Authors: Henryk Sienkiewicz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Polish novelist

May 5, 1846

Wola Okrzejska, Poland

November 15, 1916

Vevey, Switzerland


Poland’s greatest novelist was born on May 5, 1846, near Lukow, in Russian Poland, of a family that belonged to the country gentry. Educated by a tutor who shared his interest in history with his charge, Henryk Adam Alexander Pius Sienkiewicz attended the University of Warsaw. There, as one of the Young Positivist admirers of Auguste Comte, he became convinced that all knowledge can be observed through the human senses, including not only colors and sounds but also their interrelationship. Although he and the other Positivists did not follow their master in scorning the microscope as an attempt to peer beyond human observation, they were interested in the how, rather than the why, of changes. This group largely revolutionized Poland’s literary life following the 1863 revolt against Russia. Then, and throughout his life, Sienkiewicz was noted for his hatred of Russia

Henryk Sienkiewicz

(©The Nobel Foundation)

Motivated by his anti-Russian feelings as well as by a spirit of adventure, he emigrated from Poland as a member of a socialist colony that settled at Anaheim, near Los Angeles. He remained in the United States until 1878, studying the life of Polish immigrants and sending articles back to newspapers in Warsaw. The differences in culture between Poland and the United States, as well as the unwillingness of his fellow colonists to cooperate, brought failure to the project. Sienkiewicz returned to Warsaw to make his living as a journalist.

Reading Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas inspired him to do something similar for his own land. Discarding his Positivist theories, he began a trilogy dealing with seventeenth century Poland as it tried to establish national unity through wars with the Swedes, Turks, and Cossacks. In With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael, the central character, Zagloba, has been likened to Falstaff and to Ulysses because of his combination of heroism and buffoonery.

Interested also in psychology and modern social problems, Sienkiewicz wrote about contemporary Poland in Without Dogma and Children of the Soil. After these works he apparently realized that his real talent lay in the romantic field, for he returned to the manner of his earlier successes and in Quo Vadis re-created in colorful detail Roman life under Nero. The most well-developed character in the novel is the epicure Petronius Arbiter. Since one of the purposes of Sienkiewicz’s writing was “to strengthen the heart and to help maintain the Polish national spirit,” he included in his Roman picture two Polish countrymen, the heroine Lygia and the giant Ursus. The popularity of the novel was enormous. Translated into thirty languages, it is undoubtedly the best-known work of Polish literature, far better known than the same author’s four-volume The Knights of the Cross (also known as The Teutonic Knights). The narrowness of Sienkiewicz’s intellectual sympathies is frequently blamed for some of the flaws in this and his other novels, yet his ability to write with dash and fire has never been questioned; his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905 was universally acclaimed.

Because of his literary status and his anti-Russian sentiments, Sienkiewicz was frequently sought by patriots to lead them in their movement for the liberation of Poland. During World War I, he and the pianist Ignacy Paderewski organized a committee to help Polish war victims. While working for the Polish Red Cross in Switzerland, Sienkiewicz died at Vevey on November 15, 1916. In 1924 his body was taken to Cracow, former capital of Poland, for burial in the ancient cathedral.

Author Works Long fiction: Na marne, 1872 (In Vain, 1899) Szkice węglem, 1877 Ogniem i mieczem, 1884 (With Fire and Sword: An Historical Novel of Poland and Russia, 1890) Potop, 1886 (The Deluge: An Historical Novel of Poland, Sweden, and Russia, 1891) Pan Wołodyjowski, 1887–1888 (Pan Michael: An Historical Novel of Poland, the Ukraine, and Turkey, 1893) Bez dogmatu, 1891 (Without Dogma, 1893) Rodzina Połanieckich, 1895 (Children of the Soil, 1895) Quo vadis, 1896 (Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, 1896) Krzyżacy, 1900 (The Knights of the Cross, 1900; also known as The Teutonic Knights, 1943) Na polu chwaly, 1903–1905 (On the Field of Glory, 1906) W pustyni i w puszczy, 1911 (In Desert and Wilderness, 1912) Dzieua, 1948–1955 (60 volumes) Short Fiction: Yanko the Musician, and Other Stories, 1893 (includes “Yanko the Musician” and “The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall”) Lillian Morris, and Other Stories, 1894 Hania, 1897 (includes “Tartar Captivity”) Let Us Follow Him, and Other Stories, 1898 For Daily Bread, and Other Stories, 1898 Sielanka: A Forest Picture, and Other Stories, 1898 Life and Death, and Other Stories, 1904 Tales, 1931 Western Septet: Seven Stories of the American West, 1973 The Little Trilogy, 1995 Nonfiction: Listy z podróży do Ameryki, 1876–1878 (serial), 1896 (book; Portrait of America: Letters, 1959) Listy z Afryki, 1891 Bibliography Coleman, Arthur Prudden, and Marion Moore Coleman. Wanderers Twain: Modjeska and Sienkiewicz—A View from California. Cheshire, Conn.: Cherry Hill Books, 1964. A study of the trip Sienkiewicz and Helena Modjeska made to Anaheim, California, in 1876. Most useful for the student of Sienkiewicz’s fiction are the chapters on his early years in Poland. Giergielewicz, Mieczyslaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz. New York: Twayne, 1968. This introductory volume begins with a section on historical background, as Sienkiewicz’s fiction is tied so closely to the fate of Poland and of Central Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are also chapters on his life, his experience as a journalist, his tales, and his epic novels. Includes a chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography. Giergielewicz, Mieczyslaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Biography. New York: Hippocrene, 1991. An excellent source for information on Sienkiewicz’s life and times. Krzyanowski, Jerzy R. “Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy in America.” The Polish Review 41 (1996): 337-49. A good example of well-informed scholarship on Sienkiewicz’s fiction. Lednicki, Waclaw. Henryk Sienkiewicz: A Retrospective Synthesis. The Hague: Mouton, 1960. Lednicki met the novelist on several occasions and uses his personal experience of the author to provide insightful and well balanced comments on Sienkiewicz’s significance. Modjeska, Helena. Memories and Impressions: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1910. The actress who accompanied Sienkiewicz to Anaheim, California. She also knew the novelist in Warsaw, and she provides insight into his character and literary sensibility. Phelps, William Lyon. Essays on Modern Novelists. New York: Macmillan, 1910. Although brief, Phelps’s essay on Sienkiewicz is an excellent place to begin for an assessment of the novelist’s place in world literature.

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