Harry Martinson:

Dreaming About Portland, Oregon

Harry Martinson’s biographer, Sonja Erfurth, writes that when Martin Olofsson, Harry Martinson’s father, first saw Bengta Svensdotter, the author’s mother, he was so taken by her beauty and charm that he abruptly abandoned his previous fiance and from that moment would not leave Bengta alone. According to some of their contemporaries, he was not her first choice for a husband, but she had become pregnant and social conventions held out only one option--so in September 1895 they were married. Considering these circumstances, it is not surprising that Martin appears to have been a jealous husband from the start. Furthermore, it also seems likely that Olofsson, a world-traveler and adventurer, came to regret his decision to settle down in an area with strong traditions, fixed social positions, and stubborn resistance to change. Over time, he clearly became an increasingly bitter man.
Using Martin’s inheritance, the newlyweds set up a small country store on the first floor of their house in the village of Nyteboda in the province of Blekinge. Over the years, seven children were born to the couple. Harry was the fifth and the only boy. Due to his abrasive personality and short temper, Martin Olofsson made more and more enemies as the years went by. Eventually there was a lawsuit following one of his many fights, and Olofsson had to pay a fine and spend three months in jail. This was only the first in a growing number of fights, jail sentences, and fines. In 1904, after mounting debts and repeated lawsuits brought on by unpaid creditors, the Olofsson store was declared bankrupt and the family lost its home. All of this proved to be too much for the marriage, and Martin and Bengta, or Betty as she was now called, separated (but did not divorce). In 1905 Martin Olofsson received a boat ticket from a childhood friend in the United States. He used this to reach America, and he eventually settled in Portland, Oregon. There he found work with a streetcar company. Removed from the conflicts at home, he was able to get back on his feet. The fact that he regularly sent money home to the family and stayed out of fights and brawls demonstrated two things: that he was loyal to his family, and that his problems in Sweden were at least partially related to his discontentment with the community in which he had lived.
When Harry Martinson writes about his father’s life in the United States in the autobiographical novel Nasslorna blomma (Flowering Nettle), he correctly places the father in Portland and provides details in a matter-of-fact way. For example, he writes:
For two years he stood driving a trolley in a city far away by the Pacific Ocean. It was difficult to have him that far away. ...
But the letters from Portland did not come far and few in between. He had not forgotten her.

During her husband’s absence, Betty Olofsson, with the additional financial support of friends and neighbors, was able to open a new store under her own name. The children were healthy and happy, and the biographer Sonja Erfurth writes that these were “probably the best years in Betty Olofsson’s life.”
In the spring of 1908, Martin returned to Sweden. He had contracted tuberculosis and been told by a doctor that a change of climate would be beneficial. Sharing the common belief of the time that alcohol worked as a cure for the disease, Olofsson started drinking on a regular basis again. He was bitter over his fate and increasingly jealous of his wife, whom he suspected of having lovers. It did not take long before he was back in his old pattern of responding to the slightest teasing or provocation with his fists.
With her husband in jail after an unusually severe beating, Betty decided to move the family to a small, nearby town to open a larger store combined with a restaurant. On the surface, the woman with seven children seemed to be doing quite well. The roomy house was nicely furnished. The children were clean and dressed in fine clothes. They even employed a maid. But in reality, the business was failing. Creditors were not being paid with income from the store and restaurant, but with money from new loans in an ever-accelerating spiral of debts. In prison Martin’s tuberculosis got worse, and when he was released in the spring of 1910 he was transferred directly to a hospital. A few weeks before his death in April 1910, he was sent home.
In August 1910 Betty Olofsson’s business finally collapsed and was declared bankrupt. There was a debt of about 17,000 SEK, a substantial amount of money at the time. To put this amount in context, we can compare it to the salary of the richest man in the area, a factory owner, who declared an annual income of about 10,000 SEK; or of the typical farm-hand, who averaged 100 SEK a year on top of his room and board. To make matters worse, it was now discovered that the oldest daughter had also contracted tuberculosis and had to be sent to a sanatorium.
It is hard to imagine a more desperate situation. The Swedish economy was in a slump; Betty was burdened by unpayable debts; she had seven children to take care of, one of whom now had tuberculosis; and there was a well-guarded secret as well--she was pregnant, and her late husband was not the father. Unfortunately, the real father had no intention of marrying her, and with the social conventions in place in Sweden at the time, an illegitimate child on top of all her other misfortunes, would put Betty at the very bottom of society. Towards the end of November 1910, she abruptly left, leaving her children to be looked after by her half-sister, Hilda.
In his novel Nasslorna blomma, Harry Martinson describes his mother’s sudden departure as “mother Betty’s inexplicable flight.” Throughout the novel, the author’s alter ego, the young boy Martin, keeps repeating the line “My father is dead and my mother is in California,” emphasizing that loss is one of the central themes of the book.
Exactly what happened to Betty Olofsson after her sudden departure is not fully known, but she seems to have stayed in Goteborg under an assumed name until the end of January 1911, when she gave birth to a second son who was given up for adoption. In the spring of the same year she arrived in Portland, Oregon, where she found work as a maid. She wrote back saying that there were many Swedes in the area, plenty of work, and that she made $40 a month. As soon as she could save up enough money for tickets, she would send for her children. In Sweden, her half-sister lacked the financial means to keep six extra children at her house, and receiving little--if any--help from Betty in Oregon, she was forced to hand over the children to the local authorities. They, in their turn, scattered the children in various foster homes in the parish. Meanwhile, tragedy struck the family again: in May 1911, the oldest girl, Edith, died of tuberculosis.
Like his four sisters, young Harry Olofsson spent the years between 1912 and 1917 as a foster child on various farms, and it was during these years that he changed his name to Harry Martinson. Some farms were good places with friendly people, clean accommodations, and sufficient food and clothing. Others were quite the opposite: abominable places with beatings, lack of food, scant clothing, and appalling conditions. Harry ran away more than once. In Nasslorna blomma, whenever the boy runs away from a foster home, it is to find Betty in "California." This novel was originally published in 1935, and it is interesting to note that, whereas all the references to his father’s sojourn in Portland are factual, the location of his mother, who was still alive in 1935, is always altered to California. California becomes, in other words, Harry Martinson’s code word for Portland.
In 1912 Betty Olofsson was able to send her daughter Clara a ticket to Portland, and a year later, Blenda received a ticket. Naturally, the remaining four children kept waiting for their mother to send them tickets to Portland as well. In Harry Martinson’s fiction, the boy’s early years are characterized by longing for his mother while waiting for that ticket to America. Still, he is aware that something is not right. In a passage in which his older sister comes to visit before she is off to America, we catch a glimpse of this:

Now she was, she said, finally confirmed and on her way to California. Mother had sent her a ticket.
-She will help us all to come over, she said. ...
-I will send you toys, horses, building blocks, books, yes, anything you want. I will send books and write letters. And then she left. ...
She never sent any toys and never wrote any letters. ... From his mother he had already received the last letter in October when he was at Vilnas, and there would never be any more letters.

From the very beginning of his years as a foster child, he must have felt a mixture of abandonment and rejection, as well as hope and longing.
The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 imposed all kinds of restrictions on life in Sweden. Trade shrank dramatically. Food became scarce. Emigration slowed to a trickle. Ships were being torpedoed on the Atlantic. Mail service became sporadic. All of this probably played a role in what happened to the Martinson family. In Nasslorna blomma, the author’s young alter ego is desperately trying to make factual connections with Oregon. Martin encounters a Swedish-American Methodist missionary who is said to have arrived from Oregon:

Imagine, she came all the way from the Cascade Mountains. She gave him a postcard with a picture of the school where she was a teacher who taught the avoidance of sin, what was sin and what wasn’t sin... [The school] ... was beautiful and had hundreds of windows; [it] was located on a shelf above a valley of great natural beauty. It looked like nine regular parishes could fit in the great hole of the valley.
He pointed out that it looked beautiful.
-Yes, it is God’s own beauty, she said.

And in his thoughts, Martin returns to the missionary and the landscape of Oregon later in the book:

She is from the Cascade Mountains. And even if the atoms move like ants inside the Rocky Mountains she is still from the Cascade Mountains, a place of great natural beauty. ... He could feel his heart leap just to stand in front of Miss Johannesson at the Methodists. It must have to do with her being from the Cascade Mountains.

Perhaps his heart leaped because Miss Johannesson was another symbolic connection to his mother. It is interesting to note that this figure is cast as a missionary of morality. Are we to understand this as irony, as an implied criticism of his mother? Or is it yet another expression of hope that his mother will learn right from wrong in Oregon, and that what is right will lead to the boy’s reunion with his mother?
Toward the end of the book, Martinson sets the tone for the sequel in the author’s account of his childhood, and he clearly establishes that longing, the desire to be with his mother again, is a central force in his life. He writes: “In a way he wanted to get into space--the only, irresistible sea that went all the way to California.”
The sequel to Nasslorna blomma is called Vagen ut [the road out]. Here we meet the author’s alter ego, Martin Tomason, in one of his last foster homes. Martin has grown older, and as his year at the farm comes to an end, he is considered old enough to be on his own. The main character is no longer the young boy who keeps repeating the mantra, “My father is dead and my mother is in California.” Instead, there is a plan in the second book--to become a sailor in order to reach America. His thoughts usually stop at that point, but the implication is, of course, that once he gets to America, he will be able to join his mother. If the mood of the first book is dominated by a sense of loss, the second evokes a sense of longing, dreaming, and planning.
There are passages, however, which reveal that there is an awareness on the part of the author of the true nature of his mother’s feelings towards her children left in Sweden. There is one passage in particular in which the author gives us a glimpse of his own insight into his relationship with the memory of his mother:

And far, far away there was Betty, his mother, enveloped by the years’ fog, preserved by his memory, the living statue of his own selfishness, a statue that never crumbled. He knew that he made her better than she was, he made his loss look more beautiful and he let the farthest image remain in the same position for ever. At the farthest end of the fog she stood frozen like Lot’s wife.

Another revealing passage comes up during a conversation with his sister. In this Martin asks:

"Have you received any letters from America?"
"No, they’re careful not to write."
"But they were going to help you over next."
"Oh really, were they? (Pause.) Well, you can tie a knot on a potato dumpling when that day comes. I have always been the mean child, you know. Daddy is my daddy, that’s what they say.

In other words, the sister has no illusions about being helped to the United States; Martin, however, still clings to the hope that they will all be helped over. But the sister was right. After World War I, no more tickets came from Oregon to the children left in Sweden. After 1920, no more letters came either. What had happened?