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Sienkiewicz, Henryk (Adam Aleksander Pius)

SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (Adam Aleksander Pius)

Nationality: Polish. Born: Wola Okrzejska, 5 May 1846. Education: Warsaw Gymnasium, 1858-65; Polish University, Warsaw, 1866-71. Family: Married 1) Maria Szetkiewicz (died 1885), one son and one daughter; 2) Maria Wolodkowicz (marriage annulled);3) Maria Babska in 1904. Career: Journalist and freelance writer; visited the United States to search for site for a California settlement, 1876-78; co-editor, Slowo (The Word) newspaper, 1882-87; given an estate by the Polish government at Oblegorek, near Kielce, 1900. Awards: Nobel prize for literature, 1905. Died: 15 November 1916.

Publications

Collections

Dziela [Works], edited by Julian Krzyzanowski. 60 vols., 1948-55.

Pisma wybrane [Selected Works]. 1976—.

Short Stories

Yanko the Musician and Other Stories. 1893.

Lillian Morris and Other Stories. 1894.

Sielanka, A Forest Picture, and Other Stories. 1898.

So Runs the World: Stories. 1898.

Tales. 1899.

Life and Death and Other Legends and Stories. 1904.

Western Septet: Seven Stories of the American West, edited by Marion Moore Coleman. 1973.

Charcoal Sketches and Other Tales. 1988.

The Little Trilogy. 1995.

Novels

Na marne. 1872; as In Vain, 1899.

Stary sluga [The Old Servants]. 1875.

Hania. 1876; translated as Hania, 1897; in part as Let Us Follow

Him, 1897.

Za chlebem. 1880; as After Bread, 1897; as For Daily Bread, 1898; as Peasants in Exile, 1898; as Her Tragic Fate, 1899; as In the New Promised Land, 1900. Trilogy Ogniem i mieczem. 1884; as With Fire and Sword, 1890.

Potop. 1886; as The Deluge: An Historical Novel of Poland, Sweden, and Russia, 1892.

Pan Wolodyjowski. 1887-88; as Pan Michael, 1895.

On the Sunny Shore. 1886; as On the Bright Shore, 1898.

Bez dogmatu. 1889-90; as Without Dogma, 1893.

Rodzina Polanieckich. 1894; as Children of the Soil, 1895; as The

Irony of Life, 1900.

Quo vadis? 1896; translated as Quo Vadis?, 1896.

The Third Woman. 1897.

Na jasnym brzegu. 1897; as In Monte Carlo, 1899.

The Fate of a Soldier. 1898.

Where Worlds Meet. 1899.

Krzyzacy. 1900; as The Knights of the Cross, 1900; as Danusia, 1900; as The Teutonic Knights, 1943.

Na polu chwaly. 1906; as On the Field of Glory, 1906.

Wiry. 1910; as Whirlpools: A Novel of Modern Poland, 1910.

Legiony [Legions] (unfinished). 1914.

Other

Listy z podrózy do Ameryki. 1876-78; as Portrait of America: Letters of Sienkiewicz, edited by Charles Morley. 1959.

Listy z Afryki [Letters from Africa]. 1891-92.

W pustyni i w puszczy (for children). 1911; as In Desert and Wilderness, 1912; as Through the Desert, 1912.

Listy [Letters], edited by Julian Krzyzanowski and others, 1977—.

*

Critical Studies:

The Patriotic Novelist of Poland, Sienkiewicz by Monica M. Gardner, 1926; Sienkiewicz: A Retrospective Synthesis by Waclaw Lednicki, 1960; Wanderers Twain: Modjeska and Sienkiewicz: A View from California by Arthur Prudden and Marion Moore Coleman, 1964; Sienkiewicz by M. Giergielewicz, 1968; "Five Unpublished Letters of Henryk Sienkiewicz to Robert von Moschzisker" by Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski, in The Polish Review, 1995; "Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy in America " by Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski, in The Polish Review, 1996.

* * *

Although a prolific writer of novels, travel sketches, plays, and short stories, Henryk Sienkiewicz is perhaps best known as a writer of historical fiction. Awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1905, Sienkiewicz was established as the most popular writer in Poland beginning in the 1880s with his well-known trilogy—Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword), Potop (The Deluge), and Pan Wollodyjowski (Pan Michael)—a sequence of novels focused on historical conflicts and invasions that occurred in seventeenth-century Poland. As a short story writer, Sienkiewicz produced a considerable body of work over his lifetime—more than 70 stories. Yet his most widely known work is an historical novel, Quo vadis?, that depicts Nero's Rome in the throes of conflict between a decaying empire and the revolutionary rise of Christianity. Critics have almost universally regarded Sienkiewicz as a remarkably gifted storyteller and interpreter of the Polish spirit whose narrative skill engages readers with vivid, dramatic, and fast-moving plot; at the same time they have concurred that his more psychological novels suffer from degrees of oversimplification and, at times, sentimental treatment of character, making them on the whole less successful than his historical fiction.

Taken as a whole, Sienkiewicz's short stories reflect a completely different artistic sensibility from what appears in the historical novels. His stories are marked by concentrated dramatic conflict and sharp emotional pulls that resonate with a deep sense of the human spirit that persevered during centuries of social and political turmoil in Poland. For the most part Sienkiewicz focused his short stories on the immediate social and human problems of peasant society in nineteenth-century rural Poland, making an artistic statement that pulled universal significance from the particular details observed in the simple, the suffering, and the non-glorious.

Sienkiewicz's early stories convey strong social messages derived from material focused in the profound conflicts that exist between spirited individuals and a repressive society. "The Charcoal Sketches" depicts a dispossessed and newly emancipated peasantry negotiating with a corrupt, insensitive bureaucracy; "The Two Roads" shows the marital "contest" and personal conflict between a commoner and a gentleman vying for the hand of the same woman; "From the Memoirs of a Poznan Tutor" exposes the experience of a perfectly normal Polish schoolboy made into a failure by prejudiced German teachers; and "Bartek the Conqueror" reveals aspects of a Polish peasant's suffering in life under an oppressive Prussian regime.

While the backdrop of Polish social and political history is not essential to understanding Sienkiewicz's short fiction, it is certainly helpful. Following the Three Partitions of the eighteenth century, Poles emerged from five generations of dispossession, foreign rule, and political oppression, facts that have led historian Norman Davies to assert that Poland was, both before and during Sienkiewicz's lifetime, "little more than an idea … a memory from the past, [and] a hope for the future." For generations Poland remained a property of mind and spirit rather than material reality.

Since Sienkiewicz didn't respond to these conditions with revolutionary—and hence romantic—tendencies, critics classify him as a positivist, one who sought rational and pragmatic conciliation through economic progress rather than insurrection. The characters in his short stories, although thoroughly grounded in realism, contain a strong current of hope as the basis for restoration of the human spirit denied by political and cultural repression. While these characters struggle to endure, they seek solutions largely through the application of industry tempered by deeply felt desire. Beneath the surface of pragmatic conciliation, the continual flame of Romantic hope seems to burn in Sienkiewicz's short stories, yielding a powerful, if often tragic, effect.

"Yanko the Musician," for example, is a story about a young peasant boy whose only possession is a promising musical genius that fills him with a passionate attraction to music. Through his gift he transforms the everyday sounds of human society and the quiet whistlings of nature into comforting, aesthetic delight. His love provokes him to fashion a simple stringed instrument from a shingle and a horse hair, which he plays contentedly. When he spies a squire's beautiful violin, however, the boy succumbs to desire and steals it; he is convicted and finally dies in a scene that Sienkiewicz presents with great compassion, showing the spirit of eros still alive in a boy whose social existence is doomed a priori. "Yanko the Musician" captures the essence of the abrupt collision between a deep pathos and cruel ideology that characterizes much of Sienkiewicz's short fiction.

Perhaps his best short story, and the one most frequently extolled by critics, is "The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall," an extraordinary portrait of a Polish political refugee named Skawinski who wanders the earth seeking a peaceful, productive existence until he finally settles as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Panama. As an emigre, Skawinski in effect symbolizes the dispossessed plight of the Polish people, a fact supported by his incredible longing and feeling of purposelessness without the anchor of his homeland. When Skawinski one day receives a parcel of books that contains the epic Polish romantic poem Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, he lapses into deep, passionate revery that keeps him reading all night long and causes, through his neglect, a ship to crash on the rocks. Skawinski is relieved from his post as lighthouse keeper and doomed to wander eternally, albeit with his book Pan Tadeusz clasped to his breast. This conflict is deftly portrayed with precise and deeply moving details. By bringing together the sharp contrast between hope and reality, Sienkiewicz succeeds at creating a short story masterpiece, a fiction that remains open-ended in both criticism and revery, exposing the excesses of romanticism as well as the limitations of positivism.

It is this poignant contrast of loss and love, suffering and desire, that elevates Sienkiewicz's short fiction to the realm of a provocative and powerful literary art that speaks with a universal significance transcending the limitations of time and space.

—Paul Sladky

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