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Ivar Lo-Johansson on the author and his task

Ivar Lo-Johansson
Ivar Lo-Johansson, 1939. Photo: Gunnar Lundh / Nordic Museum (CC BY-NC-ND)

Is the author's task merely to amuse the masses? Not if you asked Ivar Lo-Johansson (1901-1990).

Ivar Lo-Johansson was born in 1901 on the Ådala farm in Ösmo parish, Södermanland, and during the 1930s became one of the most noted and read the proletarian authors, i.e. a writer with a working-class background who was also often self-taught.

Among the great working-class writers are names like Vilhelm Moberg, Fabian Månsson, Sara Lidman, Eyvind Johnson, Moa Martisson, Alfred Kämpe, Jan Fridegård, Fredrik Ström, and others. They were writers who used the power of words to bring about change, sometimes simply by describing the reality they themselves had experienced.

Language is not an end in itself. It is the tool with which a writer should accomplish something. To write poetry, to create literature, means to take a stand. A writer should commit himself.

Ivar-Lo Johansson, Being a Writer, Days and Daily Work (1975)

Ivar belongs to the statar school, which is a term for the working-class writers who, in the 1930s, depicted in their novels states and the living conditions of agricultural workers. Among his best-known works are Goodnight Earth (1933), Statarna (1936-37) and The land workers (1941). The unfree state system had begun to decline in the 1930s, but Ivar's writing and agitation are thought to have contributed to its eventual abolition in 1945.

ca 1910: Statare. Dairy cows and farmhands at the barn. Julita farm, Södermanland. Nordic Museum NMA.0040766

The purpose of a righteous writer, according to Ivar, is to revolt against the injustices of his time. That is where the commitment must lie, whether the oppression is against oneself or someone else.

He can, of course, be engaged in many ways, depending on the contradictions between himself and his time and the world he lives in. He may feel called upon to do so on behalf of others or on behalf of all humanity, but almost always it is a matter of protest against oppression in the world to which he belongs. If the oppression does not concern him directly, it may concern a class of people, a group, a society, when he must revolt against the oppressors. [...] The tasks of a writer's writing may change from time to time, but the purpose is almost always the same, that of revolt.

Ivar-Lo Johansson, Being a Writer, Days and Daily Work (1975)

How then does such a revolt begin? Well, by using language to open the eyes of the oppressed. We have to put into words the injustices that people suffer, what oppression means, what is at risk. Lo-Johansson writes:

It is his duty to use language, his tool, to open people's eyes, so that they will understand the oppression, its meaning, its danger. He must teach others to recognise themselves in their oppression, something they might not otherwise have thought of doing themselves.

To give a voice to the people who had none, that's what the workers' writers did. Of course, our time is not without its injustices either, and just as in the early 20th century, there are people and groups without a voice in our time. People who are waiting for their writer or journalist. People waiting for their revolt.

”De som har ordet i sin makt måste kämpa emot dem som har makten”, skrev Vilhelm Moberg, och Lo-Johansson skulle nog vara benägen att hålla med:

The author is a worker in his own time. The pen is the lightest of all tools, but with it the most difficult things can be done. To use it for good is what he owes his language and his country.

Ivar-Lo Johansson, Being a Writer, Days and Daily Work (1975)

Ivar Lo-Johansson's view of the author's task rhymes with the view expressed by Vilhelm Moberg in 1959:

There is a kind of writing that is a form of reaction against the author's environment, against the pressures of the world in which he lives, a reaction against the ills and conventions of society - ultimately against those in power. I regard this poetry as a healthy stinging salt, which helps to preserve the body of society against decay.

Vilhelm Moberg, The authors and social criticism, Clarté no 2 1959

What injustices a writer of our time should focus on, I don't know if Lo-Johansson had any opinion on towards the end of his life, but for Vilhelm Moberg the big topic was a given:

In a country where man is being squeezed between parties, organisations and groups, this poem has its great subject: the citizen-state, individual-collective contradictions. Those who have the power of the word must fight against those who have the power - to paraphrase Strindberg - the writers in the first place must go out fighting for the right to dissent. [...] In Oscarian Sweden, poets targeted a small privileged class. Now the Power is soon something anonymous, a collective that cannot be grasped. The pressure of this collective on the individual will, I believe, force a new literature.

Vilhelm Moberg, The authors and social criticism, Clarté no 2 1959

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One thought on “Ivar Lo-Johansson om författaren och hans uppgift

  1. Anette Tamm says:

    Superbly well written! So important and I have shared on FB. Working as a publisher with start-up publishing house and our responsibility is to fight against Goliath for the written words with meaning - best regards Anette Tamm

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