Linnaeus’ life told in slang from Southside Stockholm
”Charlie Linnaeus” by the Black Mask
The book Swedish Hist’ry Told Real Quick by the Southside Kid, Willy Anderson was published in 1923. The author was given as the Black Mask, which was a pseudonym for Anna Myrberg. This book includes a life of Linnaeus, as told in slang from the Southside of Stockholm: “Charlie Linnaeus was a kid with a light curly do, though he was born in the darkest part of Småland,” the tale starts.
We have reached a period whose humor we can understand. Myrberg writes the way it sounded when young people talked to each other on the streets of Stockholm in the 1920s. You recognize it from old black-and-white movies you see on TV. On the dust cover the author writes that Stockholm slang—or ‘Southside American’ as it is also called—may not be the most beautiful language, but it’s unusually easy to understand. She wouldn’t dare to recommend it for use in primary and secondary schools, though she does think that “children, educators, and the general public should take a break and have some fun once in a while,” adding “We’re only human after all.”
Swedish Hist’ry contains a series of tales about various historical figures, and the story behind the book is said to be that Willy Anderson got to school late so often that his teacher gave him an assignment to make up the history lessons he had missed by writing down everything he knew about Swedish kings and queens.
“You know about as much hist’ry as my ol’ cardigan hangin’ up in the attic,” the teacher had said to him. Whereupon Willy made up his mind to show that teacher that he sure knew his history “though it sure will take a lot o’ messin’’ n’ tinkerin’”.
Even if you can’t believe everything it says in the text, it does provide a picture of Linnaeus that is rather close to what the encyclopedias say. Here’s how Myrberg’s text sounds:
"When Charlie got ta school the teacher had a heckuva time gettin’ ’m to catch on, ’n’ he finally tol’ Charlie’s ol’ man that the kid was a first-class numbskull ’n’ they oughta try n’ edjicate ’m ta make traps for rats or ta shov’l snow off roofs instead, ye know? “That turnip for a head o’ his jus’ goes roun’ and roun’,” he wrote on his report card, “’cuz all he wants ta do is traipse around the countryside ’n’ pick up all sortsa junk.”
If you look him up in Nordisk Familjebok (Nordic Family Book), an encyclopedia published about ten years earlier, you will find, sure enough:
During his entire school period Linnaeus was extremely eager to learn all the herbs […] He did not have much of a mind for any other schoolwork, and toward the end of his upper-secondary schooling, his father received reports from most of the teachers that his son was very weak in all of the most important [...] subjects.
Isn’t it strange that a text suddenly appears that speaks to us directly? Why do the poems from the 18th and 19th centuries not seem to be so close? What happened in the meantime to people’s way of thinking and expressing themselves? Could this text have been written in the 18th century? And by a woman? A part of Myrberg’s text is about Linnaeus’ father “who was a preacherman” and how he “stood there yellin’ his head off in church.” Expressing yourself this way was not considered appropriate in Linnaeus’ own times. It could be said that Myrberg is making fun of respecting authorities.
The boy telling us the story was quick to be mischievous with his parents, his minister, and professors. And by choosing a naughty boy as her narrator, the author can write disrespectfully about things she should otherwise be polite about. On the other hand, if you want to write something funny, there’s no better subject than something that is solemn.
You can wonder whether the times had become more receptive to this type of humor. Swedish Hist’ry is just one of several humorous books by the Black Mask.
She also contributed to a couple of magazines, including the humor publication Casper. At any rate, in the early 1920s these magazines kept Swedes doubled over with laughter in their homes.
The author Anna Myrberg / Black Mask
-humorist, but also a serious poet
Behind the pseudonym ‘Black Mask’ we find the author Anna Fredrika Myrberg (1878–1931). Together with her mother she moved from Värmland in western Sweden to Stockholm to find employment after her father died. She trained to be a photo-engraver. She found work both at a photographer’s studio and at a Stockholm newspaper. Through her writing she came to be one of the city’s best-known personalities. Sometimes she read her texts to small audiences and apparently left them writhing with laughter.
It isn’t easy to find out what Anna Myrberg was like as a person. Some sources describe her as lonesome and unhappy, while others say she was happy, strong, and independent. However, it does appear that she was a rather serious person despite her humorous texts. She had a hunchback and “dragged one leg behind her when she walked.” “Look—there’s the Black Mask!” children would shout when they saw her. Sometimes she had to write standing up because her back hurt so much, and that would not exactly make life easier, of course.
But she did write; ”idiot poems”, vignettes, and comic sketches, but also lyrics for revue couplets and hits. Some were truly popular, like “Saturday waltz.” It starts with “Come with me, Augusta, put your arm around my neck…” Ask some elderly Swedish person, and maybe you’ll get a song and a nostalgic look.
Her tales about the mischievous boy Willy Anderson was also turned into a screenplay for a film by the same name, made in 1929.
Anna Myrberg’s specialty was to write in Southside Stockholm slang. She wasn’t the first to do so. Emil Norlander, for example, wrote Anderson’s Charlie in 1901. But nobody had ever written Swedish history in that way.
Myrberg shows her serious sides in a collection of poems filled with smallness and fragility. For instance, the poem “The Doll” contains these lines:
As a child, I remember I had
A doll, so dainty and fine,
With long golden locks
And a dress of white muslin.
My mother sat and watched me play,
Slowly rolling her yarn..
She said: “I too have a doll,
And that doll is you, my child.
O, mother, the doll you owned,
Has been tossed hither and thither,
And her dress is no longer
As radiantly white as it was.
And her limbs have been twisted,
The rosy cheek is now pale,
Because the hands were not gentle
That played with your doll.
For her, your hair has turned gray,
And the tears are flowing still —
Tell me, mother, can you fix your doll
And make her like new again?
Lena Perssons förord i Svarta Maskens Dårdikter: samt humoresker och slagdängor i urval (Stockholm, 1984)