In 1872 at age 25, in Warsaw, Prus settled into a distinguished 40-year journalistic career. As a sideline, to augment his income and to appeal to readers through their aesthetic sensibilities, he began writing short stories. Achieving success with these, he went on to employ a broader canvas; between 1886 and 1895, he completed four major novels on "great questions of our age" — all the while, continuing work on his newspaper columns.
Of his novels, perennial favorites with readers are The Doll and Pharaoh. The Doll describes the romantic infatuation of a man of action who is frustrated by the backwardness of his society. Pharaoh, Prus' only historical novel, is a study of political power and statecraft, set in ancient Egypt at the fall of its 20th Dynasty and thus of the New Kingdom.
Soon after the outbreak of the Polish January 1863 Uprising against Imperial Russia, 15-year-old Prus ran away from school to join the insurgents. He may have been influenced by his brother Leon, who subsequently became one of the insurrection's leaders. During the Uprising, Leon developed a mental illness that he would suffer from until his death in 1907.
On September 1, 1863, twelve days after his sixteenth birthday, Prus took part in a battle against Russian forces at the village of Białka, four kilometers south of Siedlce. He suffered contusions to the neck and gunpowder injuries to his eyes, and was captured unconscious on the battlefield and taken to hospital in Siedlce. This experience may have caused his subsequent lifelong agoraphobia.
Five months later, in early February 1864, for his role in the Uprising Prus was arrested and imprisoned at Lublin Castle. In early April a military court sentenced him to forfeiture of his nobleman's status and resettlement on imperial lands. On April 30, however, the Lublin District military head credited Prus' time spent in arrest and, on account of the 16-year-old's youth, decided to place him in the custody of his uncle Klemens Olszewski. On May 7 Prus was released and entered the household of Katarzyna Trembińska, a relative and the mother of his future wife, Oktawia Trembińska.
Prus enrolled at a Lublin gymnasium (where he was a student of Józef Skłodowski, grandfather of Maria Skłodowska-Curie). Graduating on June 30, 1866, he matriculated in the Warsaw University Department of Mathematics and Physics. In 1868 his University studies were cut short by financial difficulties.
In 1869 he enrolled at the Agricultural and Forestry Institute in Puławy, a historic town where he had spent part of his childhood and which would be the setting for his striking 1884 micro-story, "Mold of the Earth." Soon, however, he was expelled after a classroom confrontation with a professor of Russian language.
Henceforth he studied on his own while supporting himself as a factory worker and tutor. As part of his program of self-education, he translated and summarized John Stuart Mill's Logic. In 1872 he embarked on a career in journalism, while continuing to work at the Lilpop and Rau factory in Warsaw. Journalism would become his school of writing.
In 1873 Prus delivered two public lectures whose subjects illustrate the breadth of his scientific interests: "On the Structure of the Universe," and "On Discoveries and Inventions."
As a newspaper columnist, Prus commented on the achievements of scientists and scholars such as John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer and Henry Thomas Buckle; urged Poles to study science and technology and to develop industry and commerce; encouraged the establishment of charitable institutions to benefit the underprivileged; described the fiction and nonfiction works of fellow writers such as H.G. Wells; and extolled man-made and natural wonders such as the Wieliczka Salt Mine, the town of Nałęczów, and an 1887 solar eclipse that he witnessed at Mława.
His "Weekly Chronicles" spanned forty years (they have since been reprinted in twenty volumes) and would help prepare the ground for the 20th-century blossoming of Polish science and especially mathematics. "Our national life," wrote Prus, "will take a normal course only when we have become a useful, indispensable element of civilization, when we have become able to give nothing for free and to demand nothing for free. The social importance of science and technology would recur as a theme in his novels The Doll (1889) and Pharaoh (1895). Of contemporary thinkers, the one who most greatly influenced Prus and other writers of the Polish "Positivist" period (roughly 1864–1900) was Herbert Spencer, the English sociologist who coined the phrase, "survival of the fittest." Prus would call Spencer "the Aristotle of the 19th century" and would write: "I grew up under the influence of Spencerian evolutionary philosophy and heeded its counsels, not those of Idealist or Comtean philosophy. Prus interpreted "survival of the fittest," in the societal sphere, as involving not only competition but also cooperation; and he adopted Spencer's metaphor of society as organism. He would use this metaphor to striking effect in his 1884 micro-story "Mold of the Earth," and in the introduction to his 1895 historical novel, Pharaoh.
After Prus began writing regular weekly newspaper columns, his finances stabilized, permitting him on January 14, 1875, to marry a distant cousin on his mother's side, Oktawia Trembińska. The couple never had children of their own. They did adopt a son, Emil Trembiński (born September 11, 1886, the son of Prus's wife's brother Michał Trembiński, who had died on November 10, 1888). Emil would be the model for "Rascal" in chapter 48 of Prus's 1895 novel, Pharaoh. Tragically, on February 18, 1904, at age seventeen, Emil would shoot himself dead on the doorstep of an unrequited love. In 1906, at the age of fifty-nine, Prus may have had a son who would become one of his legatees and an engineer and would die in a German camp after the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising of August–October 1944.
Though Prus was a gifted writer, initially best known for his humorist work, early on he thought little of his journalistic and literary productions. Hence at the inception of his career in 1872, at age 25, he adopted for his newspaper columns and fiction the pen name "Prus"—"Prus I" being his family coat-of-arms—while reserving his actual name, Aleksander Głowacki, for "serious" writings.
In 1878 an incident occurred that illustrated the strong feelings that could be aroused in susceptible readers of newspaper columns. In one of his columns, Prus had criticized the loud and, in his view, inappropriate behavior of some youths at a lecture about the poet Wincenty Pol. The University of Warsaw students in question demanded that Prus retract what he had written. After he refused, on March 26, 1878, several of them surrounded him outside his home, to which he had just returned in the company of two fellow-writers, and one of the students, Jan Sawicki, slapped Prus in the face. Prus summoned police, but subsequently declined to press charges against the students. He remembered the incident, however; and seventeen years later, during his 1895 visit to Paris, he refused, by some accounts, to meet with one of his erstwhile assailants, whom he blamed for having "ruined [his] life," perhaps by having caused or exacerbated his agoraphobia.
In 1882 Prus succeeded the prophet of Polish Positivism, Aleksander Świętochowski, to the editorship of the Warsaw daily Nowiny (News). He resolved, in the best Positivist fashion, to make it "an observatory of societal facts"—an instrument for advancing the development of his country. After less than a year, however, Nowiny folded and Prus resumed writing columns. He continued working as a journalist to the end of his life, even well after he had achieved success as an author of short stories and novels.
In time, Prus adopted the French Positivist critic Hippolyte Taine's concept of the arts, including literature, as a second means, alongside the sciences, of studying reality, and he devoted more attention to his sideline of short-story writer. Prus's stories, which met with great acclaim, owed much to the Polish novelist Józef Ignacy Kraszewski and, among English-language writers, to Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. His fiction would also be influenced by French writers Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet and Émile Zola.
Prus wrote several dozen stories, originally published in newspapers and ranging in length from micro-story to novella. Characteristic of Prus's stories are his keen observation of everyday life and his sense of humor, which he had honed early on as a contributor to humor magazines. The prevalence of themes from everyday life is consistent with the Polish Positivist artistic program, which sought to portray the circumstances of the general populace rather than those of the erstwhile Romantic heroes of an earlier generation of writers. The literary period in which Prus wrote was ostensibly a prosaic age, by contrast with the poetry of the Romantics; but Prus' prose is often a poetic prose. His stories also often contain elements of fantasy or whimsy. A fair number of his stories originally appeared in New Year's issues of newspapers.
Prus long eschewed writing historical fiction, arguing that it must inevitably distort history. He criticized contemporary historical novelists for their lapses in historic accuracy, including Henryk Sienkiewicz's failure, in the military scenes in his Trilogy portraying 17th-century Polish history, to describe the logistics of warfare. It would only be in 1888, when Prus was forty, that he would write his first historical fiction, the stunning short story, "A Legend of Old Egypt." This story would, a few years later, serve as a preliminary sketch for his only historical novel, Pharaoh (1895).
Eventually Prus would compose four novels on what he had referred to in an 1884 letter as "great questions of our age": The Outpost (Placówka, 1886) on the Polish peasant; The Doll (Lalka, 1889) on the aristocracy and townspeople and on idealists struggling to bring about social reforms; The New Woman (Emancypantki, 1893) on feminist concerns; and his only historical novel, Pharaoh (Faraon, 1895), on mechanisms of political power. The work of greatest sweep and most universal appeal is Pharaoh. Prus' novels, like his stories, were originally published in newspaper serialization.
After having sold Pharaoh to the publishing firm of Gebethner and Wolff, Prus embarked on May 16, 1895, on a four-month journey abroad. He visited Berlin, Dresden, Karlsbad, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Rapperswil. At the latter Swiss town he stayed two months (July–August), nursing his agoraphobia and spending much time with his friends, the promising young writer Stefan Żeromski and his wife Oktawia. The couple sought Prus's help for the Polish National Museum where Żeromski was librarian.
The final stage of Prus's journey took him to Paris, where he was prevented by his agoraphobia from crossing the Seine River to visit the city's southern Left Bank. He was nevertheless pleased to find that his descriptions of Paris in The Doll had been on the mark (he had based them mainly on French-language publications). From Paris he hurried home to recuperate at Nałęczów from his journey, the last that he would make abroad.
Prus' experiences in the January 1863 Uprising had persuaded him to urge society's advancement through learning, work and commerce rather than through potentially-disastrous social upheavals. He departed from this stance, however, in 1905, when Imperial Russia experienced defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and his compatriots demanded autonomy and reforms. On December 20, 1905, in the first issue of a short-lived periodical, Młodość (Youth), he published an article, "Oda do młodości" ("Ode to Youth"), whose title harked back to an 1820 poem by Adam Mickiewicz. Prus wrote, in reference to his earlier position on revolution and strikes: "with the greatest pleasure, I admit it—I was wrong!
In 1908 Prus serialized in the Warsaw Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly) his novel Dzieci (Children), describing the young revolutionaries, terrorists and anarchists of the day; it was an uncharacteristically humorless work. Three years later a final novel, Przemiany (Changes), was to have been, not unlike The Doll, a panorama of the society and of its vital concerns. The novel's beginning, however, had barely been serialized in the Illustrated Weekly in 1911-12 when the book's composition was cut short by Prus's death. Neither of the two late novels, Children or Changes, is generally regarded as part of the essential Prus canon, and Czesław Miłosz has called Children one of Prus' weakest works.
Prus' last novel to meet with popular acclaim was Pharaoh, completed in 1895. Depicting the demise of ancient Egypt's Twentieth Dynasty and New Kingdom three thousand years earlier, Pharaoh had also reflected Poland's loss of independence a century before in 1795—an independence whose post-World War I restoration Prus would not live to see.
On May 19, 1912, in his Warsaw apartment at 12 Wolf Street (ulica Wilcza 12), Prus' forty-year journalistic and literary career came to an end.
The beloved agoraphobic author was mourned by the nation that he had striven, as soldier, thinker and writer, to rescue from oblivion. Thousands attended his May 22, 1912, funeral service at St. Alexander's Church on nearby Triple Cross Square (Plac Trzech Krzyży) and his interment at Powązki Cemetery.
Prus' tomb was designed by his nephew, the noted sculptor Stanisław Jackowski. On three sides it bears, respectively, the novelist's actual name, Aleksander Głowacki, his years of birth and death, and his pen name, Bolesław Prus. On the fourth side is the inscription "Serce serc" ("Heart of hearts"), borrowed from the Latin inscription "Cor cordium" on the tomb of English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in Rome's Protestant Cemetery. Below that inscription is the figure of a little girl embracing Prus' tomb — a figure emblematic of his well-known empathy and affection for children.
On December 3, 1961, nearly half a century after Prus' death, a museum devoted to him was opened in the 18th-century Małachowski Palace at Nałęczów, near Lublin, a city in eastern Poland. It was at Nałęczów that Prus had vacationed for thirty years from 1882 until his death, and that he had met the young Stefan Żeromski. Prus had served as witness at Żeromski's 1892 wedding and had helped foster the younger man's writing career.
While Prus espoused a positivist and realist outlook, much in his fiction shows qualities compatible with pre-1863-Uprising Polish Romantic literature. Indeed, he held the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz in high regard. Prus's novels in turn, especially The Doll and Pharaoh, with their innovative composition techniques, blazed the way for the 20th-century Polish novel.
The New Woman was pronounced by Joseph Conrad to be "better than Dickens"—Dickens being a favorite author of Conrad's. Czesław Miłosz, however, thought that the novel was "as a whole... an artistic failure... Zygmunt Szweykowski similarly faulted The New Woman's loose, tangential construction; this, in his view, was partly redeemed by Prus' humor and by some superb episodes, while "The tragedy of Mrs. Latter and the picture of [the town of] Iksinów are among the peak achievements of [Polish] novel-writing. Pharaoh, a study of political power, became the favorite novel of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, prefigured the fate of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and continues to point analogies to more recent times. Pharaoh is often described as Prus's "best-composed novel—indeed, "one of the best-composed [of all] Polish novels. This was due in part to Pharaoh having been composed complete prior to newspaper serialization, rather than being written in instalments just before printing, as was the case with Prus' earlier major novels.
The Doll and Pharaoh, which made Prus a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, are available in English versions. The Doll has been translated into sixteen languages, and Pharaoh into twenty. In addition, The Doll has been filmed several times and been produced as a late-1970s television miniseries, while Pharaoh was adapted into a 1966 feature film.
In 1897-99 Prus serialized in the Warsaw Daily Courier (Kurier Codzienny) a monograph on The Most General Life Ideals (Najogólniejsze ideały życiowe), which systematized ethical ideas that he had developed over his career regarding happiness, utility and perfection in the lives of individuals and societies. In it he returned to the society-organizing (i.e., political) interests that had been frustrated during his Nowiny editorship fifteen years earlier. A book edition appeared in 1901 (2nd, revised edition, 1905). This work, rooted in Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarian philosophy and Herbert Spencer's view of society-as-organism, retains interest especially for philosophers and social scientists.
Another of Prus's learned projects remained incomplete at his death. He had sought over his writing career to develop a coherent theory of literary composition. Notes of his from 1886-1912 were never put together into a finished book as he had intended. Some particularly intriguing fragments describe Prus's combinatorial calculations of the millions of potential "individual types" of human characters, given a stated number of "individual traits.
A curious comparative-literature aspect has been noted to Prus's career, which paralleled that of his American contemporary, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). Each became a war casualty with combat head trauma—Prus in 1863 in the Polish 1863-65 Uprising; Bierce in 1864 in the American Civil War. Each experienced false starts in other occupations, and at twenty-five became a journalist for the next forty years; failed to sustain a career as editor-in-chief; achieved celebrity as a short-story writer; lost a son in tragic circumstances (Prus, an adopted son; Bierce, both his sons); attained superb humorous effects by portraying human egoism (Prus especially in Pharaoh, Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary); was dogged from early adulthood by a health problem (Prus, agoraphobia; Bierce, asthma); and died within two years of the other (Prus in 1912; Bierce presumably in 1914). Prus, however, unlike Bierce, went on from short stories to write novels.
In Prus's lifetime and since, his contributions to Polish literature and culture have been memorialized without regard to the nature of the political system prevailing in Poland in the respective periods:
The following is a chronological list of works by Bolesław Prus. Translated titles, when available, are given, followed by original titles and dates of publication.
b. Prus was not alone in advocating the development of science and technology. It was part of the spirit of the times. The great Polish mathematician Kazimierz Kuratowski writes that in the period when Poland was under complete foreign rule (1795–1918) "It was a common belief that the cultivation of science and the growth of its potential would somehow guarantee the [survival] of the [Polish] nation.
c. In 1890 Prus wrote: "When I was starting out as a writer, I wrote in part instinctively, in part by inadvertent imitation. My productions were a collection of haphazard observations, put together no doubt against the backdrop of what I had read. Every beginning author does the same. To be sure, this kind of work was to me a great mortification. [...] Then I began asking older authors, and they told me that 'there are no rules, nor can there be any, for the art of novel-writing.' [...] Then [about 1880], brought to desperation, I set about trying to resolve for myself the question: 'Can literary art be reduced to general rules?' After several years of observing and thinking, the matter began to get clearer for me, and as early as August 1886 I set down my first notes [...] and, God willing, I hope to publish a scientific theory of literary art. I expect that it will contain some fairly new things.