Harry Martinson (6;May 1904 – 11;February 1978) was a Swedish author, poet and former sailor. In 1949 he was elected into the Swedish Academy. He was awarded a joint Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974 together with fellow Swede Eyvind Johnson “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos”. The choice was controversial, as both Martinson and Johnson were members of the academy and had partaken in endorsing themselves as laureates.
Martinson was born in Jmshg, Blekinge County in south-eastern Sweden. At a young age he lost both his parents whereafter he was placed as a foster child (Kommunalbarn) in the Swedish countryside. At the age of sixteen Martinson ran away and signed onto a ship to spend the next years sailing around the world visiting countries such as Brazil and India.
A few years later lung problems forced him to set ashore in Sweden where he travelled around without a steady employment, at times living as a vagabond on country roads. At the age of 21, he was arrested for vagrancy in Lundagrd park, Lund.
In 1929, he debuted as a poet. Together with Artur Lundkvist, Gustav Sandgren, Erik Asklund and Josef Kjellgren he authored the anthology Fem unga (Five Youths), which introduced Swedish Modernism. His poetry combined an acute eye for, and love of nature, with a deeply felt humanism. His popular success as a novelist came with the semi-autobiographical Nsslorna blomma (Flowering Nettles) in 1935, about hardships encountered by a young boy in the countryside. It has since been translated into more than thirty languages. From 1929 to 1940, he was married to Moa Martinson, whom he met through a Stockholm anarchist newspaper Brand. He travelled to the Soviet Union in 1934. He and Moa were divorced due to her criticism of his lack of political commitment. Moa became a writer; Harry married Ingrid Lindcrantz (1916-1994) in 1942.
One of his most noted works is the poetic cycle Aniara, which is a story of the spacecraft Aniara that during a journey through space loses its course and subsequently floats on without destination. The book was published in 1956 and became an opera in 1959 composed by Karl-Birger Blomdahl. The cycle has been described as “an epic story of man’s fragility and folly”.
The joint selection of Eyvind Johnson and Martinson for the Nobel Prize in 1974, was very controversial as both were members of the Swedish Academy and thus on the Nobel panel.Graham Greene, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov were the favoured candidates that year.
The sensitive Martinson found it hard to cope with the criticism following his award, and committed suicide on 11;February 1978 at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm by cutting his stomach open with a pair of scissors in what has been described as a “hara-kiri-like manner”.