Martinson, Harry (Edmund) 1904-1978

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MARTINSON, Harry (Edmund) 1904-1978

PERSONAL: Born May 6, 1904, in Jämshög, Blekinge, Sweden; died, February 11, 1978, in Stockholm, Sweden; son of Martin (a sea captain) and Bengta Svensdotter Olofsson; married Moa Swartz, 1929 (divorced, 1940); married Ingrid Lindcrantz, 1942.

CAREER: Worked as a seaman and a stoker throughout the world from the end of World War I until 1927; writer, 1927-78.

MEMBER: Swedish Academy.

AWARDS, HONORS: Henrik Steffins Prize, 1972; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1974.


(With Artur Lundkvist, Erik Asklund, Josef Kjellgren, and Gustav Sandgren) Fem unga: Unglitterär antologi, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1929.

Spökskepp (poems; title means "Ghost Ship"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1929.

Nomad (poems; title means "Nomad"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1931.

Modern lyrik (poems; title means "Modern Poems"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1931.

Resor utan mål, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1932.

Natur, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1934.

Vägen ut (novel; title means "The Way Out"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1936, reprinted, 1974.

Svärmare och harkrank, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1937.

Midsommardalen (also see below), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1938.

Det enkla och det svåra (also see below), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1939.

Verklighet till döds (title means "Realism unto Death"), Norstedt (Stockholm, Sweden), 1940.

Den förlorade jaguaren, Norstedt (Stockholm, Sweden), 1940.

Passad (poems; title means "Trade Wind"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1945, reprinted, 1966.

Cikada (poems, title means "Cicada"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1953.

Gäsen i Thule (poems; title means "The Grasses in Thule"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1958.

Dikter (poems; also see below), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1959.

Vagnen (poems; title means "The Wagon"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1960.

(Editor) Vishetens ord i öster, Bokförlaget Piccolo (Stockholm, Sweden), 1962.

Utsikt från en grästuva (title means "View from a Tussock"; also see below), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1963.

Lotsan från Moluckas: En radiospel om den portugisiske sjö fararen Magellans världsomsegling, 1519-1522, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1964.

(With Björn von Rosen) Bestiarium: Omfattande djur och fåglar från alla jordens länder och historiens åldrar infångade med tankens snaror vid stranden av sjön Sillen sommaren 1963, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1964, reprinted as Harry Martinsons och Björn von Rosens nya bestiarium: Omfattande djur och fåglar från alla jordens länder och historiens åldrar, Bra bok (Stockholm, Sweden), 1984.

Tre knivar från Wei (play; title means "Three Knives from Wei"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1964.

Vildbukettan: Naturdikter i urval av Ake Runnquist, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1965.

Dikter om ljus och mörker (poems), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1971.

Keemia Instituudi tänpaeev, Eesti NSV Teaduste Akadeemia, 1973.

Tuvor (poems), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1973.

Dikter, 1929-1953 (poems), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974.

Dikter, 1958-1973 (poems), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974.

Längs ekots stigar: Ett urval efterlämnade dikter (poems), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1978.

Doriderna: Efterlämnade dikter och prosastycken, selected by Tord Hall Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1980.

Bollesagor: Ur det efterlämnade materialet till Vägen till Klockrike, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1983.

Kåserier på allvar, Bokvånnerna (Stockholm, Sweden), 1984.

Gyro, Jord-eco (Stockholm, Sweden), 1986.

Ur de tusen dikternas bok, Ellerström (Lund, Sweden), 1986.

Kring Aniara, compiled by Stefan Sandelin, Vekerum (Södra Sandby, Sweden), 1989.

Hav och resor, compiled by Stefan Sandelin, Vekerum (Södra Sandby, Sweden), 1992.

Skillingtrycket och Vildgåsresan, compiled by Stefan Sandelin, Vekerum (Södra Sandby, Sweden), 1994.

Dramatik: Gringo, Salvation, Lotsen från Moluckas, Tre knivar från Wei, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1999.

in english translation

Kap Färval! (also see below), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1933, translation by Naomi Walford published as Cape Farewell, Putnam (New York, NY), 1934.

Nässlorna blomma (novel), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1935, reprinted, 1966, translation by Naomi Walford published as Flowering Nettle, Cresset (London, England), 1935.

Vägen till Klockrike (novel; also see below), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1948, translation by M. A. Michael published as The Road, J. Cape (London, England), 1955, Reynal (New York, NY), 1956.

Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum (epic poem), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1956, adaptation by Hugh McDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Shubert published as Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, Knopf (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Avon (New York, NY), 1976.

(Contributor) Robert Bly, compiler and translator, Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1975.

Wild Bouquet: Nature Poems, translation and introduction by William Jay Smith and Leif sjoberg, BKMK Press (Kansas City, MO), 1985.

omnibus volumes

Vildbukettan: Naturdikter i urval Åke Runnquist, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1965.

Dikter, Ur Kap Färval, Naturstycken, Kalender, [and] Vägen till Klockrike, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974.

Midsommardalen, Det enkla och det svåra, Utsikt från en grästuva, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974.

Resor utan mål [and] Kap Färval! (titles mean "Journeys without a Goal" [and] "Cape Farewell"), Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1974.


Lotsen från Moluckas (radio script), broadcast January 10, 1937.

The main collection of Harry Martinson's papers is housed at the University of Uppsala. Smaller collections are housed at the Royal Library, Albert Bonniers Förlags arkiv, and the Archives of the Labor Movement, Stockholm.

ADAPTATIONS: Aniara was adapted as an opera in 1959 by Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl.

SIDELIGHTS: "Harry Martinson is widely regarded as one of the leading figures in twentieth-century Swedish literature," Paul Norlén noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "When he began publishing his works, critics and fellow writers alike quickly recognized his lyric gifts; in particular, his collection Nomad contributed greatly to the introduction of literary modernism in Sweden. Innovative without being obscure, Martinson was an extremely popular writer as well, and his verse epic, Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum (translated as Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space), is one of the most important works of the postwar generation. His country officially recognized him with such honors as his election to the Swedish Academy in 1949 and a Nobel Prize for literature in 1974."

Born in southern Sweden, Martinson was named according to "the old Swedish tradition in giving names; Harry, as the son of Martin, was thus given the surname Martinson," Norlén recounted. "Martin, who had lived for a time in North America and Australia, was an unsuccessful store owner with a penchant for storytelling, fighting, and drinking, and Bengta, whom Martin liked to call 'Betty,' was the parish beauty. After Olofsson's store went bankrupt in 1904, Betty took over the business in her own name. In 1905 Olofsson was sentenced to a month in prison for assault, but while appealing the conviction he left for the United States and stayed there for three years. He returned home when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The appeal of his sentence, which had been delayed during his absence, ultimately failed, and he served the prison term. Upon his release, however, another case of assault led to a term of hard labor for nine months in 1909, the same year that his and Betty's seventh child was born. She sold the store and moved with the children further south to the province of Skåne, where she opened another store. The following year, however, this store also went bankrupt, and Martin died of tuberculosis. In 1910, one year before Martinson's oldest sister, Edit, died of the same disease that took their father, Betty left her children for the United States—ostensibly to collect a life-insurance policy taken out by her husband—and remained there until her death in 1946."

In 1912, when Martinson was almost eight years old, the children were made wards of the parish and placed in foster homes. Over the next few years he was housed at a series of farms in the area. One bright spot in the boy's environment, however, was school, and reading—newspapers, adventure novels, and popularscience magazines—soon became one of his most enjoyable pastimes. He also performed a variety of chores on the farms where he was sent to live, experiencing a rural way of life that soon thereafter disappeared in Sweden. While Martinson's early years were spent in a mostly traditional, rural landscape, he became in his youth a part of the industrialized world—first as a seaman and then as a luffare, a tramp. In 1915 he ran away for the first time, an attempt he repeated often throughout his youth. Instead of returning to farm life, however, he was sent to live at the old people's home in Jämshög in 1916 and 1917. A couple of years later he enrolled in the 'skeppsgossekår' (cabin-boy corps) in Karlskrona but again ran away and was then dismissed. After working as a laborer, he finally took the decisive step of going to sea aboard the schooner Willy in Göteborg in 1920. He was sixteen years old at the time, and for the next seven years he was either working at sea or unemployed and drifting as a luffare. In the years after World War I, employment among seamen fluctuated widely and periods of unemployment were common. A reconstruction of Martinson's travels indicates that he was in Europe and Sweden from 1920 to 1922 and then at sea and en route to ports in North and South America, Africa, and Asia; between 1922 and 1925 he also embarked on a journey by foot from Brazil to Uruguay. In 1925 he performed compulsory military service in Sweden, after which he again went to sea. He abandoned the seaman's life on his birthday in 1927 at the French port of Bordeaux and returned to Sweden to become a writer.

Among his novels, Vägen till Klockrike, later translated as The Road, was one of Martinson's most popular novels in Sweden, prompting the writer's election to the Swedish Academy. A rambling account of the travels of a vagabond in Sweden, The Road was not successful in its English translation. Books Abroad contributor Leif sjoberg hypothesized that the book's mediocre reception outside of Sweden was due to "Martinson's poetic language. He is a stylistic innovator comparable to [August] Strindberg and an imaginative coiner of words…. Martinson's assertion that translation is impossible is not entirely an exaggeration." Few of the author's works, therefore, have been translated into other languages.

Martinson became the corecipient of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Literature along with Eyvind Johnson. The author won the award largely for his work on the epic poem, Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space. The poem is a science fiction tale about a group of colonists who have left Earth after it has been destroyed by war. Intending to build a new life on Mars, a malfunction instead causes the ship, the Aniara, to go off course, taking the colonists on an endless journey into deep space. The author once said, according to a Books Abroad article, that Aniara is an allegorical story that "offers … a vision of our own time, of the life journey through our own emptiness." The doom of the colonists is determined by their over-dependence on technology, which blinds them to science's drawbacks. Shortsightedness and greed, Martinson warns, has made us similarly blind to technology's liabilities. Alan Swanson, writing in Scandinavian Studies, argued that "when the peculiar charm of its invented vocabulary has faded and become the stuff of literary history, when its apocalyptic imagery has paled in the face of everyday atrocity, and when its Buck Rogers characters have collapsed into their postures, there yet remains the force of its language, the virtuosity of its invention, and the urgency of its message."

"Direct inspiration for Aniara," according to Norlén, "can be traced to a summer evening in 1953 when Martinson aimed his telescope on the spiral galaxy Andromeda, the most distant entity in the universe that is visible to the naked eye, and received an unusually clear view. This experience of cosmic distance so overwhelmed and affected the writer that for the next fourteen days—while lying prostrate on his sofa at home—Martinson dictated to his wife the material that became the initial twenty-nine songs of Aniara. He completed the remaining poems—103 in all—during the next two years."

"Almost since the atom bomb was exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945," Sjoberg related in the American Scandinavian Review, "Martinson has warned us of man's capacity for destruction." Although his books never reached a large international audience, Sjöberg concluded in Books Abroad that Martinson "has been of great importance to the Swedish (and Scandinavian) literary world. Indeed, he has helped form a specific consciousness for an entire generation of his compatriots at large and not just the literary gourmets."



Barnie, John, No Hiding Place: Essays on the New Nature and Poetry, University of Wales Press, 1996.

Bayerschmidt, Carl F. and Erik J. Friis, editors, Scandinavian Studies: Essays Presented to Dr. Henry Goddard Leach on the Occasion of His Eighty-fifth Birthday, American-Scandinavian Foundation and University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1965.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 14, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 259: Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers before World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.

Erfurth, Sonja, Harry Martinsons barndomsvärld, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1980.

Erfurth, Sonja, Harry Martinson och vägen ut, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1981.

Erfurth, Sonja, Harry Martinson och Moa, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1987.

Erfurth, Sonja, Harry Martinsons 30-tal, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1989.

Espmark, Kjell, Harry Martinson erövrar sitt språk: En studie i hans lyriska metod, 1927-1934, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1970.

Hall, Tord, Vår tids stjärnsång: En naturvetenskaplig studie omkring Harry Martinsons "Aniara," Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1958.

Holm, Ingvar, Harry Martinson: Myter Målningar Motiv, Aldus/Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1965.

Lönnroth, Lars and Sven Delblanc, editors, Den svenska litteraturen: Modernister och arbetardiktare, 1920-1950, Bonnier (Stockholm, Sweden), 1989.

Lundberg, Johan, Den andra enkelheten: Studier i Harry Martinsons lyrik, 1935-1945, Vekerum (Revingeby, Sweden), 1992.

Ramnefalk, Marie Louise, Tre lärodiktare: Studier i Harry Martinsons, Gunnar Ekelöfs och Karl Vennbergs lyrik, Cavefors (Staffanstorp, Sweden), 1974.

Söderblom, Staffan, Harry Martinson, Natur och kultur (Stockholm, Sweden), 1994.


American Scandinavian Review, December, 1972.

Books Abroad, summer, 1974.

Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, winter, 1998, Scott Andrew Smith, "The Role of the Emersonian 'Poet' in Harry Martinson's Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space," pp. 326-327.

Moons and Lion Tailes, Volume 2, number 1, 1976.

Scandinavian Studies, summer, 1994, Alan Swanson, review of Aniara, p. 421.

Scandinavica: An International Journal of Scandinavian Studies, May, 1997, Brita Green, "Foregrounding and Prominence: Finding Patterns in Harry Martinson's Poetry," pp. 43-57.

Swedish Book Review, number 2, 1991, Brita Green, "Harry Martinson's Aniara in a New Translation," pp. 23-27, and Sven Arne Bergmann, "Rhyme and Reason in Harry Martinson's Aniara," pp. 28-30.

Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 1975.*

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Martinson, Harry (Edmund) 1904-1978

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