Joseph Wittlin

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Arthur Prudden Coleman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

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 without knowing it, of a purpose. Remarque saw the mass of those who fought for Germany as men lost beyond possibility of reclamation. Wittlin saw them as simply—Peter, the Hucul railroad guard from the mountain hamlet of Topory-Czernielica whose single ambition in life was to wear the cap which was the sign and symbol of Imperial service.

Who is Peter? He is the Unknown Soldier….

But what sort of being was this Unknown Soldier? Nobody can say. Nobody knows. He was as unknown humanly as if he had never existed within a human frame or drawn a human breath. (p. 10)

Wittlin knew … from his own participation in the twentieth century counterpart of the Greco-Trojan duel, that it is not the Ulysseses who make a war but the nameless, long-suffering soldiers who travel on foot. The idea of these men as heroes fused in Wittlin's mind with the idea of revealing the Unknown Soldier, and so the "Saga of the Patient Footsoldier," whose very name Niewiadomski means "Son of an Unknown Father," was born.

The quality which more than any other distinguishes Wittlin from contemporaries to whom he has been compared is his Biblicalness. His style is essentially that of the great stories in the Bible: clear, simple, and detached, worthy of significant deeds. His treatment of individuals is Biblical: each becomes a symbol and each is as completely evoked in his symbolic role as a Job or a Daniel. His manner of communicating mass emotion has a Biblical quality too. Wittlin realizes the emotion simply and poignantly through the gestures and sounds of striking and symbolic figures…. Wittlin's sense of the mystical unity of all life is Biblical too and nowhere more majestically brought into play than in the early scenes of the story where Peter is still in his native village above the mist-hung gorges of the Prut and the Czeremosz.

The Biblical quality of Wittlin's saga, as well also as that of his earlier war poems ("Hymns"), is by no means exclusively of the Old Testament, though the Old Testament is unquestionably Wittlin's first and greatest model. His attitude toward all humankind,… is Christian and New Testamental: he has regard for both the least and the greatest of men and he sees both deluded in equal measure by the very quality in themselves that makes them nobler than the beasts, the capacity men have for selfless devotion to another human being or to an ideal. (pp. 10-11)

Arthur Prudden Coleman, "Joseph Wittlin: Giant of Polish Letters," in The Saturday Review of Literature (© 1941, copyright renewed © 1968, Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 15, August 2, 1941, pp. 10-12.

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