Henryk Sienkiewicz Additional Biography


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henryk Adam Alexander Pius Sienkiewicz’s paternal ancestors were Lithuanian Tatars who had traditionally followed a military vocation. His great-grandfather, Michael, was baptized in 1740 and subsequently admitted to the ranks of the gentry (Szlachta) in 1775 through an act of the national diet by way of recognition of the family’s military service on behalf of the Polish Commonwealth. Despite this honor, he and his descendants continued to remain impoverished. His own father, Józef, managed to advance himself both socially and financially in 1843 by marrying Stefania Cieciszowska, a young woman from a well-established household of landowners who were generally conceded to be members of the aristocracy. Sienkiewicz was born on May 5, 1846, on an estate that belonged to his mother’s parents. This estate (as well as the nearby village) was named Wola Okrzejska and was located near Siedlice, a city in Russian-occupied Poland approximately fifty miles to the east of Warsaw. Sienkiewicz had one brother and four sisters, and when he was nine years old, his parents purchased an estate of their own in the province of Mazovia. A few years later, they sold the estate and bought an apartment house in the Warsaw suburb of Praga in order to supplement their modest financial resources from rental payments made by the tenants. They also hoped to give their children the educational advantage of attending schools in the city that had once been the nation’s capital.

Sienkiewicz became an avid reader quite early in life. While still at Wola Okrzejska, he immersed himself in popular Romantic poetry extolling the virtues of gallant knights and fair ladies and thus acquired an abiding affection for the institution of chivalry. He also developed an intense desire to travel through reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and even dreamed of settling on an uninhabited island when he grew up. During the time that he attended secondary school in Warsaw, he frequently neglected his studies to read the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, père. Except for the areas of literature and history, Sienkiewicz’s scholastic achievements were relatively modest. Despite his aptitude for literary and historical studies, however, he never seriously considered becoming a writer during his adolescent years.

When the time arrived for him to matriculate at the newly founded University of Warsaw, then called Szkoa Glówna (Central Academy), he readily acceded to his mother’s wishes and entered the Faculty of Law in 1866. Soon after, he switched to medicine and finally to history and literature. Students at the University of Warsaw in those years were imbued with a philosophy known as positivism, which was based on the ideas espoused by the French thinker Auguste Comte (1789-1857), and Sienkiewicz himself soon became a confirmed, if only transient, adherent of this social doctrine. Unable to obtain much financial assistance from his parents, Sienkiewicz was obliged to earn funds through employment as a private tutor while still working toward a degree. For reasons that are still unclear, Sienkiewicz terminated his studies at the University of Warsaw in 1871 without bothering to take the final examinations and abruptly embarked on a career as a freelance writer and journalist.

Within a year, Sienkiewicz was finding success in his new career. His first novel, In Vain, dealt with student life and was serialized in a biweekly periodical. At about the same time, he became a feature writer for a newspaper named Gazeta Poska and contributed numerous sketches, literary essays, and reviews to its feuilleton section. On assignment for Gazeta Poska, he went to Vienna in 1873. In the following year, he undertook longer trips abroad, to Obstend and Paris, for personal motives. Upon returning to Warsaw in 1875, Sienkiewicz became acquainted with the famous Polish actor Helena Modjeska and her circle of friends. It was within this circle that the utopian idea of founding a Polish Socialist community in California was first proposed. Both Sienkiewicz and Modjeska had personal reasons for wishing to leave Poland—an unhappy love affair on his part and a weariness with the backstage intrigues of the theater world on hers. The worsening political situation in Poland, moreover, made the prospect of leaving the country doubly attractive. When their plan was made public, the Gazeta Poska commissioned Sienkiewicz to write a series of articles devoted to his impressions of the New World. He therefore set out in advance of the main party, which was to include Modjeska and her husband as well as her teenage son from a previous marriage.

Less than a month after he left Liverpool for New York, Sienkiewicz had crossed the continent and arrived in San Francisco on March 16, 1876. After a brief stay, he moved on to Southern California and eventually chose a site near Anaheim as the best location for the colony. Modjeska and her small party arrived in September, 1876. The project ran into difficulties almost immediately, owing largely to the group’s collective inexperience with the methods of farming, and was abandoned after only a few months. Modjeska thereupon decided to resume her former vocation. Unlike Sienkiewicz,...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz (shehn-KYAY-vihch), a descendant of minor Polish and Lithuanian nobility, was born in 1846 in the Russian-ruled part of a Poland that had been taken over and partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the previous century. Although he came to be regarded as the great literary spokesman for the Polish nation, that nation did not legally exist throughout his entire lifetime, not regaining its independence until two years after his death.

Sienkiewicz’s parents pushed him to study law at the University of Warsaw, but he soon transferred, first into medicine, and then into history and literature, where his true interests lay. He left the university in 1871 without completing his degree and began a career in journalism, writing reviews and columns for the Gazeta Polska (Polish gazette) and other publications, using the pen name Litwos. He also wrote an early novel, Na marne (In Vain, 1899), which appeared in installments in the journal Wieniec (garland) in 1872.

In the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, in addition to his journalism, he wrote a number of short stories, including “Szkice wglem” (“Charcoal Sketches”), “Bartek zwyciezca” (“Bartek the Conqueror”), “Latarnik” (“The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall”), and “Janko muzykant” (“Yanko the Musician”), most of which focus on the lives of simple peasants, in keeping with the teachings of positivism, a philosophy popular in Polish literary circles at this time.

In 1874, Sienkiewicz became literary editor of Niwa (field), a weekly Polish publication. He also translated the French writer Victor Hugo and began traveling, first within Europe and then, in 1876, to the United States on an expedition with fellow writers, artists, and intellectuals to establish a commune in California. The commune failed because none of the writers and intellectuals knew how to farm, but Sienkiewicz gathered valuable experience on the trip, some of which he used in articles for the Gazeta Polska, later collected as Listy z podróy do Ameryki (serial, 1876-1878, book, 1896; Portrait of America: Letters, 1959), and some of which—for example, his experiences on the plains with native...

(The entire section is 933 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henryk Sienkiewicz is very much a novelist of Polish nationalism. In his great trilogy, he conjures up the glories of the Polish past to comfort nineteenth century Poles, whose very country had disappeared. Even in Quo Vadis, his famous novel of ancient Rome, he seems to be writing about the Polish situation, with the repression of the Christians by the Roman empire representing the repression of nineteenth century Poles by the Russian empire. Sienkiewicz became world famous through his historical epics, being celebrated for his ability to intertwine military adventures with love stories, but his fame faded with the coming of the modernist movement.