Henryk Sienkiewicz was an international phenomenon a century ago--at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning 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 an amazingly prolific and wildly popular novelist—selling millions of copies of his almost fifty books in nearly three hundred editions in the United States alone.
He wowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth of character, and his evocative story-telling. His writing includes some of the most memorable works of historical fiction ever penned—raking with the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Johnson.
It was an unlikely destiny for a passionately ethnic novelist from the isolated, feudal, and agrarian Podlasie region of Poland to fulfill. Born in 1846, he lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Central European history. Ideological revolutions, utopian uprisings, base conspiracies, nationalistic movements, and imperialistic expansions wracked the continent in the decades between the fall of Napoleon and the rise of Hitler. Wars and rumors of wars shook the foundations of social order to an extraordinary degree. His own nation was cruelly and bitterly divided between the ambitions of the Prussian Kaiser and the Russian Czar. The proud cultural and national legacy of Poland was practically snuffed out altogether—all the distinctive aspects of the culture were outlawed and even the language was fiercely suppressed.
Sienkiewicz became 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 to reflect both the tragedy of his people and the ultimate hope that lay in their glorious tenacity. He was thus, a true traditionalist at a time when traditionalism had been thoroughly and systematically discredited the world over—the only notable exceptions being in the American South and the Dutch Netherlands. As a result, his distinctive voice rang out in stark contrast to the din of vogue conformity. Thus, his novels not only introduced the world to Poland, they offered a stern anti-revolutionary rebuke in the face of Modernity’s smothering political correctness.
His massive Trilogy, published between 1884 and 1887, tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to save his homeland from foreign domination during the previous century. When they were first released in the United States, the books became instant best-sellers. They made Sienkiewicz a household name—so much so that Mark Twain could assert that he was the first serious, international writer to become an American literary celebrity. Even so, the Trilogy did not achieve for him even a fraction of the acclaim that came his way with the publication of Quo Vadis? in 1898. It was nothing short of a phenomenon. It was the first book the New York Times dubbed a “blockbuster,” and became the standard against which all future mega-best-sellers was judged.
On this day in 1905, Sienkiewicz saw his brilliant career capped when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.