Joseph Wittlin 1896–1976
(Also transliterated as Józef) Polish novelist, poet, and essayist.
Wittlin's most significant contributions to the literary world consist of Hymny (Hymns), a collection of poems revealing his personal anguish over war, and Sól ziemi (Salt of the Earth), the first volume of an unpublished trilogy with the planned title Saga of the Patient Footsoldier.
Salt of the Earth expands on the war themes evident in Wittlin's earlier works. It has elicited almost unanimous praise for its symbolic depiction of the Unknown Soldier in his struggles to adapt to the horror and chaos of war. Although Wittlin died before completing the third volume, and the manuscript of the second volume was lost in the turmoil of World War II, the first volume stands as a complete work of art. Wittlin's skill at combining in this work the elements of a historical saga and a contemporary novel led the Polish critic Jan Koprowski to call it "a record of the time and a piece of art of timeless significance."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, Vols. 65-68 [obituary] and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)
Wittlin has often been called the Polish Andreev, and it is of Andreev one is reminded at once by the title of [Wittlin's planned trilogy, "Saga of the Patient Footsoldier"]; one thinks instinctively of Andreev's "Confessions of a Little Man during Great Days" and reflects that it is justifiable to link the Pole with the Russian, since Wittlin's work, if not the "Confessions of a Little Man," is unquestionably that "Little Man's" odyssey. Wittlin's hero, Peter, moreover, is certainly the very archtype of those masses of marching men in Andreev's Red Laugh who "did not know where they were going," nor "what the sun was for," who, in fact, "did not know anything."
Again, they call Wittlin the Polish Barbusse, and in a sense he is, for his Peter is the very flesh and blood and heart and soul of what Barbusse's poilu-hero would be if he were a Polish-Ukrainian Austrian like Peter. For Peter is a single individual who stands for all the individuals who, drawn from the "emptied towns and ruined villages" constitute the "material of war" crowded by Barbusse into Le Feu.
Some call Wittlin the Polish Remarque, and again with a certain amount of justification. Wittlin's saga, like Remarque's familiar "All Quiet on the Western Front," is conceived in pity and elaborated with fine-edged irony….But Wittlin differs from his Russian and French and German contemporaries despite the common denominator of background, which is the First World War, and of hero, which is the ordinary individual. Andreev surveyed the common scene and found the poor creatures who marched blindly down the sunbaked roads all mad. Barbusse saw the same men in the filthy trenches of France as instruments, some consciously but the majority...
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["Salt of the Earth"] is the simple, vivid and quietly passionate story of an unknown Polish soldier in the early days of the last war, the Polish Everyman, the eternal fall guy…. It is an intimate and always ironic picture of the war, not on a canvas of titanic battles and vast strategic movements, but on the smallest canvas imaginable—Peter Neviadomski….
The war picks him up, packs him off to some place called Hungary, claps him into a second-hand uniform and prepares him to die for a senile and foolish old man named Franz Josef, whom Peter has never seen but whom he regards with a decent peasant adoration….
In a really magnificent beginning, the book focuses the war deliberately on Peter, for all the world like a good movie opening. Wittlin's camera first picks out the ominous black double-headed eagle of Austria-Hungary, shifts to the council of bewhiskered incompetents around Franz Josef as he signs the proclamation of war, moves outward to reactions throughout the vast empire, and slowly comes to rest on Peter in his tiny Huzul village, where it remains. Only toward the end of the book does a character as central as Peter appear, Regimental Sergeant-Major Bachmatiuk, the incredibly perfect military machine (he gets himself out of bed in the morning with whispered commands). Even he, although he may emerge in subsequent volumes as a secondary protagonist, seems to be no more in this volume than a brilliantly executed counterweight to Peter, the flint and steel to Peter's tinder….
Wittlin has created a novel to rank easily with the best war literature of our time. (p. 559)
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Patient Foot-Soldier," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1941 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 105, No. 17, October 27, 1941, pp. 559-60.
Not much has happened [by the end of Salt of the Earth]. But it is the way in which the story is told that will hold the reader captive. Joseph Wittlin is a master of intensive characterization. Gifted with an endless love for the distressed and heavy laden, for the "little man," he knows how to bring his hero unforgettably before the reader…. His prose is poetically beautiful and powerful. His metaphors are finished in their artistry. And he has another gift that is not too common. He is possessed of a delicate humor which brightens even the most tragic moments without ever growing banal. The patient infantryman Peter Niewiadomski … will doubtless take his place with immortal creations like the "good soldier Schwejk" or his predecessors, the private soldiers in Tolstoi's War and Peace.
F. C. Weiskopf, "Poetry and Fiction: 'Salt of the Earth'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1942 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1942, p. 160.
[Joseph Wittlin] is above all a genuine poet, sufficiently original and sufficiently talented so as not to have slavishly to follow any programs and manifestoes. In Poland between the wars there were many programs and many manifestoes, but what is even more important is the fact that at the very thresh-hold of political independence, a few years after Versailles, Polish poetry produced such magnificent phenomena as Łąka (Meadow) by Bolesław Leśmian, Karmazynowy poemat (Crimson Poem) by Jan Lechoń, Czychanie na Boga (To Ambush God) by Julian Tuwim, Ballady (Ballads) by Emil Zegadłowicz, Parada (Parade) by Antoni Słonimski, and … [Hymns] by Joseph Wittlin. The authors, all young poets, expressed their individual feelings, hopes and doubts, in forms which were more or less novatory, but each was sufficiently original and suggestive to gain its own position in Polish literature. (p. 69)
In Wittlin's Hymns the leading note which will stay with the poet all his life is a tone of fright at the thought of what the war and the post-war developments have done to men, fright at the thought of dehumanization, the nightmare of the twentieth century. What was expressed in poetic form in the Hymns will forty years later be echoed by the symbolic title of Wittlin's latest volume, Orpheus in the Underworld of the 20th Century.
There are many personal and quite a few objective, descriptive motives in his Hymns. The collection shows us a sensitive poetic personality, not pessimistic, but somewhat weary in his world outlook. Wittlin, like many of his contemporaries, watched his world emerge out of the misery of war, in the process of which too many human values had to be sacrificed. This amalgamation of bold dreams and prosaic details of daily reality, in which a "spoonful of soup" can become a symbol of life and death, is the poetic matter of this volume. The poem, "Hymn to a Spoonful of Soup," is perhaps the most shaking and the most revealing in the volume, both from the...
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To paraphrase poetry is a difficult and ungrateful task. However, if we are to afford the foreign reader a real insight into the spiritual-creative world of [Joseph Wittlin], the author of the Hymns, we must resort to this device. We must begin by stating that they are pervaded with a sense of metaphysical longing, and intense personal experience: they read more like prayers than poems and they were so read by Wittlin's contemporaries. The Hymns are not devoid, however, of doubts and contradictions, even blasphemy. Their main theme is war, which forms a general background against which the abovementioned feelings are dynamically developed. War and Death are great tryers of the spirit. Wittlin's...
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[The protagonist of Salt of the Earth] embodies a modern epic of the Unknown Soldier, told in an idiom full of simplicity and humour and showing a profound and infallible sense of the human predicament. Impressive pictures, which sink deep into the mind, build up the dramatic story of the hero…. This 'patient foot-soldier' is not only an apotheosis of the man-in-the-street figure so beloved of interwar literature, but also deep and moving study of the human psyche, a record of the time, and a piece of art of timeless significance. (pp. 57-8)
Jan Koprowski, "Józef Wittlin," in Polish Perspectives, Vol. XX, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 57-61....
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