Nobel Prize Recipient, Author. He received world-wide recognition as a prolific Polish author in the last quarter of the 19th century and into the 20th century. "For his notable merits as an epic writer" he received the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Born Henryk Adam Alexander Pius Sienkiewicz in the Russian controlled part of Poland, his family was politically involved with seeking the independence of Poland from the Russian Empire and the Tsar. His family had to move to Warsaw almost penniless after abandoning their family's palace and estate when the Russians came in control of Poland. He studied literature, history, and psychology at Warsaw University before becoming a journalist in Poland's largest newspaper in 1872. In this Polish university, all the classes were compulsorily taught in the Russian language, hence limiting a Polish student's learning. He traveled to South America and Africa as a newspaper correspondent. Much of his writings testify his allegiance to Poland, illustrating his strong social conscience in a satirical tone. He was an advocate of realistic literature in the spirit of positivism instead of naturalist psychology. His first novel was “In Vain” in 1872 and his first of many short stories was “An Old Retainer” in 1875. In 1876 he traveled to Anaheim, California with a group of Polish actors, artists and writers including actress Helena Modjeska and her family. Many were escaping political persecution. While in California, he wrote articles for Polish newspapers using the pen name of “Litwos” for his safety. For various reasons, some stayed in California while others, including him, decided to return to Poland after one year. He took a long stay in Paris, France before returning to Poland by 1879. He married three times. His first wife was Maria Szatkiewiczowna, who was the mother of his two children and died from tuberculosis four years after their 1881 wedding. Though in his thirties, he feared tuberculosis visiting European health spas. His travels provided him with information for his writings, such as his 1882 short story “The Lighthouse Keeper.” Upon his return to Poland, he wrote his historical trilogy about Poland in the 17th Century: “With Fire and Sword” in 1884, “The Deluge” in 1886 and “Pan Machael” in 1888. These followed with a more contemporary piece, “Without Dogma” in 1891 and a novel about peasants, “Children of the Soil” in 1894. His most successful novel, “Quo Vadis”, inspired by his stay in Rome, was written in 1895 and covered the subject of Christian persecutions at the time of Nero. Translated to English, the title is “Where are you going?” He used the Bible verse John 13:36 as his source: Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him,“Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” He returned to Polish history with ”Teutonic Knights” in 1900. In 1902, to celebrate his 30th anniversary of being a successful Polish writer, the citizens of Poland raised funds to purchase him a grand home, where he lived until 1914. Some sources state this was his ancestral home while others state it was built for him in 1902. Today, the beautiful home with his furnishings is The Henryk Sienkiewicz Museum in Oblegorek, and houses his desk and pen, family photographs and portraits, a few of his daughters paintings, and 22 paintings by Piotr Stachiewicz, telling the story line of his award-winning “Quo Vadis.” These painting were thought lost during World War II, but later found in a private collection on display since 1953 in the Detroit Institute of Art in Michigan, and eventually, returned to Poland for the museum. In 1909 he wrote “Wiry,” an unsuccessful political novel about Russian socialism and Poland. He wrote a sequel to his trilogy “On the Field of Glory” in 1910. Dealing with contemporary subjects, his last pieces were “Whirlpools” in 1910 and for younger readers, “In Desert and Wilderness” in 1912, which was adapted to a movie in 1973. Besides writing, his other activities included supporting education with scholarships, such as funding the Maria Sienkiewicz Scholarship, which was offered only to educated men living in impoverish conditions. He became involved with erecting a statue for the Polish writer, Adam Mickiewicz. With the outbreak of World War I, he escaped to Switzerland with his family, where he organized the General Committee for Assistance to War Victims of Poland. During the war, he died in Switzerland. He was cremated and his ashes returned to Poland, where a huge funeral was held in a train station. A complete 60-volume edition of his writings was published between 1948 to 1955. Although his novels have vivid fictitious characters, rich descriptions of adventure, and a surprising ending, some lack in historical accuracy; no one could learn history from his novels. His piece, “Quo Vadis” was translated into forty languages including English and was adapted for a 1909 opera and for films in 1909, 1913, 1951 with eight Academy Award nominations, and more recently in 2001. Poland declared 2016 the Year of Sienkiewicz as it was the 100th anniversary of his death.
Bio by: Linda Davis