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Henryk Sienkiewicz

"The Patriot Novelist of Poland"

Henryk Sienkiewicz is a world-renowned novelist, storyteller, and the winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature, with his works translated into 50 different languages. He was deeply rooted to two things during his lifetime, Poland and Christianity, and those themes regularly show up in his epic writing.

Early Life of Henryk Sienkiewicz

Henryk Sienkiewicz was born May 5, 1846 to a middle class family in Wola Okrzejska, a small, Russian-ruled town in Poland. During his childhood the family sold their rural property in Wola Okrezjska, because of the economic difficulties of having a farm, and moved into a more urban setting in Warsaw. It was in Warsaw that Henryk began to attend school; first at the Warsaw Gymnasium, and then later, in 1866, at the Polish University, Szkola Glowna.

While studying law, medicine, history and literature at the university, Henryk found that his education was going nowhere, as he had no money, so he eventually dropped out without earning his degree. This time during his university years wasn’t completely wasted, however, as Henryk began his freelance writing career during this time.

He was writing for several newspaper columns, and he even wrote his first historical story as well, Ofiara (The Sacrifice), which was heavily influenced by Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas, and would be a good indication of where his writing was headed. He also penned his first novel, Na Marne, which was about student life, and was somewhat autobiographical. In 1874 he was a co-owner and editor of the biweekly Niwa, but by this time Henryk felt it was time to move on.

Henryk Sienkiewicz Travels The World

In 1876 Henryk Sienkiewicz traveled to the United States Of America with his friend Helena Mofjeska, who was an actress and he was her advance agent. While in the United States Henryk and Helena attempted to establish a settlement in California, but it didn’t work out. While in the United States, however, Henryk wrote letters back to Poland regularly, where they would be published in various newspapers. Also while in America he found inspiration for a series of short stories, which were published as a book under the title Latarnik.

Henryk moved back to Warsaw for about twenty years until he once again left Poland; he was headed for Africa this time. After Africa he moved to Italy, where he worked on his most famous piece of literature, Quo Vadis.

Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis is the most well-known Henryk Sienkiewicz novel there is. It gives a clear view of his style, historical fiction, and tells a very good story.

On the surface that story depicts the persecution of the Christians in first-century Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero, a sinister tyrant, personifying the decadence of the Roman Empire. Focusing on a love story between a Roman patrician, Vinicius, and a Christian girl, Lygia, the novel conveyed a message of strong faith and hope. This appealed greatly to the Polish citizens, who saw it as a representation of their struggle against repression.

Quo Vadis was almost an important novel, because it was one of the first novels ever to be adapted for film. Two versions were filmed in the early 1900’s, a French version and a Italian one, while recently in 2001, the story was filmed in Tunisia, Poland and France, with support from Pope John Paul II.

Hope For Poland

Henryk Sienkiewicz was a great inspiration to the people of Poland. He was always conscious of Poland’s cultural oppression, and sought to do as much as he could to help out his fellow man. During his lifetime, Henryk sent many open letters to important people throughout Europe, protesting against the acts of injustice, which victimized his nation. In 1901, he was a key player in exposing the persecution of Polish school children at the hands of the Prussian government.

The people responded to all of Henryk’s hard work, as they would pin pages from his novels onto their clothing as a reminder hope. Sadly, however, Henryk did not live to see all of the hope turn into reality, as he died two years after Poland restored its boundaries.

When Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize in 1905, he dedicated the award to his fellow countrymen.

The 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature

On December 10th, 1905 Henryk Sienkiewicz was awarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his outstanding merits as an epic writer. In his acceptance speech for the Prize he gave immense respect to Poland, and its people.

Nations are represented by their poets and their writers in the open competition for the Nobel Prize. Consequently the award of the Prize by the Academy glorifies not only the author but the people whose son he is, and it bears witness that that nation has a share in the universal achievement, that its efforts are fruitful, and that it has the right to live for the profit of mankind. If this honour is premous to all, it is infinitely more so to Poland. It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph. Like Galileo, one is forced to think "E pur si muove" when before the eyes of the world homage has been rendered to the importance of Poland's achievement and her genius.

This homage has been rendered not to me - for the Polish soil is fertile and does not lack better writers than me - but to the Polish achievement, the Polish genius. For this I should like to express my most ardent and most sincere gratitude as a Pole to you gentlemen, the members of the Swedish Academy, and I conclude by borrowing the words of Horace: "Principibus placuisse non ultima laus est".

Selected Works:



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