|5 May 1845 - 15 November 1916
As research into readers and books has confirmed, Sienkiewicz has been the most popular novelist for over one hundred years in Poland, and is the most popular Polish author in the world. His works are still printed in large numbers, and Quo vadis was translated into 40 languages. Most of his novels were also "translated" into scripts and filmed. He was born in Wola Okrzejska, a village in Podlasie, to an impoverished noble family, on his fathers side deriving from the Tartars who had settled in Lithuania in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
|After graduating from grammar school he studied
at the Philological Faculty of the Warsaw Central School. He was poor and
dreamt of a career in writing. His debut took place in 1869, when he was
still a student, in Przeglad Tygodniowy ("The Weekly Review").
Having finished his studies, with some of his works already printed, in
1873 he became the person responsible for a regular series of feature articles
Bez tytulu ("Without a Title") in "Gazeta Polska" ("The
Polish Gazette"), and in 1875 the series Chwila obecna ("The Present
Moment"). From 1874 he was in charge of the literary department in "Niwa"
and worked on a trilogy of short stories, Stary sluga ("The Old Servant"),
Hania and Selim Mirza, which he finished in 1876.
He married Maria Szetkiewiczowna from Lithuania in 1881. They had some happy years together, but in 1885 she died of tuberculosis. They had two children. In 1893 he married Maria Wolodkowiczowna from Odessa; this marriage, however, finished in 1895 in divorce at her motion. In 1904 Sienkiewicz married Maria Babska, whom he had known since 1888.
From 1875 he travelled widely. Travel was for him a way of life and the condition of creativity as he became accustomed to writing "on the road"; in motels and hotels, and he was one of the most hard-working writers of the epoch (his works, edited by J. Krzyzanowski between 1948 and 1955, appeared in 60 volumes). He started travelling on a large scale between 1876 and 1878, when he went to the USA on a trip paid for by "Gazeta Polska". He toured California (San Francisco, Anheim, Los Angeles) for nearly three years and sent to "Gazeta" his Listy z podrozy ("Letters From a Journey") and short stories. After his return to Europe he stayed in Paris, then in January 1879 went to Lwow and from there to Huculszczyzna and Tarnopol, to Szczawnica and Krynica, later to Venice and Rome, and finally came back to Warsaw in the autumn. Every year he would change the places in which he stayed at least a few times. For example, after having finished Potop ("The Deluge") in 1887, and this was not an exceptional year, in January he went from Krakow to Warsaw, in February to Lithuania to hunt, in March again to Krakow, then to Vienna, Abbacia on the Adriatic Sea, where he started writing Pan Wolodyjowski ("Colonel Wolodyjowski"). In May he was treated in a spa in Kaltenleutgeben near Vienna, where he continued to write, then in Brussels and Ostende, from where he travelled to England and France, in September to Gastein and to Kaltenleutgeben and Vienna again, he returned to Warsaw in November just to leave for Krakow, Tarnow and Zakopane after just a few weeks. He spent a lot of time in Italy, Switzerland and France, and he happily travelled to the castles around Poland, to Naleczow and different spas in Galicia, but he also travelled along less frequented paths (in 1886 to Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, in 1891 to Egypt and Zanzibar). He did not change that style of life even after he had received a palace and an estate in Oblegork near Kielce in 1900, a gift from his readers. He would rather visit a place than settle there. Since he had become the object of a cult, he was invited to various celebrations, congresses and balls, especially those sponsored by conservative circles, and he never declined an invitation. This increased even further after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905.
After the First World War broke out he left Oblegork and moved away from the conflict zone. He settled in Switzerland, where he was in charge of a committee to assist Polish victims of the war and gathered in a short time about 20 million Austrian kroner. After his death in Vevey he was buried in the local Catholic church then, in 1924, his body was brought to Warsaw and buried in the vaults of St Johns Cathedral.
He achieved not only prestige and fame during his lifetime, but also financial success. After writing his trilogy, he became the best paid Polish writer (he received 70,000 roubles from the publisher for the right to reissue it over 20 years). When in 1888 an unknown fan donated 15,000 roubles to him, Sienkiewicz opened a scholarship fund in the name of his deceased wife, designed for artists suffering or endangered from tuberculosis. Konopnicka, Wyspianski and Tetmajer were granted its help. The value of Oblegorek was around 70,000 roubles, the Nobel Prize brought him another 100,000 roubles in 1905.
He started as a writer of Positivism. His feature articles, letters from America, Humoreski z teki Worszylly (1872), and later Szkice weglem (1877), Janko Muzykant and Z pamietnika poznanskiego nauczyciela (1879), Za chlebem (1880) i Bartek Zwyciezca (1882) are evidence of his ideological membership of the advocates of organic work, of his criticism of the conservatism of the nobility and of his strong disapproval of the landowners for turning their backs on the peasants. However, unlike some Positivist idealists, he did not have a tendency to idealise the people. His writing was not in accordance with the Positivist standards of being biased. In his trilogy of short stories the theme of the genre dominates, and in such American stories as Latarnik (1881), Wspomnienie z Maripozy (1882) or Sachem (1883), the theme of patriotism, neglected by the Positivists at the time of the defeat of the January Uprising, can be easily seen. Ogniem i mieczem ("With Fire and Sword"), published in episodes from 2 May 1883 to 1 February 1884 and accepted by the audience with growing enthusiasm, proved that Sienkiewicz changed his views. Here, he turned away from contemporary subjects towards history. It is the history of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in the first half of the seventeenth century. With this novel he renews a lesson of military patriotism criticised by the Positivists and refers to those traditions which said that the nobility was the power of the country. The sequels of this multi-volume series about the seventeenth century (about the war with Sweden and the battles on the Polish-Turkish border), which was published simultaneously in all three annexed areas, Potop ("The Deluge") and Pan Wolodyjowski ("Colonel Wolodyjowski") (1884-1888), ensured Sienkiewiczs fame as a favourite of the audience, and his later historical novels; Quo vadis (1895-96), about the beginnings of Christianity in Ancient Rome and Krzyzacy ("The Teutonic Knights") (1897-1900), about the times of Queen Jadwiga and Jagiello and the origin of the Polish-Lithuanian victory over the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald, only strengthened that fame. Even the less successful contemporary novels Bez dogmatu ("Without Dogma") (1889-90), and Rodzina Polanieckich ("The Polaniecki Family") (1893-94), or the not quite as successful historical novels, such as Na polu chwaly ("On the Field of Glory") (1903-5), about King Jan III Sobieskis rescued Vienna in 1683, or Legiony ("Legions") (1914), about the first post-partition attempts to organise the struggle to regain independence, were unable to weaken his popularity.
In his historical novels Sienkiewicz followed and colourfully and impressively used various traditions. He overtook Walter Scotts idea of putting the characters and fictional plots (love, adventure) in the foreground of the story, and real historic events (real wars, real characters; rulers, warriors, officials) in the background. He owed his colourful characters, pathos and optimistic overtones of the events to the tradition of the epic poem from Homer to Pan Tadeusz. From the messianic beliefs of Old Poland and Romanticism, he took the idea of Providence watching over the course of history. He often borrowed from Romantic stories, especially as far as the style was concerned, the style which up to this day is praised as one of the outstanding features of Sienkiewiczs artistry. The older Dumas taught him how to present the speed of the action and create the tensions of the adventures. In such ways the historical works of Sienkiewicz superbly refreshed the repertoire of such motifs as rivalries, duels, ambushes, kidnappings, partings, tricks, unexpected rescues, escapes, pursuits, disguises, fortune telling, etc. At the end of the Trilogy, Sienkiewicz stressed that it was written to raise the spirit of the nation. This was, however, expressed through putting the importance of heroic deeds above work or education as well as the subjectivity of opinion about "us" and "them". "Us", i.e. Polish and Catholic knights, although not without sin and sometimes weak, definitely outdo other nations and religions. Facing the Muslim (Turkish, Tartar) East, they act as a bastion of Christianity. Sienkiewicz put Polish Catholic religiousness and military tradition in the foreground of raising the spirits and hopes for the future.
The unusual popularity of the author of the Trilogy and
Quo vadis had from the very beginning been accompanied by a duality of
opinion within the environment of the critics, writers and researchers
into literature. His supporters, from Stanislaw Tarnowski in the nineteenth
century to Julian Krzyzanowski in the second half of the twentieth century,
cite the popularity opinion polls, patriotic arguments and artistry. His
opponents, however, question the ideological and intellectual value of
his works, talk about the "whitewashing" of the nobility and
other false pictures of society, the one-sidedness of educational issues,
the lack of psychological depth and helplessness towards philosophical
themes, so important for a modern man. They also point to an extensive
use of literary stereotypes. They are willing to call Sienkiewicz "the
first-class writer of the second class". These critics include Boleslaw
Prus, Aleksander Swietochowski, Stanislaw Brzozowski, Witold Gombrowicz
and Czeslaw Milosz.