Sienkiewicz, Henryk (5 May 1846 – 15 November 1916)
Sienkiewicz, Henryk (5 May 1846 – 15 November 1916)
Henryk Sienkiewicz (5 May 1846 – 15 November 1916)
Michael J. Mikoś
University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee
BOOKS: Humoreski z teki Worszyłły, 2 volumes (Warsaw: Przegląd Tygodniowy, 1872);
Bez tytułu (N.p., 1873);
Sprawy bieżące (N.p., 1874);
Chwila obecna (N.p., 1875);
Na marne (Warsaw: Przeglad Tygodniowy, 1876); translated by Jeremiah Curtin as In Vain (Boston: Little, Brown, 1899);
Listy z podróży po Ameryce (dokończenie); Listy z Rzymu i Pariża; Komedya z pomykk (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1880); Listy z podróży po Ameryce edited and translated by Charles Morley as Portrait of America: Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959);
Stary sługa; Hania; Szkice węglem; Janko Muzykant (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1880);
Przez stepy; Orso; Z pamiętnika poznań skiego nauczyciela; Czyja wina?; Za chlebem (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1880);
Latarnik; Niewola tatarska; Jamioł Na jedną kartę; Bartek Zwycięzca (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1882);
Ogniem i mieczem, 4 volumes (Warsaw: Słowo, 1883–1884); translated by Curtin as With Fire and Sword: An Historical Novel of Poland and Russia, 2 volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1890);
Potop, 6 volumes (Warsaw: Słowo, 1885–1886); translated by Curtin as The Deluge: An Historical Novel of Poland, Sweden, and Russia: A Sequel to “With Fire and Sword,” 2 volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1891);
Pan Wołodyjowski, 3 volumes (Warsaw: Słowo, 1887–1888); translated by Curtin as Pan Michael: An Historical Novel of Poland, the Ukraine, and Turkey: A Sequel to “With Fire and Sword” and “The Deluge” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1893);
Ta trzecia; Sachem; Sielanka; Wspomnienie z Maripozy; Z puszczy Białowieskiej; Wycieczka do Aten (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1889);
Bez dogmatu (Warsaw: Słowo, 1891); translated by Iza Young as Without Dogma: A Novel of Modern Poland (Boston: Little, Brown, 1893);
Listy z Afryki (Warsaw: Słowo, 1893);
Wyrok Zeusa; Z wrażen włoskich; Organista z Ponikły Uźródła Lux in tenebris lucet; Bądź błogosławiona!; Pójdźmy za Nim!; Listy o Zoli (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1894);
Rodzina Połanieckich (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1895); translated by Curtin as Children of the Soil (Boston: Little, Brown, 1895);
Nowele (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1896);
Quo vadis (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1896); translated by Curtin as Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (Boston: Little, Brown, 1896);
Na jasnym brzegu (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1897);
Krzyżacy (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1900); translated by Curtin as The Knights of the Cross, 2 volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1900);
Mieszaniny literacko-artystyczne, 2 volumes (Warsaw: Redakcya Tygodnika Illustrowanego, 1902);
Chwila obecna, 3 volumes (Warsaw: Redakcya Tygodnika Illustrowanego, 1903);
Pisma ulotne: 1869–1873 (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1905);
Na polu chwały (Warsaw: S. Orgelbrand, 1906); translated by Curtin as On the Field of Glory: An Historical Novel of the Time of King John Sobieski (Boston: Little, Brown, 1906);
Wiry, 2 volumes (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1912 [i.e., 1911]); translated by Max A. Drezmal as Whirlpools: A Novel of Modern Poland (Boston: Little, Brown, 1910);
W pustyni i w puszczy (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1912 [i.e., 1911]); translated by Drezmal as In Desert and Wilderness (Boston: Little, Brown, 1912);
Legiony (Warsaw: Gebethner & Wolff, 1918).
Editions and Collections: Dzieła, 60 volumes, edited by Julian Krzyzanowski and others (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1948–1955);
Pisma wybrane, 17 volumes (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1976–1978);
Felietony warszawskie, 1873–1882, edited by Stanisław Fita (Warsaw: Typografika, 2002).
Editions in English: Yanko the Musician and Other Stories, translated by Jeremiah Curtin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1893);
Lillian Morris, and Other Stories, translated by Curtin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1894);
Let Us Follow Him, and Other Stories, translated by Sigmund C. Slupski and Iza Young (Philadelphia: H. Altemus, 1896);
For Daily Bread, and Other Stories, translated by Young (Philadelphia: H. Altemus, 1896);
After Bread: A Story of Polish Emigrant Life to America, translated by Vatslaf A. Hlasko and Thomas H. Bullick (New York: R. F. Fenno, 1897)–includes “An Excursion to Athens”;
Hania, translated by Curtin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1897);
Knights of the Cross, part 1, translated by S. C. de Soissons (New York: R. F. Fenno, 1897);
On the Sunny Shore, translated by de Soissons (New York: R. F. Fenno, 1897);
Sielanka: A Forest Picture, and Other Stories, translated by Curtin (New York: Little, Brown, 1898);
So Runs the World, translated by de Soissons (London & New York: F. T Neely, 1898);
Tales from Sienkiewicz, translated by de Soissons (New York: J. Pott, 1899);
Dust and Ashes; or, Demolished, translated by J. Christian Bay (New York: F. T Neely, 1899);
The New Soldier; or, Nature and Life, translated by Bay (New York: F. T Neely, 1899);
Her Tragic Fate, translated by Bay (New York: F. T Neely, 1899);
Where Worlds Meet, translated by Bay (New York: F. T Neely, 1899);
In Monte Carlo: A Story, translated by de Soissons (London: S. Paul / Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1900);
The Irony of Life: The Polanetzki Family, translated by Nathan M. Babad (New York: R. F. Fenno, 1900);
The Judgment of Peter and Paul on Olympus: A Poem in Prose, translated by Curtin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1900);
Tales, translated by de Soissons (London: Allen, 1901);
Life and Death, and Other Legends and Stories, translated by Curtin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1904);
Tales from Henryk Sienkiewicz, edited by Monica M. Gardner (London & Toronto: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1931);
With Fire and Sword, translated by W. S. Kuniczak (Fort Washington, Pa.: Copernicus Society of America / New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991).
PLAY PRODUCTION: Na jedną kartę, Lwów, Lwów Theatre, 14 March 1879.
OTHER: Prusse et Pologne: Enquête internationale organisêe par Henryk Sienkiewicz (Paris: Bureau de l’Agence polonaise de presse, 1909).
Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905 “for his outstanding merit as an epic writer.” His books had attracted a wide readership both at home and abroad. William Faulkner, in his foreword to The Faulkner Reader (1954), recalled encountering in his grandfather’s library one of Sienkiewicz’s books and a comment that particularly impressed him: “Na tym kończy się ten szereg książek pisanych w ciągu kilku lat i w niemalym trudzie—dla pokrzepienia sere” (This book was written in the course of several years and at the expense of considerable effort to uplift men’s hearts). Years later, Faulkner realized that “that half-forgotten Pole had had the answer all the time. To uplift man’s heart; the same for all of us.… We all write for this one purpose.” Faulkner was only one of many American admirers of Sienkiewicz’s novels. His Quo vadis (which first appeared in the periodical Gazeta Polska between 26 March 1895 and 29 February 1896), translated by Jeremiah Curtin and published in Boston in 1896, sold 600,000 copies in the first eighteen months, climbed to the top of many bestseller lists, and generated increased American interest in Sienkiewicz’s other books. On 19 November 1900, just after he had finished his vice-presidential campaign, Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Curtin:
Now that the campaign is over I must tell you that during its continuance I was obliged frequently to find solace in reading your wonderful translations of Sienkiewicz’s great novels.… If you ever write to him I wish you would tell him how much comfort he gave a vice presidential candidate in the midst of an exceedingly active campaign, and also tell him that I had a regiment of men in the Spanish war whom I think would have been esteemed very competent fighters even by the associates of Zagłoba and the Knight of Bogdaniec.
Although Faulkner by 1954 was calling him “half-forgotten,” Sienkiewicz was the first Polish writer to win broad international recognition.
Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz, the second of six children, was born on 5 May 1846 in Wola Okrzejska, a village in Podlasie, an eastern province of Russian-occupied Poland. His father, Józef Sienkiewicz, was an impoverished landowner whose ancestors were Lithuanian Tartars, while his mother, Stefania Cieciszowska, came from a prominent family of noblemen and intellectuals. Sienkiewicz grew up in the country, where he became familiar with the lives, language, and customs of local peasants. He heard stories of family patriotic traditions and read books, found in an attic chest, written by Polish writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1812—1813) in Polish translation. He dreamed of becoming a knight or settling on a deserted island.
In 1858 Sienkiewicz moved to Warsaw, where he attended several schools. Otherwise a mediocre pupil, he excelled in his studies of Polish and history. He read Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, afterward Homer and William Shakespeare, and began to try his hand at writing. Unable to support himself, he left school in August 1865 and for a year worked as a tutor in Poświętne, a village near Płońsk. In September 1866 he passed his final examinations and in October entered Warsaw University. He studied law, switched to medicine, and in February 1867 transferred to the department of history and literature. He lived in poverty, supported himself by tutoring, and published his first reviews and literary studies, working at the same time on his first novel, Na marne (1876; translated as In Vain, 1899), which he finished in 1871 and published in the periodical Wieniec (7 May–27 July 1872). In the same year he left the university without taking his final examinations and embarked on a journalistic and literary career.
After completing Na marne, Sienkiewicz wrote two volumes of Humoreski z teki Worszyłły (1872, Humoresques from Worszyłło’s Portfolio), a collection of satirical pieces, and three volumes of witty feuilletons (1873–1875) dealing with matters of daily life and social issues. As did many of his colleagues in the journalistic and literary milieu, he supported the doctrine of positivism. Following the ideas of the French and English founders of positivism, among them Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, Sienkiewicz and other journalists and writers advocated “organic work,” asserting that the strength and unity of a society required that all of its members excel in their efforts. They postulated the introduction of new methods in industry, agriculture, and commerce. They urged individuals and all classes to work “at the foundation,” with the goal of establishing a just society. Specifically, they spoke up in support of peasants, women, and Jews and called for mass education, better schools, revised textbooks, and modern libraries. As their ultimate goals, Polish positivists envisioned novel ways of thinking, a new social consciousness, and, most important, a renewed and free nation.
From 1873 to 1876 Sienkiewicz polished his journalistic skills in the service of the progressive “new press,” writing essays, reviews, and reports, such as a dramatic description of a fire in Pułtusk. He also published in Warsaw periodicals his first short stories, “Stary sługa” (1875, The Old Servant), “Hania” (1876), and “Selim Mirza” (1877). “Stary sługa” is a moving tale about a man who had been with the narrator’s family since the heroic days of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign. The narrator’s memories go back to his parents’ country manor, filled with love and patriotic tradition, and to the eccentric old man, who alternately annoys the household members with his grumbling and disarms them with his devotion. In “Hania,” the serious and insecure narrator, Henryk, competes against his spirited friend Selim for the heart of Hania, the old servant’s beautiful granddaughter. The story is set again in the romantic atmosphere of the Polish countryside, but the action, full of humor and adventure, takes a tragicomic turn when the two young men clash in a duel, and Hania enters a convent. “Selim Mirza” takes the two protagonists to France, where they join a partisan detachment during the Franco-Prussian War and where Selim, who is in love with beautiful Lidia La Grange, falls on the battlefield.
In 1876 Sienkiewicz left for the United States as a correspondent of the Warsaw periodical Gazeta Polska (The Polish Gazette). He was followed by several writers and artists, including a famous actress, Helena Modrzejewska (known later under her English stage name, Modjeska) and her husband, Count Karol Bożenta Chłapowski. Their goal was to organize a phalanstery, an artistic commune in southern California, and to search for professional opportunities, unavailable in the stifling atmosphere of Warsaw. They settled in Anaheim, and although the commune dispersed after several months, both Sienkiewicz and Modjeska reaped the benefits of their American experience: Modjeska by launching her distinguished acting career in the United States, and Sienkiewicz by publishing his Listy z podróży po Ameryce (1880, Letters from a Trip to America; translated as Portrait of America: Letters, 1959), which appeared first in Gazeta Polska from 9 May 1876 to 23 March 1878 under the title Listy Litwosa z podróży (“Litwos” being the author’s pseudonym). The letters offer insightful vignettes of American life, vivid sketches of American Indians, accounts of his meeting with Polish Americans, and travel impressions from such places as Niagara Falls or a hunting trip in the San Bernardino Mountains. More important, they display for the first time Sienkiewicz’s art of painting magnificent scenes of nature and wildlife, among them lavish descriptions of buffalo hunting on the Wyoming prairies and of California forests, deserts, and canyons. They also include seeds of his short stories and a colorful gallery of characters that reappear in his novels.
On the way back from his two-year travels on the American continent, Sienkiewicz spent a year in Europe, indulging in his lifelong habit of constant travels, during which he wrote, searched for materials, and rested. During his stay in Paris, he became acquainted with the French theater, the writings of Anatole France and Emile Zola, and the trend of naturalism in literature. After returning to Poland in 1879, he published in Warsaw newspapers several short stories inspired by the ideas of positivism. They included “Szkice węglem” (1877, Charcoal Sketches), a grim picture of the peasants’ life; “Janko Muzykant” (1879, Yanko the Musician), a story of a gifted peasant boy beaten to death for stealing a violin; “Za chlebem” (1880, After Bread), an account of the tragic fate of Polish emigrants in the United States; and “Bartek Zwycięzca” (1882, Bartek the Conqueror), a tale of a Polish peasant victimized in the Prussian-controlled region. But other short stories, such as “Niewola tatarska” (1880, The Tartar Captivity) and the haunting tale “Latarnik” (1881, The Lighthouse Keeper), signaled a change in Sienkiewicz’s political allegiance and literary interests.
“Niewola tatarska” is written in the form of a seventeenth-century memoir of an impoverished nobleman who joins the Polish cavalry in order to distinguish himself in the eyes of a senator and win the hand of the senator’s daughter. Wounded and taken captive by the Tartars, he suffers hunger, cold, and tortures, but steadfastly holds onto his faith and honor and finally returns in glory to Poland. Although he fails to marry his beloved or achieve happiness, he remains constant in his attachment to spiritual values.
“Latarnik” is a story of a lonely Polish insurrectionist, who after years of battles, misfortunes, and wanderings all over the world finds a position as a lighthouse keeper in Aspinwall in Panama, which brings him a peaceful and happy existence. But one day he receives a package containing Pan Tadeusz (1834, Master Thaddeus), a nostalgic epic poem by his countryman Adam Mickiewicz. Engrossed in the magic of its language and transported in thought to his native village, the old man loses track of time, forgets to light the lantern, and is dismissed from his post. Yet, even though the next day he again becomes a homeless wanderer, his eyes shine with joy, for he carries next to his heart the Polish book, his most precious possession.
Sienkiewicz’s Listy z podróży and his short stories, especially “Latarnik,” met with a favorable reception. On 14 March 1879 the Lwów Theatre staged Sienkiewicz’s play, Na jedną kartę (On a Single Card), performed later in other cities, including Warsaw, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. His growing reputation among readers and critics was confirmed in October 1879, when Gebethner and Wolff, a leading Warsaw publishing house, brought out a volume of his writings (dated 1880) under the collective rubric Pisma and followed it with additional volumes in 1880 (thirty-eight volumes were published by 1917). Just about that time Sienkiewicz retreated from the ideology of positivism, criticized the tenets of naturalism, and turned his attention to the historical novel.
In 1881 Sienkiewicz married Maria Szetkiewicz, who bore him two children, Henryk and Jadwiga, and brought him four years of happiness before succumbing to tuberculosis. This period coincided with Sienkiewicz’s decisive turn toward the past and his resolve of “uplifting men’s hearts,” as he was preparing to deal with the grand themes of Polish Romantic poetry. He arrived at this program by evaluating the current political situation. Once a powerful and proud republic, Poland was dismembered by the autocratic states of Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1795. The Polish people, defeated in two uprisings in 1831 and 1863, were now threatened by the aggressive policies of Russian and Prussian governments, which were determined to root out all aspects of Polish national identity, especially its language and religion. A patriot and artist, Sienkiewicz was sensitive to his countrymen’s plight and their need for spiritual support so that they would be able to preserve their heritage, stand up to foreign oppression, and eventually regain independence. Even though he was fettered by the stringent rules of Russian censorship, Sienkiewicz resolved to provide them such sustenance.
With these ideas in mind, Sienkiewicz began to study documents, chronicles, and memoirs as well as the Polish literature of the seventeenth century. His three books in thirteen volumes— Ogniem, i mieczem (translated as With Fire and Sword, 1890), published first in the periodical Słowo (The Word) from 2 May 1883 to 1 March 1884; Potop (translated as The Deluge, 1891), first published in Słowo from 23 December 1884 to 10 September 1886; and Pan Wołodyjowski (translated as Pan Michael, 1893), which appeared in Słowo from 2 June 1887 to 11 May 1888—are known informally as Trylogia (The Trilogy). These books, which brought their author critical acclaim and public admiration, formed national epics depicting the tumultuous years in the history of the Commonwealth and its victorious battles against Cossack, Swedish, and Turkish forces. The first part, Ogniem i mieczem, is set during the Ukrainian Cossacks’ revolt against the Polish kingdom in 1648. The bloody civil war that finally led to Moscow’s domination of the Ukraine and undermined the Polish state forms the background for a dramatic story filled with horror, heroism, romance, and humor. The valiant defense of Zbaraż by the heavily outnumbered Polish forces serves as a central symbol of the story. The novel features four protagonists: Jan Skrzetuski, a virtuous and valiant knight; Zagloba, a charming and resourceful braggart; Michał Wołodyjowski, a little knight with superior fencing skills; and Longinus Podbipięta, a meek giant of superhuman strength. Each represents a different region of the Commonwealth, and there are also many other memorable characters.
Potop is a novel about the 1655 Swedish invasion of Poland, when the army of King Charles Gustavus, aided by treacherous Polish and Lithuanian magnates, quickly overruns the country, forcing Polish king Jan Kazimierz to seek refuge on the borders of Silesia. The heroic forty-day defense of the monastery of Częstochowa, the shrine of the venerated Black Madonna, becomes a turning point of the war. The whole nation rises against the invaders. In 1656, threatened with total defeat, Charles Gustavus and the major units of his army beat a hasty retreat. Against this epic background, Sienkiewicz tells the love story of Andrzej Kmicic, a reckless young man who grows to become a heroic defender of the country, and Olerńka, a steadfast patriot. He introduces a cast of engaging characters, some of them known to the readers of Ogniem, i mieczem, and weaves a suspenseful tale of their valiant deeds.
The last part, Pan Wołodyjowski, begins with the election of King Michał Wiśniowiecki in 1669 and tells of Poland’s war against the Tartars and Turks, ending with Jan Sobieski’s victory at Chocim in 1673. It features Michał Wołodyjowski as a heroic and tragic defender of Kamieniec Podolski and his brave wife, Basia.
Sienkiewicz’s message of glorifying his ancestors’ chivalrous spirit and sustaining his compatriots in their struggle for freedom met with the overwhelming response of the readers. Printed in installments in Warsaw newspaper Słowo and Kraków’s Czas (Time), then in many book editions, Trylogia became the most popular novels in Poland and have remained so to this day. It was reported that during the serial publication of Ogniem i mieczem, every conversation began and ended with it. Readers thought and spoke of its protagonists as if they were living people and named their children after them. When Jan Skrzetuski, a hero of the novel, found himself in mortal danger, they prayed for him and wrote to Sienkiewicz imploring him to guide Jan’s steps to safety. A host of reviewers and lecturers analyzed every aspect of the book, while the enthusiastic public showered the author with decorations, honors, and gifts, including the sum of fifteen thousand rubles from an anonymous donor, which Sienkiewicz gave to the Kraków Academy of Sciences, with instructions to establish a grant in his late wife’s name for sick writers and artists. The popularity of Trylogia quickly extended abroad, as it was translated into more than twenty languages by 1970.
Trylogia displays the epic sweep of Sienkiewicz’s novels. In each of them, he introduces fictional characters and plots, setting them against real people and crucial historical events in the life of the nation. His big historical canvasses, modeled on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as on Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, depict mass battle scenes and individual duels, fought by heroes of superhuman strength. Almost six hundred active characters move along their individual paths in a grand display of fabulous adventures. The protagonists perform daring feats and set out on arduous journeys filled with chases, ambushes, and miraculous escapes. They devise clever stratagems and ingenious tricks in order to defeat rivals or avoid an impending disaster. They fall in love and, after formidable obstacles and prolonged periods of separation, come to enjoy marital bliss. The action is swift and suspenseful, accented by clever turns and effective climaxes. On certain occasions, an element of providential power intervenes in human affairs, especially on the side of the united defenders of the country, for as Zagloba remarks, “there are no such predicaments from which we would not be able to recover viribus unitis and with God’s help.”
A patriotic tone predominates in Trylogia. Even though Sienkiewicz pays tribute to the dedication of the Polish gentry and recognizes their leading role in the defense of the country, he does not overlook the democratic instincts displayed by the Polish people in the hour of trial. During the Swedish invasion, when the fate of Poland is at stake, inspired clergymen, unyielding burghers, and fierce peasants take arms in various parts of the country and join the noblemen, engaging the enemy in partisan warfare. When King Jan Kazimierz finds himself in mortal danger in a scene from Potop, his small escort surprised by a Swedish unit in a rocky ravine, he is rescued by local mountaineers who come down the snowy slopes and crush the Swedes. The national community is led in the war not by the king or a great magnate, but by Stefan Czarniecki, a courageous officer and patriot.
Sienkiewicz is also a grim realist. He brings to life a ruthless struggle between brothers and the desolation caused by constant warfare. He shows patriotic sacrifices and shameful defeats, steadfast virtue and craven treason, cruel leaders and cunning soldiers, without closing his eyes to his compatriots’ misdeeds. In several scenes, Sienkiewicz shows tortures and executions carried out by Polish and enemy soldiers. He describes the rapacity of the invaders, hard-fought battles, and bloody reprisals. He depicts the horrors of a civil war for peasants, as their crops are razed and stretches of the countryside are ravished by famine. And he covers a vast territory of the seventeenth-century Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, extending almost from the Baltic to the shores of the Black Sea across wild plains, forests, and remote lands.
The gloomy scenes in Trylogia are balanced by humorous and comic interludes, most often featuring Zagłoba, an opulent figure reminiscent of Falstaff and Ulysses. Other entertaining actors appear on the crowded stage, among them a clever servant, Rzędzian, and a dull-headed officer, Roch Kowalski. They are witty, always quick with deft expressions and sharp repartees, humorous in the way they look and act, and purely comic when they stumble into embarrassing situations. Sienkiewicz, like Charles Dickens, understands and sympathizes with his characters, reserving his anger only for the traitors. He takes ordinary persons and turns them into dazzling characters, exaggerating freely in the process, as he shapes them into giants of humor or horror. He laughs with them but also at them, showing their frailties and sins with good will and passing effortlessly from comedy to tragedy.
Throughout his stories and novels, Sienkiewicz excels in drawing portraits of scoundrels and evildoers. One of them, Brother Siegfried in Krzyżacy (1900; translated as The Knights of the Cross, 1900), is the ultimate villain of the piece, and yet in the final moments of his life he is transformed into a tragic figure. Sienkiewicz supports and consoles his protagonists, for he believes in the power of redemption and endows his world with a moral force that grows into the spirit of serene optimism.
Always concerned about the present state of the enslaved Poland, Sienkiewicz turned in his next two novels to the role played by the upper classes in contemporary society. He was particularly alarmed by the trends of decadence and agnosticism prevalent in fin de sięcle Europe. In his Bez dogmatu (1891; translated as Without Dogma, 1893), a psychological novel written in the form of a diary and first published in Słowo from 2 December 1889 to 11 October 1890, Sienkiewicz describes an intelligent and refined aristocrat, Leon Ploszowski, who is spiritually empty and morally indifferent. Skeptical and idle, he is unable to express his love for Anielka, an attractive and morally upright woman, but when she marries another man and becomes pregnant, an invigorated Płoszowski attempts unsuccessfully to seduce her. When Anielka’s bankrupted husband takes his own life and she dies in childbirth, Płoszowski finds escape in suicide. The novel was praised by Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov and read widely in Russia, Germany, and Austria.
After a hunting trip to Zanzibar in 1891 and the resulting Listy z Afryki (1893, Letters from Africa, published first in Słowo from 31 January 1891 to 27 February 1892), Sienkiewicz traveled in Europe and then returned to Poland. On 11 November 1893 he married Maria Romanowska-Wołodkowiczówna in Kraków, but two weeks later they separated, and the marriage was annulled. During this period, Sienkiewicz wrote another novel about Polish contemporary society. Rodzina Połanieckich (1895, The Połaniecki Family; translated as Children of the Soil, 1895), which first appeared in Biblioteka Warszawska from 24 July 1893 to 12 December 1894, portrays impoverished former landowners living in Warsaw and struggling to regain their estates in order to return to a peaceful life in the country. These members of the new class of intelligentsia, represented by practical and unethical Stanisław Połaniecki, “a child of the epoch,” and his compassionate wife, Marynia, are shown with their virtues and vices in their daily lives. But although Sienkiewicz’s psychological novels displayed his usual craftsmanship, well-devised plots, and provocative characters, they failed to match the popularity of his historical books.
In 1894 Sienkiewicz turned to an intensive study of ancient Rome in the times of Nero. Returning to his youthful fascination with antiquity, he avidly read Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Pliny, and other authors as well as modern studies of the period, among them Ernest Renan’s monumental Histoire des origines du Christianisme (1866–1881, History of the Origins of Christianity). He frequently traveled to Rome and other Italian cities, making detailed observations of their topography and architecture. He also visited the museums to learn about Roman arts and ways of life in the first century. His next novel, Quo vadis, a dramatic story of early Christianity, became an international best-seller. It was translated into more than forty languages, including Armenian, Japanese, and Arabic. More than sixty editions of the book appeared in the United States alone, with sales exceeding a million and a half copies by 1915. In Russia, Quo vadis had thirty-seven editions before 1917; in Spain, sixty-one editions were published between 1900 and 1965, while in Italy about one hundred printings appeared from 1899 to 1939. However, all records were broken in France, where the novel, published in June 1900, had more than three hundred printings in the first twelve months and sold two million copies by 1914. Dramatizations of Quo vadis were frequently performed on stages of many countries, filmed, represented in music and the arts, later adapted for radio, recorded on cassettes, and shown on television. In 1900, five different versions of Quo vadis were staged in New York theaters, one in Boston, and one in Chicago, the last one also playing in London’s Adelphi Theatre, while in France a French version played 167 times on the stage of the Théatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in 1901.
It should be noted that Sienkiewicz, as a citizen of Russia, which did not belong to the Berne Convention, was not protected by international copyright law. Consequently, he received no significant royalties from the sale of his books abroad. In this situation, at least thirty-four American publishers and forty-four translators competed at different times in selling English translations of his books. Their profits were enormous. For example, the agreement between Little, Brown (the Boston publisher of Sienkiewicz’s books) and Curtin for the translation of Quo vadis stipulated that Curtin would receive 10 percent of the retail sales and fifty copies of the book. Still not satisfied with this contract, the Curtins went so far as to travel to Washington, D.C., in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain from Congress a copyright for their translation of Sienkiewicz’s books. Nevertheless, Alma Cardell Curtin wrote in her diary in August 1897 that John Murray Brown paid Curtin $6,000 for the period from January to the end of June, and in March 1899 he sent Curtin a payment of $6,600 for six months’ royalties from Quo vadis and other books. In its September 1898 issue The Donahue Magazine reported that Curtin had recently received a check for $24,000 as his share of the book sales. It is interesting to note for the sake of comparison that the price of the house purchased by Alma Cardell Curtin in Bristol, Vermont, was $1,500.
American critics were almost unanimous in their praise of Quo vadis. In their reviews, in most cases unsigned and undated, collected by Alma Cardell Curtin in a large scrapbook and now held in the Milwaukee County Historical Society, they hailed the novel as “one of the strongest historical romances that has been written in the last half century” (Chicago Evening Post) and “one of the greatest books of our day” (The Bookman). They praised it as a “magnificent story, absorbingly interesting, brilliant in style” (Providence News) and a story that “is carried through its many phases of conflict and terror to a climax that enthralls” (Chicago Record). Sienkiewicz was described as the great novelist who “has unrolled it all before us upon a cloud painted with the colors of the sun” (Philadelphia Record) and who shows “in the delineation of character, and in tracing the psychological developments of actual, living breathing human beings, an almost inimitable power” (Philadelphia Church Standard). The same reviewer stated that “the portrait of Petronius is alone a masterpiece of which the greatest word-painters of any age might be proud.” Certain memorable scenes, stated the reviewer for The Boston Beacon, “like the feasting at the imperial palace, the contest in the arena, the burning of Rome, the rescue of Lygia, the Christian maiden—these will hold their place in memory with unfading color, and are to be reckoned among the significant triumphs of narrative art.”
The story takes place during the last phase of Emperor Nero’s reign. After years of victorious battles, Marcus Vinicius, a military tribune, returns from Asia Minor to Rome. Nero, who killed his own mother and wife, lives a debauched life in the company of his second wife, Poppaea, but thinks of himself as a great artist. Soon Marcus visits his uncle Petronius, a brilliant epicurean and Nero’s advisor. Marcus falls in love with Lygia, a Christian girl, who is attracted to him. He tries to win Lygia by force, but she is protected by her giant servant Ursus and hides with other Christians, who are led by the apostles Peter and Paul. Marcus, wounded by Ursus, is nursed back to health by Lygia and converts to Christianity. Meanwhile, the deranged Nero orders the burning of Rome so that he can find inspiration for a great poem he intends to write and be free to rebuild the city in a monumental style, according to his taste. A terrible conflagration destroys big parts of the city, and homeless Romans turn against Nero; Poppaea, who lusts after Marcus and is jealous of Lygia, and other courtiers blame the helpless Christians for starting the fire and incite the mob against them. What follows is a bloody persecution of the Christians, who are burned alive, crucified, and devoured by wild beasts in the arenas. The naked Lygia is tied onto an aurochs’s head in the amphitheater, but in a spectacular struggle Ursus breaks the beast’s neck. They are freed, and Lygia joins Marcus. The apostle Peter, fleeing along the Appian Way, has a vision of Jesus Christ and asks him where he is going: “Quo vadis, Domine?” When he finds out that Jesus is going to Rome to be crucified a second time, Peter turns back to be martyred for his faith. Petronius, condemned to die by Nero, leisurely takes his own life during a feast, while Nero, facing a revolt of his legions and the Senate’s sentence of death by flogging, does not have enough courage to thrust the knife into his neck. Finally, a freedman pushes Nero’s hand and kills him. The novel concludes with two sentences:
I tak minął Nero, jak mija wicher, burza, pożar, wojna lub mór, a bazylika Piotra panuje dotąd z wyżyn watykańskich miastu i światu.
Wedle zaś dawnej bramy Kapeńskiej wznosi się dzisiaj maleńka kapliczka z zatartym nieco napisem “Quo vadis, Domine?”
(And so Nero passed, as a whirlwind, as a storm, as a fire, as war or plague passes; but the basilica of Peter rules the city and the world from the Vatican heights till now.
And near the ancient Porta Capena stands today a little chapel with the inscription, somewhat worn: “Quo vadis, Domine?”)
Sienkiewicz’s Quo vadis shows contrasts between the pagan world of the Caesars and the rising world of Christianity. A repulsive Nero and sophisticated Petronius dominate the story, adorned with four grand scenes: Caesar’s banquet, the gathering of the Christians in the catacombs, the burning of Rome, and the martyrdom of Christians, among them the apostles Peter and Paul. Sienkiewicz’s narrative dwells on the magnificent Forum Romanum, splendid basilicas, palaces, and villas, and introduces the readers to sumptuous feasts and refined rituals. It also describes dark catacombs and cemeteries, the hideaways of the oppressed believers of Christ. The book reveals the corrupt force of imperial Rome and the pale spiritual light of the new faith. For as Peter understood, “That city of pride, crime, wickedness, and power was beginning to be His city, and the double capital, from which government of bodies and souls would flow out upon the world.”
Sienkiewicz’s next novel, Krzyżacy (which appeared first in Tygodnik Ilustrowany from 2 February 1897 to 20 July 1900), was translated into twenty-five languages and became another best-selling book. It described the struggle of the Poles against the Teutonic warriors, medieval progenitors of the Prussian state. The Teutonic Order (or Knights of the Cross), a religious military order, was invited to Poland by Duke Konrad of Masovia in 1226 to fight and convert the Prussian tribes in the north. The Order quickly subjugated them, stamped out their language, and arrogated their name. The Order grew in power so quickly that by the fourteenth century it threatened the existence of the Polish state. On 15 July 1410, Polish and Lithuanian troops of about 39,000 met the Teutonic Order’s army of almost 28,000 knights in the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg in German), one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages. It ended with a decisive Polish victory.
Sienkiewicz was concerned about the intensity of the Prussians’ aggressive drive eastward, manifested by the policy of “Drang nach Osten” (Drive to the East), especially in the territories of Poznań and Silesia. He went to Poznań as early as in 1880, returned to the area several times, and was familiar with Prussian policies toward Polish population. The main goals of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (his struggle for control over Catholic schools and ecclesiastic appointments), launched in 1873 and supported by the nationalistic Hakata Society, whose name was coined from the surnames of its founders, Ferdinand von Hansemann, Hermann Kennemann, and Heinrich von Tiedemann, were to bring the German language into Polish churches and schools as well as encourage German colonization of the territories seized by Prussia. Sienkiewicz saw in these policies a threat to the future of Poland and Europe and often protested against these actions, most eloquently in his political article about Bismarck published in the Berlin weekly Die Gegenwart on 6 April 1895; in his letter published in Czas on 1 March 1900, to Baroness Bertha von Suttner, a future recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; and in his open letter to Wilhelm II, king of Prussia, published also in Czas on 19 November 1906, all of which were translated into many languages. His almost prophetic vision of the forthcoming aggression and destruction, which came true in his lifetime during World War I, found literary reflection in Krzyżacy. It was not surprising that this story of the crushing defeat of the rapacious Germanic Order was the first major literary work that appeared in Poland after World War II, republished as early as August 1945.
The monumental novel is set in Poland at the turn of the fifteenth century. Before composing it, Sienkiewicz studied several historical sources written in Latin, among them the magisterial Annales seu Cronicae Regni Poloniae (Annals or Chronicles of the Kingdom of Poland). Written by Jan Długosz between 1455 and 1480, the annals were a synthesis of Polish medieval history, based on Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Ruthenian, and German documents and archival materials. They recorded that in 1386, Jogaila, grand duke of Lithuania, converted to Catholicism, married Jadwiga of Poland, and with the name Władysław Jagiełło was crowned king of Poland (1386–1434). By this act of personal union, the Jagiełłonian dynasty was founded, bringing two centuries of greatness for Poland. The rapidly growing and powerful country was capable of challenging the expansionist tendencies of its western neighbors.
Against this historical background, Sienkiewicz tells a fictional story of Zbyszko of Bogdaniec and his uncle Maćko. The hot-blooded Zbyszko assaults the Order’s envoy and is sentenced to death, but he is saved by his beloved Danusia, who declares that she will marry him. Danusia is the only daughter of Jurand, a peaceful Polish squire residing at the frontier between Poland and the Order, who turns to vengeance after the Knights kill his wife. Unable to defeat Jurand in battle, a group of the Knights kidnap Danusia. To save his daughter, Jurand accepts the Knights’ humiliating conditions and enters their castle. When the treacherous Knights show him another girl, pretending they did not kidnap Danusia, Jurand kills nine of his tormentors in an outburst of fury. The Knights overpower him, and at the order of Brother Siegfried, their superior, an executioner burns out Jurand’s remaining eye, cuts off his hand, and tears out his tongue. The maimed Jurand returns home, but soon afterward Siegfried is captured by Zbyszko and brought in for punishment. Jurand forgives Siegfried and sets him free, but the monk, shocked by this saintly act, hangs himself in a forest.
In his search for Danusia, Zbyszko kills Brother Rotgier, one of the conspirators, in a duel, finds her, and frees her from the Knights’ hands, only to see her die during their journey home. The grief-stricken Zbyszko eventually marries lively Jagienka, his neighbor’s daughter, who had been in love with him for a long time. Jagienka gives birth to twin boys, while Maćko, whose main goal in life had been to secure growth and prosperity for his clan, builds them a small castle. What is left for him and Zbyszko is to settle old scores with the Knights and secure peace. They are successful, distinguishing themselves in the decisive battle of Grunwald.
Sienkiewicz presents a wide panorama of medieval Poland and its people. He paints impressive pictures of the castle of Malbork (Marienburg), the Knights’ stronghold and one of the mightiest medieval fortresses; of the royal court in Kraków; and of the hunting scenes in the primeval forests. He describes local activities and customs, for example, farming and funeral rites, as well as Western traditions of chivalry. He draws artful portraits of a hot-tempered abbot, Janko of Tulcza; a devoted Czech servant, Hlava; a knight-errant, de Lorche; and a corrupt pardoner, Sanderus, worthy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s or Geoffrey Chaucer’s pen. But above all he shows the birth of national consciousness at the times when Polish warriors become aware of their strength and aspirations, confidently taking the field against the aggressive Knights in the battle of Grunwald.
On 5 May 1904 Sienkiewicz married Maria Babska, a distant relative, who concerned herself with the well-being of the aging and ailing writer during the last years of his life. In the final stage of his career, Sienkiewicz wrote W pustyni i w puszczy (1911; translated as In Desert and Wilderness, 1912), published first in Kurier Warszawski from 27 October 1910 to 1 September 1911, an adventure book for young readers that was inspired by his hunting expedition in Zanzibar in 1891. It tells a dramatic story of Staś Tarkowski, a fourteen-year-old Polish boy, and Nell Rawlison, a pretty eight-year-old English girl, children of a senior engineer and of one of the directors of the Suez Canal Company. Kidnapped as hostages by supporters of the Mahdi, leader of the 1885 Sudanese insurrection against the Egyptian government and British colonial rule, they manage to escape. The children, in the company of two young natives, Kali and Mea; a faithful elephant, King; and a dog, Saba, bravely travel for months through the exotic and dangerous African continent, until they are rescued by an English expedition exploring the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The novel, rich with dramatic scenes and splendid descriptions of nature, includes many patriotic and didactic elements, manifested most often by Staś’s moral strength, courage, and physical stamina. Translated into more than twenty languages, W pustyni i w puszczy remains a required (albeit not “politically correct”) reading for Polish children.
Sienkiewicz was a superb stylist and master storyteller, his language simple, clear, and expressive. He honed his art through years of toil, complaining frequently in his letters of the burden of writing. He wrote his eagerly anticipated novels from day to day, sending the texts immediately to the printer in a constant race against newspaper deadlines, and he could not see the work in its entirety until it was completed. Ignacy Chrzanowski, who vacationed with Sienkiewicz in Bretagne in 1898, reported in his Studia i szkice (1939, Studies and Sketches) that after a writing session, Sienkiewicz would come out from his study often pale and with sweat on his brow. Asked once what tired him so much, he answered: “Work on the simplicity of style.” It was his major artistic goal to achieve economy of description and at the same time to preserve a balance between the poetic and informative elements of language. In a comment on his own style, Sienkiewicz wrote: “I avoid the predominance of words over contents so as not to fall into a stylistic display and literary baroque—so that the described events would not disappear under the excess of complementary clauses, as all shapes disappear in winter under a snowdrift” (collected in volume forty of his Dzieła).
Sienkiewicz’s style attracts and fascinates readers. His language, based on common everyday speech, finds resonance in the Polish ear to this day. In addition, thanks to his knowledge of Polish historical and literary sources, especially of chronicles, memoirs, diaries, and oral tales, Sienkiewicz succeeds in creating a stylized language of the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries or in fashioning a classical diction based on Greek and Latin sources. He achieves these goals by a selective use of archaic words, phrases, even dialects, as in Krzyżacy and Trylogia, or by a judicious use of Latinate syntax and vocabulary in Quo vadis. He makes use of elaborate rhetorical figures interspersed with original metaphors, similes, and epithets. His dialogues are idiomatic; his descriptions of nature majestic; his dramatic scenes brisk. Scholars and critics agree that Sienkiewicz enriched the Polish language and created an inimitable style that is easily recognizable, while readers attest to its popularity by making use of some of his pithy phrases and sayings in everyday conversation. What is more remarkable, even though the beauty of Sienkiewicz’s style has been considerably dimmed in hundreds of uneven translations, foreign readers responded to his novels as enthusiastically as the Poles.
Sienkiewicz’s popularity outside his homeland has not been equaled by any other Polish writer. An incomplete bibliography of translations of his works into other languages, compiled before 1950, surpassed two thousand items. In Russia, where Sienkiewicz competed with Tolstoy, there were 253 translations of his writings, followed by 248 in Italy; 214 in Germany and Austria; 179 in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia; 179 in Czechoslovakia; 170 in France; and 102 in the United States and England. According to data published in Russia in 1966, which includes translations in local periodicals, more than five hundred items appeared there before 1917. Four hundred sixty-four translations appeared in various countries between 1945 and 1970, and additional renditions into English and other languages have been published since 1970.
Sienkiewicz was one of the most prolific epistolographers among Polish writers. It has been estimated that in forty-five years he wrote as many as fifteen thousand letters, most of them lost, many of them dispersed, some not yet published. He traveled constantly and wrote on trains, in hotels, and in international health resorts. He worked in solitude for months and kept in contact with his family and friends by mail, sometimes writing several letters every day. He wrote to his children, to his parents-in-law who took care of them, and most often to Jadwiga Janczewska, his sister-in-law in Kraków, who became his confidante after his first wife’s death. He regularly corresponded with many friends and colleagues in Warsaw and Kraków, among them Tytus Benni, a prominent doctor and host of the salon attended every second Friday for forty-one years by the intellectual and political elite of Warsaw; Benni was the addressee of about six hundred letters, all of them lost during World War II. Sienkiewicz also wrote to Edward Leo, editor of Gazeta Polska, and Mścisław Godlewski, editor of Niwa (The Realm) and later of Słowo, as well as to Karol Potkański, professor of history, and Stanislaw Tarnowski, professor of literature, both from thejagiellonian University in Kraków. He communicated by mail with his publishers, most frequently with the firm of Gebethner and Wolff from Warsaw, newspaper editors in many cities, translators in several countries, and artists, among them Jacek Malczewski and Henryk Siemiradzki, his guide in Rome. When he became a world-famous author, Sienkiewicz was receiving as many as four hundred letters a month and tried to answer most of them. All these letters throw light on Sienkiewicz’s intellectual and artistic milieu. His letters dealing with his work provide an important commentary on it, while correspondence pertaining to private matters allows readers to learn more about Sienkiewicz as a person. His diary, which he began on 12 October 1889 and kept at irregular intervals until 1916, was burned with the whole apartment by the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Like every successful author, Sienkiewicz had his share of hostile critics, especially in France. Some writers and scholars criticized his views, others his works. Their objections were mainly aimed at his conservative political beliefs and came most intensely after his break with the positivists. They also charged that he was unable to deal with philosophical problems. Other critics objected to his neo-Romantic leanings and questioned his interpretations of certain events, claiming that his view of Polish history was biased at times. Several literary reviewers thought that his characters were two-dimensional and lacked psychological depth, while others pointed out that in some of his books, labeled as intellectually undemanding historical romances, he used too many literary clichęs, such as love triangles or miraculous rescues. An anonymous reviewer in Ave Maria, a religious magazine for Catholic families published at the University of Notre Dame, believed that the vivid descriptions of the martyrdom of the Christians in Quo vadis were too realistic and that some objectionable details from Nero’s feasts could be “cut out without injury to the action.”
The popularity of historical novels in general faded considerably in the twentieth century. The same happened to a vaguely definable genre of epic prose fiction. Yet, Sienkiewicz still enjoys wide recognition and attracts new generations of readers. In Poland, about 1,500 editions appeared before 1954, and his novels, especially Trylogia, Quo vadis, Krzyżacy, and W pustyni i w puszczy, have been selling millions of copies. Between 1945 and 1994, Krzyżacy sold 3,580,000 copies, Potop 3,319,000, and Ogniem i mieczem 2,607,000, while the same novels as well as Pan Wołodyjowski, W pustyni i w puszczy, and Quo vadis were made into popular movies.
Sienkiewicz is also known as the author of about forty short stories, featuring tragic, romantic, or comic plots, a host of distinct characters—for example, a native American acrobat, Sachem; a Roman patrician, Cinna; and a corrupt Polish official, Zołzikiewicz—and memorable events taking place in the majestic scenery of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, in Jerusalem, and in forlorn Polish hamlets. Modern readers delight in Sienkiewicz’s splendid narratives, his picturesque evocations of the past, his war and love stories, and his language. They rate highly his power of imagination and originality. Most important, they admire the beguiling atmosphere of his stories and the sense of moral imperative pervading his work. It was not surprising at all that during World War II many young resistance fighters in Poland adopted the names of Sienkiewicz’s heroes as their noms de guerre.
As Sienkiewicz’s achievements were recognized in Poland and abroad, he was showered with awards and honors. He was elected to membership in the Academy of Sciences in Kraków (1883), the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg (1896), the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague (1900), and the Serbian Academy of Sciences in Belgrade (1906). He received the Austrian award Litteris et artibus (1899), an honorary doctorate from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków (1900), the honorary membership of the city of Lwów (1902), and the French Légion d’honneur (1904). His twenty-fifth anniversary of literary work, celebrated in many Polish cities and abroad in 1900, culminated on 22 December in Warsaw, where Sienkiewicz received many commemorative publications and presents, among them a deed for an estate in Oblęgorek, purchased from people’s contributions as a “national gift,” which became his summer residence and later a museum devoted to his life and work. In time, two other museums were founded, one in his birthplace, Wola Okrzejska (1966), and another in Poznań (1978); many new monuments were erected in such places as Gdynia, Słupsk, Szczytno, Bydgoszcz, Płońsk, Zielona Góra, and Warsaw; and several commemorative tablets were installed, for example in the Hôtel du Lac in Vevey, and in Villa Borghese in Rome. More than seventy schools are named after Sienkiewicz, and the Sienkiewicz Society was established in Lublin in 1986.
Sienkiewicz’s greatest literary triumph came in December 1905, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the accompanying sum of 138,000 Swedish crowns. Sienkiewicz’s books were well known in Sweden by then and received with enthusiasm by the general public; Ogniem i mieczem was translated and published there as early as in 1887, followed by Quo vadis in 1898, and by all his major novels and several volumes of his short stories between 1900 and 1903. Swedish critics valued them highly, as one of them compared Potop to the writings of Selma Lagerlöf, the greatest compliment in Sweden. (Lagerlöf herself won the Nobel Prize four years later.) The Swedish Academy members received Sienkiewicz with honors, while the laureate responded by establishing an award of five thousand crowns for translators of Polish literature into Swedish, granted subsequently to Alfred Jensen, a distinguished translator of Polish classics.
As Sienkiewicz’s reputation and authority had been confirmed by the Nobel Prize, he replied one more time to the threats of economic aggression originating in Prussia. On 26 November 1907, Reich chancellor and prince Bernhard von Bülow, who also held the post of Prussian premier, introduced a bill in the Prussian Parliament designed to expropriate land belonging to Poles in the provinces annexed to Germany. Several weeks later, Sienkiewicz wrote his “Odezwa do Opinii” (Appeal to Public Opinion), published in Czas on 12 December 1907, in which he solicited critical responses from prominent persons throughout the world. The resulting international survey, coordinated by the Polish Press Agency in Paris, yielded 254 letters, published in Paris in April 1909 under the title Prusse et Pologne: Enquete Internationale organiseęe par Henryk Sienkiewicz (Prussia and Poland: International Survey Organized by Henryk Sienkiewicz). The majority of respondents strongly condemned the proposed law, while others refused to comment on the issue. Among the participants representing the intellectual elite of Europe were Nobel Peace Prize winners Frédéric Passy (1901) and Bertha von Suttner (1905), future Nobel literary laureates Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), Knut Hamsun (1920), and André Gide (1947), as well as a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Charles Richet (1913). Other responses came from such luminaries as Emile Durkheim, George Meredith, and Tolstoy. Although the bill was passed and signed into law by Wilhelm II in 1908, the protests continued; von Bülow was forced to resign in 1909, and no expropriation took place until September 1912, not long before the outbreak of World War I.
When Sienkiewicz accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm on 10 December 1905, he spoke on behalf of his country, saying (as translated by Waclaw Lednicki in Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Retrospective Synthesis, 1960):
as valuable as this honor is for everyone, consider how much more valuable it must be for a son of Poland! Poland was declared dead, and here we have one of a thousand proofs that she yet lives! She was declared to be incapable of thought and work, and here is a proof that she can act! She was declared defeated, and here is a new proof that she knows how to achieve victory!
Throughout his life Sienkiewicz acted and wrote to inspire his countrymen. He participated in a large number of charitable activities, organized the fund and served as cochairman for the committee that built the monument to Mickiewicz in Warsaw in 1898, established a home for orphans and a fund for young writers, and wrote open letters protesting anti-Polish activities of German nationalists and Russian administrators. From 9 January 1915 until the day of his death he served as chairman—supported by Ignacy Paderewski, a virtuoso pianist, composer, and statesman, and by Antoni Osuchowski, a lawyer and educator—for the General Committee for Relief to the War Victims in Poland, which collected from public contributions about $4,000,000, many valuable objects, food, clothes, and medicines. When Henryk Sienkiewicz died of coronary disease in the Hôtel du Lac in Vevey, Switzerland, on 15 November 1916, Poland lost not only an outstanding writer but also a great patriot. His body was brought back with honors to free Poland on 21 October 1924, and on 27 October he was buried in a crypt of St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw.
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Marion Moore Coleman, ed., American Debut: Source Materials on the First Appearance of the Polish Actress Helena Modjeska on the American Stage, Including Letters and Dispatches by Henryk Sienkiewicz (Cheshire, Conn.: Cherry Hill Books, 1965);
Monica M. Gardner, The Patriot Novelist of Poland: Henryk Sienkiewicz (London: Dent, 1926);
Mieczyslaw Giergielewicz, Henryk Sienkiewicz. (New York: Twayne, 1968);
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