Molly Johnson’s work holds a particular place within Swedish working-class literature. Her debut book, Pansarkryssaren, from 1955 has been termed a modern classic.
Molly Johnson was born in Hofors in 1931. She was brought up within a working-class family as the eldest of three daughters. Having obtained her school-leaving certificate in 1948 she initially worked as home-help in Stockholm, studied at the Poppius school of journalism, and took courses at Kvinnliga medborgarskolan (the female citizens' school) at Fogelstad in Sörmland. During the 1961–1962 period she trained at the Stockholm Journalistinstitut.
Molly Johnson had formed a personal contact network through the meetings she attended at Fogelstad when she was younger. It included the likes of Honorine Hermelin, and it served her well for many decades. Further, Vännernas samfund (the Quakers) and the Internationella arbetslag (IAL) (International Labour Association) also proved very important to her initial development and choice of direction. In 1949 she made her way to London where, along with other volunteers, she helped to create a playground in the bombed out East End of the city. She then spent time at a so-called Bruderhof community in Birmingham, a Christian society which believe in Spartan and collective ideals and which left a deep impact on her, as had the time she spent at the IAL camp in Hildesheim in Germany. The physical duties of the camp in bombed-out Hildesheim involved erecting a youth hostel. At the same time, working with IAL represented something far greater – the bringing together of young people from different countries and engendering trust that a peaceful and mutually-supportive Europe was possible.
Molly Johnson met the man who became her husband, Åke Forselius, while she was working with IAL. They got married in 1950 and, shortly thereafter, they settled in the Dala region where they raised their children. Molly Johnson was a busy housewife, an author, and a freelance contributor to newspapers and journals, and sometimes even worked as a temporary journalist, cleaner, and health-care assistant. She had a large network of author friends and reviewers who valued and supported her literary activities, although her creative work often suffered from her own artistic self-criticism and lack of self-belief. After divorcing her husband in 1983 Molly Johnson lived variously in Stockholm, or in Borlänge and Gustafs in the Dala region. She undertook lengthy overseas visits to Europe, North America (USA and Canada), and southern Africa (Zimbabwe). Although she led a reclusive life she had a large circle of friends.
As a teenager Molly Johnson had already published some fairy tales and short stories in journals and anthologies. She was 24 years old when her first book, Pansarkryssaren, was published in 1955. She then released a children’s book in 1956 entitled Guje med flätorna, and much later another novel called Morbror Anders, in 1984. She also published a couple of books aimed at adults with reading difficulties: Mormorsboken in 1977, jointly with her mother and one of her daughters, and Amerika-breven in 1989. Both books are based on surroundings and impressions which date from her childhood in Hofors (“Grusviken”) and/or her own family history.
It was her two shorter novels which gained the most attention and were most loved by both readers and reviewers alike. Pansarkryssaren tells of a revolution which occurs spontaneously. The first episode in the novel – originally published as a short story in Bonniers Litterära Magasin in 1954 – is inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s film Pansarkryssaren Potemkin, which tells of the sailors’ rebellion when their ship comes into Odessa harbour. Molly Johnson’s version has the revolutionary vessel travelling up the river in Grusviken, a small community toiling under the demands of the ironworks and where the inhabitants are not inclined toward rebellion. The ensuing episode of the novel focuses on global capitalism through events which unfurl at a luxury hotel in the Bahamas, whilst the third and last episode portrays the work of Grusviken ironworks and its destructive impact on the workers.
What is unique about Pansarkryssaren, particularly when not read as part of the tradition of working-class literature, is its modernist construction. Molly Johnson has made use of a montage technique which is reminiscent of the art of constructing a film. She efficiently combines various style-types and perspectives. Excerpts in the form of letters, reports, and narratives in spoken dialect alternate with narration from an omniscient perspective.
In Morbror Anders Molly Johnson tells of a relative who was shaped by the working community’s expectations and limitations. Anders never became the “working person” which was expected of his surroundings. He was a sensitive soul who had been subjected to his father’s brutal parenting. Following a period of heavy drinking during his twenties he was sectioned in a mental-health institution, where he subsequently remained for thirty years. As the story is being told he is already old, dying, and being cared for by his niece. Molly Johnson referred to this novel as a “Hofors-documentary” and a “literary experiment in non-artistry”.
In her novels – as in most of what she wrote – Molly Johnson sought to shine a spotlight on issues such as the relationship between people and heavy manual labour. She had seen from an early age how industrial labouring extinguished people’s dreams and squashed their talents – not just those of the workers but even of their family members. To her, revolution was not primarily an issue of material redistribution or class war. It was an idealistic vision where every person would be able to fulfil themselves and complete their inner desires through beneficial and creative work. She had been inspired in this thought process by attending meetings of value-based movements such as the Fogelstad circle, the Quakers, IAL, and Bruderhof, as well as through comprehensive reading of material by authors like Carl Jonas Love Almquist, Fredrika Bremer, and Hagar Olsson. This vision is expressed, paradoxically so, in the dystopian themes of her novels. Pansarkryssaren exsanguinates the one who – had he lived – would have become the saviour of the world, a seven-year old beggar boy in the Bahamas, whilst the workers at the Grusviken ironworks are forced to produce steel for military machines instead of doing work to benefit future generations. The final words are borrowed from Almquist: “work should be clever: but if it is not clever, then it should be good; and if it is not good then it should have its origins in the love of God and people”.
Molly Johnson also wrote a considerable number of short stories, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews which were published in newspapers and journals, including several audio plays which were transmitted on the radio and a couple of plays which were performed on the stage.
Molly Johnson died in Stockholm in 2016. She is buried at the Norra cemetery in Solna.