Carl Sandburg and the Nobel prize

I imitated Sandburg as closely as I could”

Swedish writer and Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson, prior to perfecting his own style

2004 marks the centenary of the birth of the Swedish writer Harry Martinson. Martinson´s journey through life, from his beginnings as a foster child, through a period as a vagabond reduced to begging, followed by election to the Swedish Academy in 1949 and becoming the joint winner of the Nobel Prize in 1974 in Literature, is one of the most fascinating life stories in twentieth- century Swedish literature.

Harry Martinson´s first collection of poems, Ghost Ship, was published in 1929. It consisted of poems employing motifs that reflected the sea and the life of a seaman. In 1930, he contributed to an anthology of work by members of the writers´ group known as Fem Unga (Five Young Writers). This book became one of the ground-breaking works of modern Swedish literature.


Modernism praised life, affirming the modern era, its machines and its pulsating power. It represented a freer view of love and sexuality and battled against cliche´s in all areas of life. The intention of poetry was not merely to provide enjoyment and an uncritical sense of calm, but rather to free humanity and intensify the experience of real life. The young poets abandoned traditional forms of poetry, and wrote in free verse, unfettered by conventional metric forms.

The impulses driving modernist literature in Sweden came from many sources including Russian poets, Finnish authors who wrote in Swedish and, above all, American poets in general and Carl Sandburg in particular.

 Sandburg and Martinson

Martinson gained a dazzling mastery of the new poetic style, characterized by rich imagery. His poetry, like Sandburg´s often exhibited precise, concrete and detailed observation. Despite the sober tone of Martinson´s poetry, his precise observations give the reader a sense of being present at the events depicted. His bold associations contributed to the capacity of his poetry to elicit powerful moods. The combination of sweeping visions and exact details characterizes both Martinson and Sandburg.

Harry Martinson was the joint winner of Nobel Price for Literature in 1974, while Carl Sandburg was nominated for the Prize  seven times – in 1940, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1958 and 1959 – but never won it.

Sandburg and Martinson met once, during Sandburg´s last visit to Sweden in 1959.

How winners of the Nobel Price for Literature are chosen.

The Swedish Academy founded in 1786, was assigned the task choosing the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902. The Academy has 18 members, who are elected for life.

To be eligible for the Nobel Prize, a candidate must be nominated by a suitably qualified person. The following are entitled to nominate candidates for the Nobel Prize for literature; members of the Swedish Academy and other national academies worldwide, professors of literary and linguistic disciplines at universities, former winners of the Nobel Price for Literature, and presidents of authors´ organisations.

All nominations must be supported by a motivation and are subject to total secrecy.

In the process of choosing a Nobel Prize winner, the Swedish Academy is assisted by a Nobel Commitee comprising three to five Academy members. The Committee´s task is to prepare the ground for considerations of the candidates by registering, collecting and presenting nominations and commissioning various studies of the authors in question after which the Committee members make recommendations to the Academy, on which the preliminay list of candidates is based.

Preliminary list of candidates

After the Academy has approved the Nobel Committee´s preliminary list, it requests the Committee to prepare a definitive list of approximately five priority candidates. During the summer, Academy members are required to read from the production of the shortlisted candidates. Many of the more prominent literary figures recur on the definitive list year after year. By the end the summer vacation period, the Committee members are expected to have done their homework and in the first half of October the Academy reaches a decision. For the choise of a prizewinner at least twelve of the 18 members must have cast their votes and a candidate must receive more than half of the votes cast.

Sandburg the Candidate

As the Academy´s expert on American literature and a member of the Nobel Committee, Per Hallström had a strong influence on whether Sandburg should receive the price or not.

In his biography you can read;”Pessimism is the basic chord in his writing and Schopenhauer his philosopher.”

It was not unnatural that Hallström disliked the work of Sandburg. Sandburg the optimist who describe America as a strong and wonderful country, including during the 1950s  when the U.S. was not exactly popular among cultural celebrities in Sweden.

Nevertheless Sandburg had many supporters in Sweden and in 1950 he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Uppsala. However Sandburg did not come to Uppsala to receive the honor in person. This disappointed his supporters, who had long backed Sandburg as a worthy candidate for the Nobel Price. Accordingly, it is likely that his decision not to come to Sweden had a negative influence on his candidature

 Priority candidate

Harry Martinson on the other hand, after being elected to the Academy in 1949, himself nominated Sandburg for the Nobel Price in 1953. At this time, Martinson was well aware of the procedures applied by the Academy, and as a result his nomination was well supported and Sandburg was probably one of the priority candidates that year. However Winston Churchill was the eventual winner in 1953 followed by Ernest Hemingway in 1954.

Any list of the 10 most famous writers never to have been  awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature would be every bit as impressive as a list of the 10 most famous winners of the prize. As well as Sandburg, those who did not make the grade include Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Graham Greene, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen. 

Tomas Junglander

Primary Source: The Swedish Academy

All information regarding the Nobel Price is classified for fifty years