Harry Martinson 1904 - 1978
In 1974, on the 200th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Academy, two Swedish authors shared the Nobel Prize for Literature: Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Both authors were representative of a large group of prominent Swedish authors who emerged during the 1920’s and 1930’s from proletarian or rural origins, and who came to dominate Swedish literary life for the next half century. Most of them had very little formal education--they were a generation of autodidacts. Harry Martinson, for example, had no formal schooling beyond his thirteenth year, but he had an insatiable appetite for reading, an observant eye, a very good memory, and a vivid imagination. He was also a spell-binding storyteller. Martinson’s debut came in 1929 with a volume of poetry entitled Spokskepp [Ghost ships], followed by a second collection Nomad in 1931. During the next ten years he published a book annually.

These included autobiographical sketches from his years as a sailor and vagabond, two novels from his difficult childhood, essays or “meditations” on nature, and much moreHarry Martinson is still a beloved author in Sweden, and in 2001 the re-publication of his collected works in a definitive, ten-volume edition was completed. As further example of his popularity one can point to a recent survey of the twenty most popular Swedish books ever, a list on which Martinson had three titles. In the English-speaking world, unfortunately, he has never reached a large audience. Over the years, only a handful of his books have been translated into English (please see the bibliography that follows), and they are now largely out of print and very difficult to find. One hopes that these translations are soon dusted off and re-issued in a collected English edition as well!

A substantial part of Harry Martinson’s writing grew directly out of his difficult childhood following the disintegration of his family in 1910 when his father died of tuberculosis and a set of complicated circumstances led to his mother abandoning her children and fleeing to America. This short study is an attempt to describe what happened to the family, his mother’s new life in Portland, Oregon (where she arrived in 1911), and how the author deals with this trauma in some of his books.