Henryk Sienkiewicz, a Nobel Prize Winner(May 5, 1846 - November 16, 1916)
The greatest novelist Poland produced was Henryk Sienkiewicz, born at Wola Okrzejska in the province of Podlasie, on May 5, 1846. He acquired his secondary and university education in Warsaw. He was seventeen at the time of the Uprising of the Poles [in 1863, the so-called January Uprising] against Russian domination. Like other youths of the period, he was filled with enthusiasm and self-sacrifice for the Polish cause, and true to his Polish heritage, he never overlooked any opportunity in later life for bringing that cause to the attention of the world.
Sienkiewicz studied medicine, history and philology at the university. He was an average student, but excelled in composition. His writing career had its beginnings as early as 1870, when he entered the field of journalism. His columns and chronicles appeared in the Warsaw "Polish Gazette" under "Humorous Sketches from Worszyllo's Portfolio". His first stories, "In Vain" and "The Old Servant", indicate the author's uncommon literary talent, his gift of observation, and an unusual sense of humor. These short stories place him at once in the first rank of the writers of the period and gain him a wide circle of readers. It was during this period that he wrote "The Lighthouse Keeper", a wistful, pathetic tale of an old man on a lone islet in the sea, far away from his homeland, who comes upon some old papers written in his native tongue. It is the first time he has had any contact with his native language in many years, and the written words rouse nostalgic yearnings and a deep sorrow for the land of his youth.
Chafing in the suffocating atmosphere of an enslaved, partitioned Poland, Sienkiewicz and a small group of patriotic Poles migrated to the United States in 1876. Helena Modjeska, the famed Shakespearian actress was among them. Sienkiewicz returned to his homeland in 1878 and wrote, "Letters from America", America as described by him consisted of prairies and big cities. Today it sounds like a charming tale of bygone times. However, all that which constitutes the American character, which forms the essence of this country's culture, its changeless soul, was felt with admirable intuition and thoroughly comprehended by him. He rendered an enthusiastic and simultaneously unusual tribute to the American people for their diligence, spirit of progress and true democracy.
As a result of his stay in America, Sienkiewicz saw life in a wider, more exuberant and richer scope. Partly in America and partly after his return to Poland, he wrote his most outstanding short stories such as: "Charcoal Sketches", "From the Diary of a Poznan Teacher", "Bartek the Conqueror", which are proof of the unusual development of his talent. Sienkiewicz again is harassed by the dullness of life under the restrictions of foreign rule. His aspiration as an artist and a Pole are balked. He delves into Poland's past history, perceives the powerful, creative instinct of a great nation, its will to greatness, heroism and sacrifice in the service of great ideas. He digs deep into the sources relating to XVIII century Poland, studies the language of the period, peruses memoirs and documents, transfers himself in spirit from enslaved Poland to the old times, stormy, difficult but free.
The product of this research was Sienkiewicz's remarkable "Trilogy", covering the period of the Tartar invasion. The three volumes: "With Fire and Sword," "The Deluge", and "Pan Wolodyjowski" (1883-88) have been translated into various tongues, yet they possess a Polish quality that is really untranslatable. There is a piquant touch of localism in the terminology that is homely, picturesque and even endearing. The "Trilogy" is based on the Cossack wars in the reign of King John Casimir. It is impossible to describe the impact of these books on the minds of the readers, one might say on the soul of the Polish nation, for they were literally read by everybody them and the papers that printed passed from hand to hand, awaited in every home as good, yearned for tidings.
The Polish Nation, tormented by its fate, recovered under the influence of the picture created by Sienkiewicz of its own strength. It was a picture of struggle for the homeland, unbounded sacrifice and removal of all obstacles. It electrified the Poles into renewed hope. Nowhere in the world has there been such a writer of his inexhaustible imagination, capable of rousing such interest for the events described, for the fate of the characters invented. To the reader, they became as close as family and friends. Most beloved were Pan Wolodyjowski, Longinus Podbipieta and Zagloba, "The Three Musketeers" of Polish literature. In "The Trilogy", Sienkiewicz wrote of an abandoned Poland, who won her freedom by stubborn resistance, and the Polish people understood the lesson of these books, and the fighting spirit was reawakened in them. They were the Polish soldier's favorite reading matter.
The psychological study, "Without Dogma", was written in 1890 to 1891. This is a portrayal of a Pole, so typical of many others, who all his life is a searcher for something undefinable, a will o' the wisp that brings him to nothingness and a heart rendering anguish in being unable to find solid support and emotional relief in these eternal uncertainties and hopeless yearnings. In 1892 he wrote a book on his travels in Africa, that was read with great interest. In 1895-96 his monumental "Quo Vadis" was written, translated into dozens of languages and read the world over. If Sienkiewicz had written no other work, this book alone would have brought him fame. Its background is the early Christian era, in the days of Christ, and has a universal appeal, for it is the story of Christ. It is a living epic, a panorama of historical events mingled with colorful fiction. He reconstructed the world of ancient Rome and Christianity, rising out of martyrdom and sacrifice, and created an absorbing, vibrant, deeply interesting story.
In 1897-1900 Sienkiewicz last great book, "The Teutonic Knights", appeared. Here again Sienkiewicz talent shone forth as a painter of countless battle scenes, encounters, hunts, love trysts, and of German atrocities, which today indeed seem prophetic. Like the "Trilogy" and "Quo Vadis" this work also had a lesson. It pointed to the mortal danger not only to Po- land but to the entire world. It is not surprising that Lord Vansittart wrote in the preface to a new edition of the "Knights" in London, that the world should be on guard before the constantly renewed power of Germany.
In 1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his "Quo Vadis". Scholars, experts on antiquity, declared that "Quo Vadis" presented a picture of Rome of hitherto unexisting scientific accuracy. All the important literary institutions and learned academies of the world, including that of St. Petersburg, extended their membership to Sienkiewicz. For many years Henryk Sienkiewicz was the most popular and widely read novelist of the world.
Sienkiewicz last efforts of the pen dealt with the Polish Napoleonic legions. Like many other Poles, he was brought up in the Napoleonic tradition. His own grandfather was an old legionary. But the great war broke out, when he had completed but a few chapters. Because of the war Sienkiewicz went to Switzerland together with lgnacy Paderewski and Antoni Osuchowski, and organized the Relief Committee for Poland. His sudden death on November 15, 1916, prevented his ever completing his last book.
Time has not diminished Sienkiewicz importance among Polish writers. His peasant stories have been surpassed by others, his social novels at least equaled, but as a master of historical romance he still stands unrivaled in the literature of Poland, and in the forefront of that of the world. When in 1926 his remains were transferred from their temporary grave in Vevey, Switzerland, to the cathedral in Warsaw, they were accompanied by an outburst of unanimous homage that proved what Sienkiewicz had stood for to the Polish nation.
Politically, Sienkiewicz was an "ambassador of Poland". It was he, who pleaded before the bar of Europe for his forgotten country. He addressed open letters to governments and prominent men of Europe protesting against the injustice rendered Poland. In 1901 he drew public attention to the iniquitous Prussian Law of Expropriation. He spent the remaining years of his life pointing the way to his compatriots for good citizenship in their reborn country. But he did not live to see its rebirth.
By his works Sienkiewicz testified to the vitality of the Polish nation, its strength, its striving for freedom. By showing in his masterpieces the splendor and power of Poland, when she was independent, he awakened in the Poles faith in the future and hope for the rebuilding of their homeland. He aroused the admiration of the entire world for his literary genius, and proclaimed before the world that Poland lived, that she was one of the nations, who not only fought for their freedom, but also played a leading role in culture and in the arts, and that therefore independence and an honorable place among free peoples should be restored to her.
Henryk Sienkiewicz rendered his country an immeasurable service, for he made the name of Poland famous throughout the world. When he spoke, the world knew that the Polish nation spoke through him. As her spokesman he paved the way so her independence after the first world war, for the world listened and uphold the suffering, martyred Poland in her quest for freedom.
Sienkiewicz's last unfinished historical novel "The Legions", ends in Rome to which the Polish legionaries have come after fierce fighting, and view the cupola of St. Peter's, the mother of churches, before their march from Italy to Poland. This last picture created by Sienkiewicz moves us deeply today, when we think of the Polish Army which, having conquered Monte Cassino again opened the road to Rome, again appeared on the age old track in defense of Christianity and civilization. He died at Vevey, Switzerland on November 16, 1916 while performing relief work for WWI victims.
by Irena Chrzanowska
From: "Zgoda," November 1, 2006