Moa Martinson was one of the best-loved and most-read authors in Sweden during the 1930s and she was the only woman to belong to the wave of proletarian modernists.
Moa Martinson was born in 1890. Her mother was Kristina Swartz, an unmarried 19-year old servant and later a factory worker in Norrköping. Moa Martinson’s childhood was an unsettled one spent in a variety of foster homes. When Moa Martinson was 6 years old her mother married Alfred Karlsson, a garden worker. The family became agricultural labourers and moved frequently, and Moa Martinson’s school attendance followed suit. She wrote about her childhood in the autobiographical Mia trilogy: Mor gifter sig, from 1936, Kyrkbröllop, from 1938, and Kungens rosor from 1939.
Moa Martinson trained to become a cold-buffet manager, but in 1910, upon falling pregnant, she moved to Johannesdal croft in Sorunda, Södermanland. During the period of 1910–1916 she gave birth to five sons fathered by her foundation-layer husband Karl Johansson: Olof, Tore, Erik, Knut, and Manfred. Her husband was an alcoholic who was intermittently unemployed so Moa Martinson had to rely on all her cunning to provide for her family. On 18 November 1922, under the pseudonym of Helga, she began to contribute to the women’s page “Kvinnan och hemmet”, edited by Ottar, Elise Ottesen-Jensen, in the Syndicalist daily Arbetaren. Moa Martinson and Elise Ottesen-Jensen became close friends.
In 1924 Moa Martinson wrote her first novel, Pigmamma: roman ur arbetarkvinnornas värld. It was rejected as a book but was accepted as a serial in the winter of 1928 by the anarchist journal Brand, for which she had begun to write in April 1925. At this time she endured the terrible loss of her two youngest sons, Knut and Manfred, who both drowned.
The first article published under the signature of Moa – a name Moa Martinson had taken from Johannes V. Jensen’s Jökeln: Myter om istiden och den första människan – focused on childless wives. It was published on 1 October 1927 in the Kvinnliga medborgarskolan vid Fogelstad (the female citizens' school) journal Tidevarvet. In 1927 she also contributed to journals such as Templar-Kuriren, Nynäshamns-Posten, and Arbetare-Kuriren. That same year she met the sailor and nomadic poet Harry Martinson at the Arbetare-Kuriren editorial board in Gothenburg.
Moa Martinson’s first husband Karl Johansson committed suicide on 14 January 1928. A collection on behalf of “comrade Helga”, instigated by the chief editor of Brand C J Björklund – including contributions from the likes of Elin Wägner, Ada Nilsson, Honorine Hermelin, Carl Lindhagen, and Elise Ottesen-Jensen – resulted in the considerable sum of 3,300 kroner. This led to Moa Martinson being able to purchase her croft. Elin Wägner helped her to find a type-writing course and to enrol in the Kvinnliga medborgarskolan spring course. In May 1928 she received an enquiry from Harry Martinson as to whether she would put him up for a time while he put his debut collection of poems, entitled Spökskepp together. It turned out that Harry Martinson, who was 14 years younger than Moa Martinson, had tuberculosis and required care. In October that same year he wrote: “I am living in an open marriage with one of the world’s noblest and most radical women. She has a female intelligence the like of which I have never seen, not even amongst men.” However, Moa Martinson had a nervous breakdown in the winter of 1929 and spent the summer at a rehabilitation spa where she also had an abortion. Moa Martinson and Harry Martinson married on 3 October 1929.
Moa Martinson’s croft now became a gathering point for young male writers such as Ivar Lo-Johansson, Erik Asklund, and Artur Lindkvist. Her conversations with these young and, in Moa Martinson’s view naïve, ‘sexprimitivistic’ men led to her 1933 debut novel entitled Kvinnor och äppelträd. The impersonal and sexually accessible sirens of the woods, as found in her male colleagues’ works, were given individual personalities, with their own stories, and a destiny complicated by poverty, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, illegal abortions, and abuse. The novel portrays sexuality and its consequences, in other words, including child birth, from the perspective of working-class women. The novel received largely negative reactions. Anders Österling really went for Moa Martinson when, in Svenska Dagbladet he compared Kvinnor och äppelträd with Harry Martinson’s Kap farväl and Vilhelm Moberg’s Mans kvinna and decided that Kvinnor och äppleträd was characterised by an “atmosphere saturated with misery, gossip and tomfoolery” in which “the baser perspective dominates”. Today we can clearly see the consistence with which Moa Martinson presented her “base perspective” in her unique material as the only way to portray the working-class woman’s actual but forgotten history. The flag was already raised regarding the female body in Kvinnor och äppleträd. This body speaks with a forked tongue: the tension between (male-coded) sexuality as tomfoolery and (female-coded) sexuality as procreation and subjectively experienced desire gives rise to a sexual code which can be detected in her early works. Moa Martinson’s output during the 1930s as a whole positions the issue of the female body’s suppressed experiences in our body of literature for the first time. Thus she modernises Swedish prose itself by finding a way of expressing what had lain hidden in the dead corner of realism and modernism.
Moa Martinson’s complex feminine portrayals also had an effect on 1930s men and their further literary development. Examples of this are Ivar Lo-Johansson’s Rya-Rya character in Bara en mor, from 1939, and Vilhelm Moberg’s Kristina in the emigrant series.
Several critics assumed that Moa Martinson had received writing assistance from her husband, a claim set fast in literary studies. However, the writing Martinson couple were lauded by their contemporaries in double interviews in Idun and Stockholms-Tidningen. In August 1934 they travelled as Swedish delegates to the international writers’ conference in Moscow, where Maxim Gorky proclaimed that the author was “the engineer of the soul”. Upon their return to Sweden Harry Martinson, who had become depressed while working on his autobiographical novels Nässlorna blomma and Vägen ut, ran away for the first time. In 1935 he ran away again, which became public knowledge when Moa Martinson made a public appeal on the radio in her search of her husband. Harry Martinson finally left Moa Martinson for good on 30 June 1939.
Moa Martinson described writing Vägen under stjärnorna in a letter to her publishers in 1940: “I have been in hell writing this book on my type-writer, on paper, on my hands, everywhere”. This was part one of the Östgöta epic, followed by Brandliljor and Livets fest, both from 1949. The trilogy portrays the impact of industrialisation on the agrarian community as experienced by one family.
There was, however, life after Harry, as Moa Martinson became Moa to the Swedish public, particularly thanks to the cheap novels released by Folket i Bild which sold them for one kroner each in workplaces. She made new friends, such as Alice Lyttkens, Hjalmar Gullberg, and from 1944 onwards Karl Gerhard, with whom she undertook tours of the public parks during the 1950s. In 1943 she was awarded the top prize by Samfundet De Nio (The Nine Society). She renewed her literary presence through the release of her Betty tetralogy (Den osynlige älskaren, from 1943, Du är den enda, from 1952, Klockorna vid sidenvägen, from 1957, and Hemligheten, from 1959) in which she experiments with internal monologues using material inspired by her early years on the croft living with a violent husband and young children.
When Harry Martinson was elected into the Swedish Academy in 1949 – as Elin Wägner’s successor – Lars Ulvenstam described Moa Martinson’s significance to his development as a “hard and painful moment of disturbance”, which wounded her. She made her reply in her collection entitled Jag möter en diktare, published in 1950. The last chapter is called “Nittonhundratjugosju” which lovingly describes her first meeting with the thin and coughing nomadic poet.
Moa Martinson died on 5 August 1964. Her grave lies in the Sorunda cemetery.