Henryk Sienkiewicz, the forging of a distinguished writer

The author reviews the first part of the life of the Polish-born Nobel laureate in this first article, followed by a second part on his best-known works and the end of his life.

Ignacy Soler-October 8, 2022-Reading time: 9 minutes

"Petroniusz obudził się zaledwie koło południa i jak zwykle, zmęczony bardzo". Thus begins Quo vadis. Words absolutely incomprehensible to the ignorant of the language of Henryk Sienkiewicz, as are totally indecipherable for those who ignore the language of Cervantes the words that any Spanish speaker recognizes immediately: "In a place of La Mancha, whose name I do not want to remember, not long ago there lived a nobleman of those with a lance in a shipyard, old adarga, skinny rocín and greyhound runner". But in these texts there are two words intelligible to the ignorant: Petroniusz and La Mancha.

Undoubtedly, languages divide and form ways of thinking and communicating. The beauty of literature and of the novel is related to the ways of expressing oneself. That is why the Italians rightly say that traduttore-traditoreIs it possible to read Don Quixote in Polish? Is it possible to read Pan Tadeusz o Quo vadis in Spanish? The answer is affirmative because there is something common that unites all languages: the comprehensibility of reality and of the human being. However, it is necessary to add that their comprehension and beauty is limited by their translation-interpretation. In fact, every masterpiece of literature and thought should be read in the language written in its original, because every literary work is the fruit of a thought rooted in a language, culture and history. Let's take a look at the literary and historical cultural background in which Sienkiewicz lives.

Novelist, journalist, columnist and scholar. He is the first Polish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, admired by generations of his compatriots for awakening a sense of national community and patriotic spirit. He was born on May 5, 1846 in Wola Okrzejska, in the so-called Polish countryside halfway between Warsaw and Lublin, in the Podlaskie region of northeastern Poland, and died on November 15, 1916 in Vevey, Switzerland.

At the time of Henryk Sienkiewicz's birth, Kierkegard was writing his work Deadly disease with the analysis of the nature of existential anguish and the act of faith as something terrifying, a non-rational leap to reach a passionate, total and personal commitment to God. Auguste Comte finished his Positive philosophy courserejecting all theology and metaphysics to affirm that only positive science is capable of giving order and progress to the human being. Ernest Renan began the path of the search for the historical Jesus, without faith in his divinity, which would end up in his work Life of Jesus. The second half of the 19th century is a time of skepticism and doubts about the old faith, and in Poland it is a time of penance in expectation of a new birth.

It is not possible to understand Sienkiewicz and his Polish national trilogy - it is not possible to understand Sienkiewicz and his Polish national trilogy. With blood and fire, The Flood, A Polish hero -without briefly explaining some history of that country. The Republic of the Two Nations (Poland and Lithuania) disappeared from the political map when it was definitively divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria between 1772 and 1795.

The whole 19th century is a struggle for the Polish national identity to acquire its own state, its political independence, especially from Russia. That is why it is necessary to mention the two uprisings in armed struggle: the November Survey (1830-1831) and the January Survey (1863-1864). Both ended with the defeat of the Poles by the Russians, with huge deportations of the population to Siberia and great suffering of the people. However, they served to keep alive the flame of hope for liberties, for the birth of a new state.

For all of his literary work, not only for his Quo vadisSienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905. At the award ceremony, Sienkiewicz strongly emphasized his Polish origins.

To avoid repression by the Russian government he did not deliver his speech at the official award ceremony. However, three days later, in the presence of the King of Sweden and other writers he expressed his thoughts in Latin with these words: "All the nations of the world try to get prestigious prizes for their poets and writers. This great Areopagus which awards its prize in the presence of the monarch who presents it, is a coronation not only of the poet but at the same time of the whole nation of which that person is a son. At the same time it confirms that that nation takes part in this event, that it bears fruit and that it is necessary for the good of all mankind. This honor, important for everyone, is even more so for a son of Poland. It has been proclaimed that Poland is dead, but we have here one among a thousand reasons to affirm that she lives. It has been said that she is incapable of thinking and working, and here is the proof that she acts. It has been claimed that she is defeated, but now we have new evidence of her victory".


Henryk came from a family of impoverished noble landowners descended from the Tatars who settled in Lithuania. His parents were educated nobles with glorious ancestors who fought in the various uprisings for Polish independence.

From 1858 he began to study at different secondary schools in Warsaw, living in boarding houses. The family's difficult economic situation meant that he had to earn his living from a very young age as a tutor, giving private lessons. Here we have one of the fundamental traits of Sienkiewicz's personality: he was a tireless worker, always on the road, always busy, with great social initiative.

Already in his early youth he was interested in history and literature, starting to write and winning a national prize for literature at the age of 18. The authors who influenced him most at that time and forever left a trace in his writings were Homer, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Walter Scott and Aleksander Dumas. He received the highest grades in humanities and did not pay much attention to other subjects.

After obtaining his secondary school certificate in 1866, in accordance with his parents' wishes, he enrolled in the medical department of the Main School in Warsaw. However, he quickly switched to law and in the end chose philology and history, thanks to which he became thoroughly acquainted with ancient Polish literature and language.

Interestingly, in the same year and School began their studies Bolesław Prus and Aleksander Świętochowski. The latter recalled his university studies in an article published in. Prawda in 1884, when Sienkiewicz was already famous: "There was a student in the small group of the Faculty of History and Philology, who did not bode any great talent and lived completely outside this circle of choice. I remember, once walking with him in the street, I was amazed by his ability to recognize coats of arms on aristocratic buildings and carriages, and his considerable knowledge about the history of noble families. Slender, sickly. He took little part in student life and kept aloof. He attracted so little attention from his colleagues that when, after graduating from the university, Kotarbiński assured us that Sienkiewicz had written a beautiful novel In vainWe laughed heartily and did not attach any importance to the fact".

In 1869, while still a student, he began to publish articles of literary and social criticism in the weekly newspaper Przegląd TygodniowyIn the following years he established himself in the Warsaw press as a talented reporter and columnist. In 1873 he collaborated with the conservative publication Gazeta Polska. His insightful columns appeared in the cycles Untitled (1873) y Present moment (1875) under the pseudonym Litwos. He is present in the cultural salons of Warsaw, especially in the circle of the theater actor of Shakespeare's plays, Helena Modrzejewska. This was then the best known Polish actor, who later acquired American citizenship and also a well-deserved fame as a theatrical actor, performing Shakespeare plays but this time in English.

During this time he met Maria Kellerówna, from a wealthy and noble Warsaw family, the first of the five "Marias in his life". The understanding of Sienkiewicz's work is linked not only to his national roots, especially in Polish literature and history, but also to his passionate love for women, as well as to his roots in Catholic thought and tradition. In many of his works, autobiographical traits are constantly visible.

His first great love was Maria Kellerówna. These two young people loved each other madly. They were already engaged but when they asked the bride's parents for her hand, they refused and broke off the engagement, worried about their daughter's financial future. Henryk was not rich enough, not a good enough match. The young Kellerówna, deeply in love with Henryk, suffered greatly, could never forget him and never married.


Sienkiewicz also lived it painfully, rejected and humiliated, he had nowhere to turn his heart. Fortunately a trip with his friends from the theatrical culture and Helena Modrzejewska to America appeared on the horizon. Sienkiewicz got a contract as an editor of the magazine Gazeta Polska of his travel stories across the ocean. The two-year trip to North America (1876/1878) - the first Robinsons dream come true - had a great impact on the writer's work and the solidification of his personality.

Sienkiewicz with his friends attempted to create a cultural farming community in California and established their American "headquarters" in Anaheim, a city in Orange Country, not far from Los Angeles. It was a tiny town, surrounded by farmland. It was there that the whole troupe of Polish beauties, headed by Helena Modrzejewska, arrived.

Attempts to cultivate the estate did not last long and ended almost bankrupt, which was to be expected, but somehow our romantic travelers did not think of that before. And although his entire stay in Anaheim lasted less than a year, the grateful town later erected a monument to the great Polish artist.

The project collapsed, which turned to Helena Modrzejewska's advantage as she had to return to the stage. Her performances were warmly received by American audiences, and Sienkiewicz meticulously reported in correspondence for the national press on the phenomenal success of the Polish actress in her artistic turns.

It was during this biannual American sojourn that Sienkiewicz acquired a characteristic characteristic of his writing. He always wrote on the road, on a journey, without stopping. His future literary works, as Dumas did in France, were periodically published in chapters in the Polish press. He spent more than 17 years traveling outside Poland and writing.

The company's Letters from a trip to America (1876 -1879) that carried with them a contemporary account of American life with its achievements and threats. With a sense of detail and not without humor, Sienkiewicz recounted the mores of the America of that time. In his eyes, however, America's technological and civilizational drive did not justify the deep social contrasts.

The writer expressed it in his texts condemning especially and energetically the extermination of the Indians. I am reading this book these days and as a sample button I translate a small text of one of those letters, which has made me especially funny. We are in the year 1877.

"In Southern California without Spanish you do nothing. In addition, I was encouraged to study this language by dealing with different 'señoritas' with whom I began to speak in their native language. Señorita America and Señorita Sol helped me with a lot of enthusiasm and thanks to them I have made admirable progress. They also gave me a French-Spanish dictionary, so I didn't need anything else. Nor did I lack the desire, because I loved this language, which I consider one of the most beautiful in the world of languages. Each word has a sound like silver, each letter vibrates with its own melody, so manly, so noble and musical that it easily remains engraved in the memory, attracted by the words as a magnet attracts iron. He who has gone through all the difficulties of English, bending the tongue like a distaff, pronouncing sounds without any identity, and now begins with Spanish, it seems to him to pass through brambles and thorns, to find himself suddenly in a garden full of flowers. I know of no language easier to pronounce and to learn".

Publications and stories

Sienkiewicz did not limit himself to publishing in the Polish press from America. On September 8, 1877, he published the article Poland and Russia in the California newspaper Daily Evening Post. In it, he condemned the deceitful policy of the Russian authorities, who acted as defenders of the Slavs in the Balkans, at the same time that they persecuted the Poles in the territory of Poland. In 1878 he returned to Europe. He stayed in London and then in Paris for a year. He also visited Italy.

After returning to Poland in 1879 and traveling to Lviv he meets Maria Szetkiewiczówna and falls in love. Learning that her family was going to Venice, he followed them. After the engagement period, on August 18, 1881, Maria and Henryk were married in the Church of the Congregation of the Canonical Sisters in Theater Square in Warsaw. They had two children Henryk Józef and Jadwiga Maria. The wife, ill with tuberculosis, died in 1885.

Already as a bride and groom in 1880 Henryk continuously accompanied his beloved and sought for her the best places in Europe for her medical treatment. After the death of his beloved wife, he continued to travel with his children to Austrian, Italian and French spas.

Continuously on the road, he writes tirelessly from every corner where he finds himself. In 1886 he travels via Bucharest to Constantinople and Athens, then to Naples and Rome. In 1888 he was in Spain. From this trip he wrote his book BullfightingThe book, which has recently been translated into Spanish, was published. At the end of 1890, he left on a hunting expedition to Zanzibar, and publishes his Letters from Africa. Of the Polish cities, he especially liked Zakopane, although he constantly complained about the overly rainy climate of the Tatras.

Sienkiewicz began his literary work with short stories, he wrote more than forty. He liked the humorous way of telling stories, describing what he saw as if it were a diary. In addition to many specific facts of the time, there is a patriotic note in them, which will be a specific feature of all Sienkiewicz's work.

Humorous works are characterized by rhetoric and didacticism, but contain grotesque elements, revealing the satirical talent of the writer. It is also seen in the later prose, especially in Szkice węglem - Charcoal sketches (1877), where the grotesque and caricatured contrasts with the tragic meaning of the story about the extermination of a peasant family, by the nobility and the clergy, together with the tsarist and municipal officials. The fate of the peasants, confused and helpless, treated as cannon fodder by the armies of the divisive powers, is an important theme for Sienkiewicz. In the story Bartek Zwycięzca - Bartek the winner (1882) accuses the Polish elites of betraying national interests and describes the plight of a peasant facing the Prussians. The tragic fate of peasant emigration in America was sketched in his essay Za chlebemFor bread (1880). Included in these masterpieces is an excellent study of patriotic sentiments. LatarnikThe lighthouse keeper (1881).

Sienkiewicz's stories were an eloquent testimony to the vivacity with which he reacted to matters that touched public opinion, and at the same time demonstrated a profound knowledge of human psychology.

He had a keen sense of the nature of the fairy tale, was able to dramatically summarize a real-life situation, explain it by saturating it with tension, and end it with an unexpected ending. With his prolific works, he contributed significantly to the magnificent flowering of the Polish short story at the end of the 19th century and created a large collection of widely read classic tales.

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