri (SF). However Martinson's ambitions were to big and when she demanded an advance and an answer straight away, SF showed no interest.[41] In the autumn of 1942, she met Karl Gunnarsson, whom she had first encountered in 1910 when she worked as a pantry chef at the Elfkarleö Hotel, south of Gävle. Gunnarsson was a writer too and the meeting with him reminded Martinson of her youth during the 1910s and the move to Johannesdal. Her memories were given shape in a love novel called Den osynlige älskaren ("The Invisible Lover").[42]

During the 1940s, Martinson became known in Sweden as "the Mother of the People". Her books were reaching a wide audience and she now had readers that could identify with the environment she was portraying, instead of people being shocked by her naturalistic scenes. She wrote diligently and had causerie and debate articles published in many daily and weekly papers. She was also frequently hired to give lectures and traveled the country on different tours. In 1944, she made her radio debut. Because of her strong personality, what she said and did caused attention and Martinson became a role model for many women in Sweden and most of all for women in the working class.[43]

In November 1954, Martinson's mother Kristina died at the age of 83. Kristina's and her relationship had been very strong and the mother had been a big influence and inspiration for her work. At that time, Martinson's literary reputation was low as it had decreased throughout the years. When her health became worse in the 60s, she stopped writing. However, despite her low reputation as a writer, Martinson still meant a lot to the working class women. Even though her health was deteriorating, she still enjoyed debating and never stopped expressing her feelings.[44]

On 5 August 1964, Martinson died at 73 years of age in Sorunda, Strängnäs.[45]

Bibliography, a selection[edit]

  • Kvinnor och äppelträd ("Women and Apple Trees") (1933)
  • Sallys söner ("Sally's sons") (1934)
  • Rågvakt (1935)
  • Mor gifter sig ("My Mother Gets Married") (1936)
  • Kyrkbröllop ("Church Wedding") (1938)
  • Kungens rosor ("The King's Roses") (1939)
  • Vägen under stjärnorna ("The Road Under The Stars") (1940)
  • Brandliljor (1941)
  • Den osynliga älskaren ("The Invisible Lover") (1943)
  • Jag möter en diktare (1950)
  • Du är den enda ("You're the only one") (1952)
  • Kvinnorna på Kummelsjö ("The Women At Kummelsjö") (1955)
  • Klockor vid sidenvägen (1957)
  • Hemligheten ("The Secret") (1959)


  1. ^ Reimerthi, Malin. "Moa hjälpte läsarna förstå klassamhället". Arbetaren. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  2. ^ Engman 2004, p. 7.
  3. ^ a b Engman 2004, p. 60.
  4. ^ "Moa Martinson". Nationalencyklopedin. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  5. ^ Engman 2004, p. 11.
  6. ^ Furuland, Lars (1985–1987). "H Maria (Moa) Martinson". Svenskt biografiskt lexikon (in Swedish) 25. Stockholm: National Archives of Sweden. p. 220. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c Engman, Kerstin. "Moas liv" [Moa's life]. The Moa Martinson Litterary Society. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  8. ^ Engman 2004, p. 14.
  9. ^ Engman 2004, p. 28.
  10. ^ a b c d e Johansson, Liz. "Berättelsen om Moa" [The story about Moa]. Artic News. Retrieved 18 November 2015. 
  11. ^ Engman 2004, p. 35.
  12. ^ Engman 2004, p. 43.
  13. ^ Tell, Lisbeth (27 July 1997). "DN-gratulerar: Moa – eländets expert. Namnsdag. Moa Martinsons privatliv överträffade nästan hennes romaner" [DN congratulates: Moa – misery's expert. Namesday. Moa Martinsson's private life almost exceeded her novels.]. Dagens Nyheter. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  14. ^ Eng, Tord (2012). "Männen i Moa Martinsons Kvinnor och äppelträd" [The men in Moa Martinson's Women and Apple trees] (PDF). Stockholm University. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  15. ^ Larsson, Kim. "Evelina Walander: Författarbibliografi: Moa Martinson, del 1". Eremonaut. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  16. ^ Engman 2004, p. 55.
  17. ^ Engman 2004, p. 66.
  18. ^ Nilsson, Johan. "Moa Martinson och de tiotusen timmarna" (PDF). Svenslärarföreningen. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  19. ^ "Martinson, Moa 1890–1964". Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  20. ^ Engman 2004, p. 70.
  21. ^ Engman 2004, p. 80.
  22. ^ Engman 2004, p. 83.
  23. ^ Engman 2004, p. 94.
  24. ^ a b c d Andersson, Karl-Olof. "Fattiga fann tröst och kraft i Moas böcker" [Poor people found comfort in Moa's books]. LRF Media. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  25. ^ Altstadt, Ann-Charlott (26 December 2014). "Moa Martinson – modernist & feminist". Aftonbladet. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  26. ^ Engman 2004, p. 96.
  27. ^ Engman 2004, p. 106.
  28. ^ Engman 2004, p. 115.
  29. ^ Engman 2004, p. 118.
  30. ^ Engman 2004, p. 120.
  31. ^ Engman 2004, p. 140.
  32. ^ Engman 2004, p. 149.
  33. ^ a b Engman 2004, p. 182.
  34. ^ Witt-Brattström, Ebba (1988). Moa Martinson: skrift och drift i trettiotalet [MOa Martinsson: writings and mockery in the 30s]. Stockholm: Norstedt. p. 51. ISBN 91-1-883422-1. 
  35. ^ a b Engman 2004, p. 192.
  36. ^ Engman 2004, p. 214.
  37. ^ Engman 2004, p. 217.
  38. ^ Engman 2004, p. 219.
  39. ^ Engman 2004, p. 226.
  40. ^ Engman 2004, p. 231.
  41. ^ Engman 2004, p. 236.
  42. ^ Engman 2004, p. 248.
  43. ^ Engman 2004, p. 254.
  44. ^ Engman 2004, p. 280.
  45. ^ "Johannesdal – Moas torp". Nynäshamn Municipality. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 


Further reading[edit]

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