Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz (also known as "Litwos" [ˈlitfɔs]; May 5, 1846–November 15, 1916) was a Polish journalist and Nobel Prize-winning novelist. He was one of the most popular Polish writers at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905 for his "outstanding merits as an epic writer."
Born into an impoverished gentry family in the Podlasie village of Wola Okrzejska, in Russian-ruled Poland, Sienkiewicz wrote historical novels set during the Rzeczpospolita (Polish Republic, or Commonwealth). His works were noted for their negative portrayal of the Teutonic Order in The Teutonic Knights (Krzyżacy), which was remarkable as a significant portion of his readership lived under German rule. Many of his novels were first serialized in newspapers, and even today are still in print. In Poland, he is best known for his historical novels "With Fire and Sword", "The Deluge", and "Fire in the Steppe" (The Trilogy) set during the 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while internationally he is best known for Quo Vadis, set in Nero's Rome. Quo Vadis has been filmed several times, most notably the 1951 version.
Sienkiewicz was meticulous in preserving the authenticity of historical language. In the trilogy, for instance, he had his characters use the Polish language as it was spoken in the seventeenth century. In Krzyżacy, which relates to the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, he even had his characters speak a variety of medieval Polish which he recreated by utilizing many of the archaic expressions then still common among the highlanders of Podhale.
In 1881, Sienkiewicz married Maria Szetkiewicz (1854-1885). They had two children, Henryk Józef (1882-1959) and Jadwiga.
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Sienkiewicz was born in Wola Okrzejska, a village in eastern Poland's Podlasie region, into an impoverished gentry family, on his father's side deriving from Tartars who had settled in Lithuania. His family used the coat of arms Oszyk. His parents were Jozef Sienkiewicz (1813–1896) and Stefania (née Cieciszowska), 1820-1873). Wola Okrzejska belonged to the writer's maternal grandmother, Felicjana Cieciszowska. He was baptized in the neighbouring village of Okrzeja in a church founded by his great-grandmother. His family moved several times and in the end settled in Warsaw in 1861.
In 1858, Henryk began secondary school in Warsaw. He did not receive very good grades, but he was good at liberal arts. Because of the hard financial times nineteen-year-old Sienkiewicz took up a job as a tutor in the Weyher family in Płońsk. During that time he probably wrote his first novel, Ofiara (Victim). He also worked on his publicized novelNa marne (In Vain). He also finished his extramural classes in secondary school and in 1866 received the secondary school diploma. According to his parents' will, he passed the examination to the medical department at Warsaw University. After some time, he resigned and took up law studies. He ended up transferring to the Institute of Philology and History. He gained there thorough knowledge of literature and Old Polish. In 1867 he made his first attempts in literature and wrote a rhyming piece Sielanka Młodości, which he submitted for publication in Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly) but rejected. In 1869 Sienkiewicz debuted as a journalist. Przegląd Tygodniowy (The Weekly Review) printed his review of the play, and Tygodnik Ilustrowany printed his essay about Mikołaj Sęp-Sarzynski. Sienkiewicz wrote to Gazeta Polska (The Polish Gazette) and Niwa under the pen name "Litwos". In 1873 he started to write a column "Bez tytułu" ("Without a Title") in Gazeta Polska and in 1875 the series called "Chwila obecna" ("The Present Moment"). From 1874 he took care of literary department in Niwa.
He wrote the novel Na marne (In Vain, 1871) and then Humoreski z teki Woroszyłły, Stary Sługa (The Old Servant, 1875), Hania (1876) and Selim Mirza (1877). The last three works are referred to as the Little Trilogy. Sienkiewicz also visited his relative Jadwiga Łuszczewska (known as "Deotyma") and the actress Helena Modrzejewska, as their dinner parties were very popular.
In 1876 he went to the United States with Helena Modrzejewska. He stayed for some time in California. During that period he wrote Listy z podróży (Letters From a Journey), which were published in Gazeta Polska and received wide recognition. He also wrote Szkice węglem (Sketches in Charcoal) in 1877. The trip to the USA inspired him to write following works: Komedia z pomyłek (A Comedy of Errors, 1878), Przez stepy (1879), W krainie złota (1880), Za chlebem (For Bread, 1880), Latarnik (Lighthouse Keeper, 1881) Wspomnienia z Maripozy (1882), Sachem (1883).
In 1878 Henryk Sienkiewicz went back to Europe. First he stayed in London and then went to Paris for a year. In France he had got a chance to familiarize himself with naturalism, a new trend in literature. In the article "Z Paryża" ("From Paris"), written in 1879, he expressed a positive opinion on this trend. He stated that, "For a novel naturalism was in fact a brilliant, indispensable and perhaps the only step forward." Two years later he changed his mind and became more critical about this trend. He expressed his opinions on naturalism and writing in general in following published works: O naturaliźmie w powieści (Naturalism in the Novel, 1881), O powieści historycznej (Historical novel, 1889), Listy o Zoli (Letters about Zola, 1893).
His stay in America and his letter-writing published in Polish newspapers resulted in nationwide recognition and aroused interest. Bolesław Prus in his article entitled "Co p. Sienkiewicz wyrabia z piękniejsza połową Warszawy", published in Kurier Warszawski in 1880, nicely showed the popularity of the writer. "As he was back from America, almost every lady took tall and handsome men for Sienkiewicz.(...) Finally, when I noticed that every man has got hair like Sienkiewicz and all of the young men, one by one, grow royal beard and try to have statuesque and swarthy face, I realised that I wanted to meet him personally.(...) From the corner where I sit, I can see that the room is almost exclusively crowded with the fair sex. Some men, who were there to amuse ladies or to write reports, spent so much time in the company of women that they started to talk in the feminine.
In 1879 in Lviv, Sienkiewicz gave a lecture entitled Z Nowego Jorku do Kalifornii. In 1880 at Bazar hotel in Poznań he read his novel Za chlebem, and later in Warsaw he read two works on naturalism in literature. In Szczawnica, on his way back to Lviv in 1879, he read a work about his stay in America. That was also the place where he saw his future wife, Maria Szetkiewicz, for the first time. As he discovered that the whole Szetkiewicz family was going to Venice, Sienkiewicz went there too and met Maria personally. They got married on 18 August 1881, on Theatre Square in a church which was a property of the Community of Canonesses (the church no longer exists). They had two children, Henryk Józef and Jadwiga Maria. The marriage did not last long because Maria died on 18 August 1885. In 1882 he worked with Słowo (a daily newspaper with a tendency to conservatism and nobility). In the beginning, he was the editor-in-chief. He wrote a drama Na jedną kartę which was later staged in Lviv and Warsaw (1879-1881)
In 1880 Sienkiewicz wrote a historical novella, Niewola tatarska (Tartar Captivity), and began work on a historical novel, Ogniem i Mieczem (With Fire and Sword). In a letter of February 1, 1884, to Stanisław Smolka, editor of the Kraków newspaper Czas, Sienkiewicz wrote: "With regard to the great novel, it will probably be titled Wilcze gniazdo (The Wolf's Nest). It takes place during the reign of King Jan Kazimierz, during the Cossack revolt." The novel Wilcze gniazdo appeared in installments in Słowo from May 2, 1883, to March 1, 1884, under the title Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword). Simultaneously it ran in the Kraków newspaper, Czas.
With Fire and Sword was enthusiastically received by readers (as were the next two volumes of the Trilogy) and won the author national recognition. Many readers wrote Sienkiewicz, asking about the next adventures of their favorite characters. In 1879 a street in Zbarazh (one of the settings in With Fire and Sword) was named after Sienkiewicz; in 1900 its citizens would not permit building works on the church grounds, believing that it was the place where Pan Podbipięta (a fictional character in With Fire and Sword) was buried. The novel was also adapted for the stage. In 1884 Jacek Malczewski exhibited tableaux vivants inspired by With Fire and Sword.
The novel garnered also some criticism. It was pointed out, not without reason, that some of the historical facts and events were misrepresented and distorted.
He began writing the second volume of his Trilogy – Potop ("The Deluge"); according to Sienkiewicz the title was supposed to indicate the deluge of masses of people trying to stop the Swedish invasion. Potop was printed in Słowo (from 23 December 1884 to 2 September 1886). The novel quickly became a best-seller and it established Sienkiewicz's position in society. While Sienkiewicz was writing Potop, his wife, Maria Szetkiewicz, died of tuberculosis. It was a difficult time for the writer. After Maria's death Sienkiewicz went to Constantinople (through Bucharest and Varna) from where he was writing reports. After his return to Warsaw the third volume of the Trilogy, Pan Wołodyjowski (Fire in the Steppe) appeared. The novel was published in Słowo from May 1887 to May 1888. The Trilogy made Henryk Sienkiewicz the most widely read and known Polish novelist. Stefan Żeromski wrote in his Diaries: "In the Sandomierz area I witnessed myself that everybody, even those who usually do not read, were asking about The Deluge." Sienkiewicz was given 15 thousand roubles in recognition of his achievements from unknown fan who signed himself as Michał Wołodyjowski (the name of the character in the Trilogy). Sienkiewicz used this money to open the scholarship fund (named after his wife) designed for artists endangered by tuberculosis.
In 1888 Sienkiewicz went to Spain. In 1890 he involved himself in organizing the Mickiewicz Year. At the end of 1890 he went to Africa which resulted in the writing of Listy z Afryki (Letters from Africa). In 1891 a book edition of the novel Bez dogmatu (Without Dogma) was published. Earlier, from 1889 to 1890, the novel was printed in installments in Słowo. In 1892 Sienkiewicz signed an agreement for another novel - Rodzina Połanieckich (Children of the Soil), and the book came out in print in 1895. In the summer of 1894 in Zakopane, Sienkiewicz introduced some fragments of his new novel Krzyżacy (The Teutonic Knights, or "The Knights of the Cross").
In 1893 Sienkiewicz began preparations for his next novel, Quo Vadis. The period at the turn of the 1880s and 1890s was associated with intensive work on several novels.
Maria Romanowska, stepdaughter of a wealthy Odessan named Wołodkowicz, entered the writer's life. Sienkiewicz and Romanowska became engaged in that city. Their wedding took place on November 11, 1893, but the bride soon left the author. Sienkiewicz obtained papal consent to dissolution of the marriage.
In February 1895 Sienkiewicz wrote the first chapters of Quo Vadis, for which he had been gathering materials since 1893. The novel started appearing in print in March 1895 in several Polish newspapers: in Gazeta Polska in Warsaw, Czas in Cracow and in Dziennik Poznański in Poznań (Greater Poland region). It stopped appearing at the end of February 1896. The book edition appeared very quickly. The novel gained recognition and became extremely popular all over Europe. It was translated into many languages, including Arabic and Japanese. The popularity of Quo Vadis at that time was supported by the fact that the horses competing in Grand Prix de Paris were given names of the characters from the book. The novel was repeatedly adapted and put on the stage. There was also an opera made on the basis of the book. In 1913 Quo Vadis was screened. Later, the novel was filmed several times more.
In 1900 Sienkiewicz celebrated an anniversary of his artistic work. On that occasion the Polish people presented him with an estate at Oblęgorek. He opened a school for children there. In the same year the Jagiellonian University awarded Sienkiewicz an honorary doctorate.
Sienkiewicz involved himself in social matters. In 1901 he made an appeal in a cause of children in Września. In 1906 he called on his fellow countrymen in the USA to help starving people in the Kingdom of Poland.
In 1904 he married his niece, Maria Babska.
In 1905 he won a Nobel Prize for lifetime achievement as an epic writer. In the acceptance speech Sienkiewicz said that this honour was particularly valuable for the son of Poland. She was pronounced dead - yet here is a proof that She lives on". He also added, "She was pronounced defeated - and here is proof that She is victorious".
He wrote a novel, Na polu chwały (On the Field of Glory), that was intended as the beginning of a trilogy. In 1910 his novel for young people, W pustyni i w puszczy (In Desert and Wilderness) appeared in installments in the newspaper, Kurier Warszawski.
He died on November 15, 1916, in Vevey, where he was buried. In 1924, after Poland had regained its independence, the writer's ashes were repatriated to Warsaw, Poland, and placed in the crypt of St. John's Cathedral.
Sienkiewicz was a knight of the French Légion d'honneur.