Henryk Sienkiewicz was aninternational phenomenon a century ago–at the end of the nineteenth and thebeginning of the twentieth centuries. He was trained in both law and medicine. He was a respected historian. He was a successful journalist. He was a widely sought-after critic and editor. He was an erudite lecturer. And in addition to all that, he was anamazingly prolific and wildly popular novelist—selling millions of copies ofhis almost fifty books in nearly three hundred editions in the United Statesalone.
Hewowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth ofcharacter, and his evocative story-telling. His writing includes some of the most memorable works ofhistorical fiction ever penned—raking with the likes of Sir Walter Scott,Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Johnson.
Itwas an unlikely destiny for a passionately ethnic novelist from the isolated,feudal, and agrarian Podlasie region of Poland to fulfill. Born in 1846, helived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Central Europeanhistory. Ideological revolutions,utopian uprisings, base conspiracies, nationalistic movements, andimperialistic expansions wracked the continent in the decades between the fall ofNapoleon and the rise of Hitler. Wars and rumors of wars shook the foundations of social order to anextraordinary degree. His ownnation was cruelly and bitterly divided between the ambitions of the PrussianKaiser and the Russian Czar. Theproud cultural and national legacy of Poland was practically snuffed outaltogether—all the distinctive aspects of the culture were outlawed and eventhe language was fiercely suppressed.
Sienkiewiczbecame a part of the underground movement to recover the Polish arts—music,poetry, journalism, history, and fiction. He used the backdrop of the social, cultural, and political chaos toreflect both the tragedy of his people and the ultimate hope that lay in theirglorious tenacity. He was thus, atrue traditionalist at a time when traditionalism had been thoroughly andsystematically discredited the world over—the only notable exceptions being inthe American South and the Dutch Netherlands. As a result, his distinctive voice rang out in starkcontrast to the din of vogue conformity. Thus, his novels not only introduced the world to Poland, they offered astern anti-revolutionary rebuke in the face of Modernity’s smothering politicalcorrectness.
Hismassive Trilogy, published between1884 and 1887, tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to save his homelandfrom foreign domination during the previous century. When they were first released in the United States, thebooks became instant best-sellers. They made Sienkiewicz a household name—so much so that Mark Twain couldassert that he was the first serious, international writer to become anAmerican literary celebrity. Evenso, the Trilogy did not achieve forhim even a fraction of the acclaim that came his way with the publication of Quo Vadis? in 1898. It was nothing short of aphenomenon. It was the first bookthe New York Times dubbed a“blockbuster,” and became the standard against which all futuremega-best-sellers was judged.
Onthis day in 1905, Sienkiewicz saw his brilliant career capped when he was awardedthe Nobel Prize for literature.