Martinson, Moa (1890–1964)

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Martinson, Moa (1890–1964)

Swedish proletarian-feminist, political activist, syndicalist sympathizer and experimental modernist writer whose literary reputation has been overshadowed by her husband's fame as a poet . Name variations: Helga Svartz. Pronunciation: MO-wah MAR-tin-son. Born Helga Maria Svartz on November 2, 1890, in Vårdnäs, a suburb of Norrköping, Sweden; died in Södertälje, Sweden, on August 5, 1964; daughter of Kristina Svartz (an unmarried textile-factory worker); father unknown; attended six years of public school and one semester at Fogelstad Women Citizens College; married Karl L. Johansson (after publication of marriage banns in 1911), in April 1922 (committed suicide, 1928); married Harry Martinson, on October 3, 1929 (divorced 1940); children: (first marriage) Olle (b. 1910); Tore (b. 1911); Erik (b. 1913); Manfred (b. 1914); Knut (b. 1916).

First seven years spent in slum foster homes; quit school (1903); became syndicalist union organizer (1921); resumed education at college level (1924); received first literary recognition in exchange of letters published in Swedish newspaper Arbetaren (1922); saw publication of first novel Women and Appletrees (1933); traveled to Soviet Union (1934); won Sweden's De Nois Prize for Literature (1944); published poetry, essays and novels (1933–59).


Kvinnor och appelträd (1933, Eng. tr. Women and Appletrees, 1985); Sallys söner (Sally's Sons, 1934); Rågvakt (Rye Watch, 1935); Mor gifter sig (1936, Eng. tr. My Mother Gets Married, 1988); Drottning Grågyllen (Queen Grågyllen, 1937); Kyrkbröllop (1938, Eng. tr. Church Wedding); Kungens rosor (The King's Roses, 1939); Vägen under sjärnorna (The Journey Under the Stars, 1940); Brandliljor (Firelilies, 1941); Den osynlige älskaren (The Invisible Lover, 1943); Livets fest (Life's Celebration, 1949); Du är den enda (You Are the Only, 1952); Kvinnorna på Kummelsjö (The Women at Kummelsjö, 1955); Klockor vid Sidenvägen (Bells at Sidenvägen, 1957); Hemligheten (The Secret, 1959).

Short story and essay collections:

Armén och horisonten (The Army and the Horizon, 1942); Bakom svenskvallen (Behind the Swedish Field, 1944); Kärlek mellan krigen (Love Between Wars, 1947); Jag möter en diktare (I Meet a Poet, 1950).

Poetry collection:

Motsols (Counter-clockwise, 1937).

The writing career of Moa Martinson was launched in October 1922, at age 32, when she sent a letter to the Swedish newspaper Arbetaren (The Worker) in response to an article by Elise Ottesen-Jensen . Martinson's letter challenged Ottesen-Jensen for the patriarchal tone she had used in writing about women. Arbetaren's publication spurred a lengthy written debate between the two on the Kvinnosidan (Women's Page), which had previously been reserved for writings on homemaking and childcare. Martinson's references were to August Strindberg, Rudyard Kipling, and Emile Zola, and she wrote about "men's subjects" such as philosophy, religion, and history. The style and content of her letters served to prove her high level of scholarly achievement, despite her lack of even a high school diploma. Two years later, in 1924, when women in Sweden earned 55% of what men earned, Martinson dared to suggest in the column she was then writing for Arbetaren that women receive equal pay for equal work; the newspaper's editors began to censor the Women's Page. It was 11 years and hundreds of articles and short stories after her first provocative article had appeared in print before the publication of Martinson's first book, Women and Appletrees. By then, the prolific Swedish proletarian-feminist author was 43 years old.

Moa Martinson was born Helga Maria Svartz in 1890, to an unmarried and impoverished factory worker in an industrial suburb of Norrköping, Sweden. Tradition has it that her father was a soldier who refused to marry beneath his station and died the year the girl was born. Since her mother could not support her, the child spent her first seven years living in slum foster homes, until her mother finally married. She then had to vie with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather for her mother's attention. During the next two years, the family moved seven times in the hope of bettering their lives through new jobs or new surroundings. Known in childhood as Helga, Martinson attended nine different schools before she quit at age 13; her report card at the time described her work as "excellent."

Childhood taught Martinson survival skills. She knew how to knit, sew, clip rags to weave rugs, and could carry water great distances from a well. Her mother had worked as a scrub-woman in homes as well as at factory jobs. Birth control was illegal in Sweden between 1910 and 1938, and in Martinson's youth, her mother gave birth at least three times. The infant girls, born to a malnourished mother, all died within their first year. These years of poverty and hardship made lasting impressions on the young girl and became the powerful subject matter chronicled in an autobiographical trilogy that takes its protagonist from age six to seventeen. The first volume, My Mother Gets Married (1936), is regarded as Martinson's "classic" work and describes the adventures of a six-year-old girl named Mia. The life of Mia exactly parallels Martinson's as she moves through different environments and situations, making new friends only to leave them and mourn the loss. The account also includes humorous tales about classroom happenings, schoolmistresses and masters, skipping school and exciting adventures the child has with Gypsy (Roma) children.

The second book of the trilogy, Church Wedding (1938), continues with Mia at ages eight through fourteen, and describes her first job as a nanny. The central event in this book is the planning of the wedding of Mia's Aunt Charlotte, a strong and stylish woman who has remained single long past the usual age, and consequently has enough money saved for a church wedding, which were generally restricted to the wealthy in turn-of-the-century Sweden. For Mia, the aunt's wedding is a major status symbol, and the book concludes with the girl's refusal to marry a boy who has emigrated to America, even though he has offered to pay for her trip there. Since economic conditions like those Martinson experienced caused 25% of Sweden's population to emigrate between 1850 and 1900, the girl's choice was one faced by many in her country.

In The King's Roses (1939), the trilogy's final book, Mia works in a city restaurant as a bread-slicer. Aged 16 during the summer of 1906, she works 15 hours a day, shares a sleeping room with 11 other women and misses her mother terribly. In the kitchen, she finally puts a stop to harassment by her male co-workers by repeatedly striking back physically at one of the offenders. These three volumes illuminate Mia's progression from vulnerable waif to an assured, if still struggling, young woman.

At age 17, Martinson was determined never to marry. Her aim was to work, become rich and help her mother, and her highest hope was to write poetry. But at 19 she became pregnant, just as her mother had. In 1911, banns were read in church for her and Karl Johansson, proclaiming their intentions to marry, but the marriage did not actually occur until 1922, probably for economic reasons. Johansson was not rich but had a house and farm called Johannedal, which his father had built during the 1860s. Like Martinson's stepfather, he was also an abusive alcoholic. By 1916, the couple had five children, all boys. Unemployment in the country was high, and Johansson rarely had work. In 1922, the economic stress may have lifted temporarily when the couple finally married. In 1925, their two youngest sons, Olle and Tore, ages eight and nine, drowned in a creek near the house. Three years later, Johansson committed suicide, leaving Martinson a widow with three children at age 38.

Before the death of Johansson, Martinson had become a supporter of syndicalism, a revolutionary doctrine somewhat akin to socialism which advocated that workers seize control of the economy and the government by direct means, as in a general strike. In 1921, she walked 30 kilometers from their farm to the harbor town of Nynashamn, Sweden, in order to attend her first union meeting. She became an active organizer and outspoken supporter of the labor movement in industrial cities as well as on farms. She also became a prominent advocate of feminist issues of the day, including equal wages and birth control.

After the loss of her two children, Martinson wrote her first short story during 1924–25, but found no publisher for the work. Encouraged by a friend, the writer Elin Wägner , she attended the spring semester at Fogelstad Women Citizens College and began to improve her writing skills. While still in school, she began the novel Women and Appletrees, which would be published in 1933. This work intertwines the lives of women from many generations and focuses on a friendship between two characters, Sally and Ellen. In 1934, it was followed by Sally's Sons.

The semester at college served to strengthen Martinson's ideas about women, their capacity for greatness, and the unfair manner in which they were treated. It was at this time that she renamed herself Moa, after a character in an early 20th-century novel Jökeln (The Glacier) by Johannes V. Jensen. The meaning of the new name was "the mother of all humankind," seen as a developer of her own skills, the inventor of agriculture, and an herb-gathering healer.

In 1928, Martinson's first story, Pigmamma (Maidservant-Mother), reached print in serial form in the socialist newspaper Brand (Fire). She also became a writer for the feminist paper Tidevarvet (The Turning of Time). Because of her lack of basic education, her work sometimes required extensive editing, but the newspapers liked her ideas. She wrote about the common, unknown people, discussing the work of women, the importance of educating children, unemployment, child abuse, and other issues of general concern among the proletariat. In her 1956 foreword to My Mother Gets Married, Martinson asked:

Did my mother's life, my own, and millions of other anonymous lives in our country need to be so hard in spite of peace, in spite of hard work, and the eager, unceasing search for work that hardly paid for daily bread? With good reason I ask this question for my mother's sake, my own, and in the name of two-thirds of the people of Sweden.

In the year she went back school, Moa met a well-known seafarer-turned-poet named Harry Martinson. Fifteen years younger than herself, Harry was poor, unemployed, and sick with pneumonia at the time. Some scholars believe that she saved his life and provided the nourishment for his creative work. They married in 1929 and would divorce in 1940. In 1949, Harry would be elected to the Swedish Academy, and he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974. In contrast, Moa Martinson's achievements have historically been undermined by critics who saw her merely as Harry Martinson's wife "who also wrote." Although there are critics who argue that their styles are so different that it is pointless to compare their books, those comparisons have been made, and most often to her detriment. Ill-informed literary critics have argued that he taught her to write and played a large role in her work, despite the number of articles and short stories, she had published, and the novel she had begun, prior to their meeting.

By the 1930s, however, Martinson was recognized for her place in the community of literary Swedish women that included Elin Wägner, Selma Lagerlöf , and Karin Boye . She was already well known as a political figure and the author of short stories, poetry and historical essays when the autobiographical fiction that would become her most famous work began to reach print in Sweden. Perhaps because of the harshness of her early years, she was not easily intimidated by negative criticism, even when one critic called her work "food for the dump."

Toward the end of the 1930s, Martinson began to write historical novels. In Drottning Grågyllen (Queen Grågyllen), published in 1937, she wrote about the effects of World War I on Europe. A three-volume historical epic describing farm life in the area of Östergötland, Sweden, included Vägen under sjärnorna (Journey Under the Stars) in 1940, Brandliljor (Firelilies) in 1941, and Livets fest (Life's Celebration) in 1949.

In her novels, Martinson often depicts brave, thrifty, and hardworking women and responsible young girls, while her male characters are usually careless and unable to hold steady jobs; they are absent fathers who spend the family rent money on alcohol and violate marital fidelity, all descriptions of life as Martinson knew it. In Women and Appletrees, Sally gives birth alone at home, just as Martinson had done with her youngest son.

Paradoxically enough, I am mostly indignant not because I was denied the possibility to get a university education, but because I landed right in the same anonymous hell as my mother. Maybe it was even harder for me, for I was fully conscious that it was hell.

—Moa Martinson

Martinson's poetry broke new ground in addressing subjects then rarely addressed in European literature. In a poetry collection called Motsols (Counter-clockwise, 1937) is a poem called "Världens väverskor" (The World's Weavers), about peace and justice, framed in the world of women textile workers, weavers and spinners.

In her political speeches, writing and appearances on radio shows, Martinson took the side of the weak and unfairly treated. Known simply as "Moa," she was revered for her honesty and humility and became a figure widely adored by the Swedish populace. In 1944, she received the Samfundet De Nois literary prize; more recently, she has been depicted on Swedish postage stamps. Nonetheless, Moa Martinson's work is not widely known outside Scandinavia, and thus far only two of her books have been translated into English. She has been compared to the American author and activist Agnes Smedley (1890–1950), and there are indeed strong parallels in their life stories and writing careers. When Martinson read Smedley's Daughter of Earth (1929), she is said to have felt a sisterhood with the American author.

In later life, Martinson wrote four books about a woman named Betty, which are also argued to be depictions of herself: Den osynlige älskaren (The Invisible Lover, 1943), Du är den enda (You are the Only, 1952), Klockor vid Sidenvägen (Bells at Sidenvägen, 1957), and her final book, Hemligheten (The Secret, 1959). Scholarship on the works of Moa Martinson began in earnest only in the last decades of the 20th century. Ebba Witt-Brattström 's 1988 doctoral dissertation on Martinson as a representative of Swedish women authors of the 1930s continues to sell as a popular Swedish paperback. The future holds further exploration of both Martinson and her community of "forgotten" Swedish women writers.


Dahlström, Britt, ed. Litteraturhandboken (Literature Handbook). Stockholm: Forum Press, 1984.

Witt-Brattström, Ebba. Moa Martinson: Skrift och drift i trettiotalet (Moa Martinson: Life and Letters in the 1930s). Denmark: Nörhaven A/S, 1989.

Wright, Rochelle. "The Martinsons and Literary History," in Scandinavian Studies. Vol. 64, 1992, pp. 263–269.

suggested reading:

Martinson, Moa. My Mother Gets Married. Translated and with an afterword by Margaret S. Lacy. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1988.

——. Women and Appletrees. Translated and with an afterword by Margaret S. Lacy. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1985.


Correspondence, manuscripts, papers and memorabilia located at Martinson's home, Johannedal, in Ösmo, Sweden, now a museum.

related media:

"Moa: Filmen om Moa Martinson" (Moa: The Film about Moa Martinson), starring Gunilla Nyroos , directed by Anders Wahlgren, Filmstallet A/B et al, 1986 (in Swedish).

Mara M. Johns , translator of Moa Martinson's Kyrkbröllop (Church Wedding) and a freelance writer in San Diego, California

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Martinson, Moa (1890–1964)

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