Thursday, August 05, 2004

Polish America

Regions of Mind draws out attention to Henryk Sienkiewicz (here and here), a Polish author who won the Nobel Prize in literature in the 1900s. Sienkiewicz, a nationalists who wanted to see the fragmented parts of Poland brought back together into a Polish nation, drew inspiration from the American landscape when imagining the Polish past:
Sienkiewicz's most popular work in Poland was "With Fire and Sword," an 1884 novel describing dramatic battles between Poles and Cossacks along the Polish-Lithuanian borderland. Curiously, Sienkiewicz never visited that region and to describe it, he drew on images he recalled from his visits to the American West.

Thus, to describe a trip down the Dneiper, Sienkiewicz employed imagery he recalled from a trip down the Mississippi. He depicted the "wildlands" of the Polish-Lithuanian border area as American-style priairie. ... [S]cholar Frank Fox writes, "when the Poles were finally overwhelmed by Tartars, the scene resembled Custer's Last Stand, with brave Poles substituted for the Seventh Cavalry."

Sienkiewicz drew his images from his own visits to the United States (particularly the Prairie regions). Looking over the sparsely settle land, he saw a land on the cusp of modernization:
At the top of the telegraph poles were attached horizontal crossbar, giving the appearance of crucifixes. All around a grey, endless plain covered with sweetbroom and occasional patches of snow, and the long row of crosses, sad and funereal, as far as the eye could see. They seemed to mark the path leading into the valley of death, or to represent monuments upon the graves of wanderers.

As Mr. Simmons explains, Sienkiewicz mourns how the settling of the prairie disturbs the unspoiled environment.

: Germans have told me that they see cable crossed landscapes as typical of what America looks like.

Having my interest in Sienkiewicz piqued, I discoverd that he had a tremendous impact on modern literature. Nationalists were inspired by his use of the trilogy to create patriotic epics. Sienkiewicz, according to Jon Smith, inspired Frank Norris, Thomas Dixon, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, and Winston Churchill (among others) to treat national history in the form of literary epics. (Did he displace Walter Scott as the model?)


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