Henryk Sienkiewicz (May 5, 1846 - November 15, 1916), a Nobel Prize-winning novelist and journalist, chronicled Polish history in a series of panoramic novels that won unprecedented popularity in his native country, awakening pride in Polish culture and history following a century of political and cultural subjugation by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Sienkiewicz's massive novels combined spectacular scenes of warfare with intricate, multi-layered plots. His vividly realized characters exemplified heroism, honor, and patriotism—as well as cruelty, cunning, and duplicity.
He is best known internationally for Quo Vadis, a historical novel of the early Church during the reign of the Emperor Nero, which by some accounts became the widest selling novel in history to that time, selling more than a million copies by 1900 in the United States alone. His most important work, The Trilogy, is a prodigious (more than three thousand-page), three-volume historical reconstruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland's "Golden Age."
Sienkievicz was a Polish nationalist and devout Catholic, a premodern who looked back to Romantic realists like Victor Hugo. For Sienkieviwz, however, faith in God is the highest and most noble motivation. The climax of the entire Trilogy, the heroic resistance to the Swedish assault on the sacred monastery as Jasna Gora, merges Poland's national identity and existence with the Christian virtue of the nation's leadership. Written with the explicit intention "to uplift the heart," The Trilogy is the most revered work of literature in Poland.
Henryk Sienkiewicz was born in Wola Okrzejska, a village in Podlasie belonging to the writer's grandmother, into an impoverished gentry family on his father’s side, deriving from the Tartars who had settled in Lithuania in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. His family used the coat of arms Oszyk.
He was baptized by his parents, Jozef Sienkiewicz (1813–1896) and Stefania (family name: Cieciszowska, 1820-1873), in the neighboring village Okrzeja, in a church funded by his great-grandmother. In 1858, Sienkiewicz began secondary school in Warsaw, where his family settled in 1861. In 1866, he received his secondary school diploma. During that time, he probably wrote his first novel, Ofiara (Victim), and also worked on his publicized novel, Na marne (In Vain). Following his parents`wishes, he took and passed the examination to the medical department at Warsaw University, but after some time he resigned and took up law studies. He eventually transferring to the Institute of Philology and History, where he immersed himself in the literature and Old Polish.
Over the next few years Sienkiewicz published sporadically as an essayist and reviewer. In 1873, he began a column in Gazeta Polska (The Polish Gazette) and in 1875, authored a series called “Chwila obecna” ("The Present Moment"). He began the first of a series of novels in 1871, including Na marne ( In Vain, 1871), Stary Sługa ( The Old Servant, 1875), Hania (1876) and Selim Mirza (1877). The last three works have come to be known as the "Little Trilogy."
In 1876, he went to the United States with Helena Modrzejewska to report on American manners and customs for the newspaper, Gazeta polska. Shocked at first by slums in New York "a hundred times dirtier" than those in London Sienkiewicz gradually warmed to the assignment.
Traveling down the Mississippi River, then crossing the continent by stagecoach to the Pacific Ocean, Sienkiewicz wove his impressions of American character and landscapes into his later fiction. Most of all, he took note of the amalgamating influence of democracy. "America with its institutions and customs is a very instructive country," he wrote admiringly. "After all, one enormous social problem has been solved here. Forty million people from various nations, often mutually hostile in Europe, live here in accordance with the law, in harmony and freedom."
In 1878, he returned to Europe, staying in London and then in Paris, for a year, where he encountered naturalism, a new trend in literature. In the article “Z Paryża” (“From Paris”), written in 1879, he wrote that, “For a novel, naturalism was in fact a brilliant, indispensable, and perhaps the only step forward.” He later changed his mind and became more critical.
His stay in America and his reports published in Polish newspapers resulted in wide recognition and interest. The Polish novelist Bolesław Prus testified to the popularity of Sienkiewicz, writing, “As he was back from America, almost every lady took tall and handsome men for Sienkiewicz.(…) Finally, when I noticed that every man has got hair like Sienkiewicz and all of the young men, one by one, grow royal beard and try to have statuesque and swarthy face, I realized that I wanted to meet him personally."
On August 18, 1881, Sienkiewicz wed Maria Szetkiewiczwent in Vienna. They had two children, Henryk Józef and Jadwiga Maria, but the marriage did not last long because Maria died just four years later on August 18, 1885. During this time, Sienkiewicz began work on what would become he greatest literary achievements. Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword) began serialization in a Warsaw newspaper on May 2, 1883, and almost overnight the author achieved national celebrity. An epic recounting the war between the Commonwealth and a Prussian-Cossack alliance, the novel presented Polish history deeply informed by the author's, and Poland's, Catholic faith, in scenes of unexcelled heroism and fortitude. "Such was the readers' interest and enthusiasm for the work," wrote literary scholar Jerzy Krzyzanowski, "and such was its immediate literary reputation, that both the work and its author acquired almost mythological dimensions. In an phenomenon that approached the Bible, Sienkiewicz's Trilogy became a national bestseller which would stay at the top of the charts in Poland for the next 100 years."
The next two volumes of the Trilogy, Potop (The Deluge, 1886) and Pan Wolodyjowski (published in English as Fire in the Steppe, 1888) only added to Sienkiewicz' reputation. Many people were sending him letters asking about the next adventures of their favorite characters. The novels were also criticized. It was pointed out, not without a reason, that some of the historical facts and events were misrepresented and distorted, to the advantage of Polish nationalists. Modern readers, moreover, are likely to find Sienkiewicz' world of unambiguous right and wrong and unapologetic nationalism aesthetically dated.
The Trilogy made Henryk Sienkiewicz the most widely read and best-known Polish novelist. Stefan Zeromski wrote in his Diaries: “In Sandomierskiem I witnessed myself that everybody, even those who usually do not read, were asking about The Deluge.” Sienkiewicz was given 15 thousand rubles in recognition of his achievements from unknown fan who signed himself as Michal Wolodyjowski (the name of the character in the Trilogy). Sienkiewicz used this money to open the scholarship found (named after his wife) designed for artists endangered by tuberculosis.
At the end of 1890, Sienkiewicz went to Africa, resulting in a work of travel essays, Listy z Afryki (Letters from Africa), and the period at the turn of the 80s and the 90s was associated with intensive work on several novels.
In 1893, Sienkiewicz started preparatory work for his next novel Quo Vadis. The novel began appearing in several Polish newspapers in March 1895, until the end of February 1896. The book was published soon after and became extremely popular all over Europe. It was translated into many languages, including such exotic ones as Arabic and Japanese and remains the author's best-known work internationally.
Sienkiewicz married for a second time to Maria Romanowska in November 1893. The marriage did not last long because Maria left, and Sienkiewicz obtained papal consent to the dissolution of marriage.
In 1900, Sienkiewicz' jubilee was celebrated both in Poland and abroad. On that occasion a grateful country endowed him with a property in Oblegork, and he opened a school for children there. In the same year the Jagiellonian University awarded Sienkiewicz with an honorary doctoral degree.
In 1904, Sienkiewicz again married, this time to his cousin, Maria Babska. And in 1905, he won the Nobel Prize for lifetime achievement as an epic writer. In the acceptance speech, Sienkiewicz said that this honor was particularly valuable for the son of Poland. "She was pronounced dead—yet here is a proof that She lives on.” He also added, “She was pronounced defeated—and here is proof that She is victorious."
He next novel, entitled Na polu chwaly (On the Field of Glory), was supposed to be the beginning of a trilogy. In 1910, his novel for youth entitled, W pustynii i w puszczy (In Desert and Wilderness) appeared in installments in Kurier Warszawski.
He died on November 15, 1916, in Vevey, where he was buried. In 1924, when Poland gained its independence, the writer’s ashes were placed in St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw. He was a knight of the Legion of Honor.
Sienkiewicz did extensive research and was meticulous in preserving the authenticity of historical language. In writing Quo Vadis, Sienkiewicz relied on the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius but researched other primary sources as well. He visited Italy many times to learn about customs, religious rites, and daily life of the ancient Romans. Sienkiewicz spent ten years researching and writing The Teutonic Knights, set in medieval Poland, even reproducing archaic expressions then still common among the highlanders of Podhale. "We know perfectly well what a Roman of the first century C.E. thought and felt," Sienkiewicz wrote; "but what did a Pole of Lithuania think during the reign of Prince Witold; this is a problem arousing thousands of doubts."
Like the fiction of Charles Dickens, many of his novels were first serialized in newspapers, and readers followed the fortunes of protagonists who became archetypal figures, whose trials and tribulations transcended the world of fiction to become part of Poland's national consciousness.
The works of Henryk Sienkiewicz have been mostly lost to English readers because of poor and outdated translations, in some cases not from the original Polish but from secondary translations. This has been rectified with a superb new translation of The Trilogy and Quo Vadis by the Polish poet and novelist W.S. Kuniszak, and of The Teutonic Knights, edited and translated by Polish writer Miroslaw Lipinski, all published by Hippocrene Books.
Many of Sienkiewicz's works were translated into Hebrew and were popular in the 1940s among Mandatory Palestine's Jewish community, many of whom were immigrants and refugees from Poland, and also during Israel's early decades. Often parents who had in their youth liked the books in the original introduced the translations to their children who did not know Polish. However, in later generations the books' popularity in Israel has waned.
With a worldwide reputation by the turn of the century, Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1905, "because of his outstanding merits as an epic writer."
Henryk Sienkiewicz came to maturity when Poland didn't exist as a sovereign nation. Dismantled in turn by Russia, Prussia, and Germany, Poland was deprived of its language and culture as well as sovereignty. Ex-patriots like the poet Adam Mickiewicz and pianist and composer Frederic Chopin worked to elevate awareness of the Polish cause. By the 1860s works of Polish literature began to proliferate in answer to foreign domination and to remind Poles of their national heritage.
Looking back to the sixteenth-century Commonwealth, when Poland modeled its political and social ideals upon Catholic faith and was under assault by foreign invaders from east and west, Sienkiewicz produced his epic masterpiece, The Trilogy, explicity "to uplift the hearts" of his countrymen. Informed by religious conviction and fiery patriotism, and composed with literary mastery, the Trilogy made a sensational impact and became the most revered work of literature in Poland, a national best seller for a hundred years. The Trilogy, as well as novels looking to other periods of Polish history and to the primitive Christian Church, reminded readers of the vissisitudes of fortune, the immutable nature of human virtue, and the need for faith and fortitude in the face of tragedy. Throughout the bitter years of Nazi and Soviet occupation, Poles turned to Sienkiewicz. And with the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement and leadership of the Polish Pope John Paul II, Poland fulfilled the cherished hope for freedom kept alive for decades in the work of its most renowned writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Named after Sienkiewicz, in Poland, are Sienkiewicz Street in central Warsaw; Sienkiewicz Street in Kraków; Sienkiewicz Street in Poznań; Sienkiewicz Street in Kielce; Henryka Sienkiewicza in Długolęka; Osiedle Sienkiewicza, a district of the city of Białystok, Sienkiewicz Municipal Park in Wrocław and Henryk Sienkiewicz's Park in Łódź.
All links retrieved December 19, 2017.
1901: Prudhomme | 1902: Mommsen | 1903: Bjørnson | 1904: F.Mistral, Echegaray | 1905: Sienkiewicz | 1906: Carducci | 1907: Kipling | 1908: Eucken | 1909: Lagerlöf | 1910: Heyse | 1911: Maeterlinck | 1912: Hauptmann | 1913: Tagore | 1915: Rolland | 1916: Heidenstam | 1917: Gjellerup, Pontoppidan | 1919: Spitteler | 1920: Hamsun | 1921: France | 1922: Benavente | 1923: Yeats | 1924: Reymont | 1925: Shaw
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