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Henryk Sienkiewicz and the Climax of Romanticism

Henryk Sienkiewicz and the Climax of Romanticism

6 Mins
April 22, 2017

There was a time, when Ayn Rand’s new essays came out monthly and, as often as not, mentioned or enthusiastically recommended some writer or specific book, that her readers immediately tracked down every work by that writer. Mickey Spillane, Donald Hamilton, Ira Levin, Ian Fleming, and dozens more were added to the Objectivist canon as recommended reading. In fact, sometimes the only lead was the appearance of a new book for sale by the Nathaniel Branden Institute bookstore. I once ordered almost two dozen to be shipped to me at Brown University, where I was a sophomore.

I am virtually certain that that did not happen in the case of the Polish Romantic novelist, Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916). In her essay, “Bootleg Romanticism,” available in The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand promoted Sienkiewicz to the Pantheon:

The (implicit) standards of Romanticism are so demanding that in spite of the abundance of Romantic writers at the time of its dominance, this school has produced very few pure, consistent Romanticists of the top rank. Among novelists, the greatest are Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky, and, as single novels (whose authors were not always consistent in the rest of their works), I would name Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

That is called “making the shortlist.”

Strangely, neither in that essay nor anywhere else, as far as I know, did Ayn Rand ever mention Sienkiewicz again. And yet, there is evidence that Sienkiewicz was the true climax of the Romantic era in fiction. He was tightly bound to that movement and, as a consequence partly of timing, he was the only novelist of the Romantic Movement to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1905).

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Victor Hugo had died in 1885 before the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901. The prize went to Sully Prudhomme, a Victorian poet virtually unknown today, spurring protests from backers of Leo Tolstoy for the prize.)

I have wondered whether Ayn Read could have read what many view as the greatest novel sequence in the Romantic Movement, "The Trilogy" by Sienkiewicz? I may be reminded otherwise, but I don’t recall that Ayn Rand recommended any literature that she would have had to read in translation. She read French and, as it happened, greatly favored the French Romanticists over the British. She also read Russian, naturally, and English. I have no reason to suppose she read Polish. My father was brought up speaking Polish and used to say he could sort of understand some Russian, but I doubt that applies to a literary work approaching 2,900 pages in length as does the trilogy.

She was aware, as indicated in the quote above, of Sienkiewicz's best-known novel outside Poland, Quo Vadis? (1886), which had a successful Hollywood movie version. But I raise the question about the trilogy, Sienkiewicz's epic of the astounding battles against invasion that Poland fought starting about 1648 and continuing through that century, because it never had anything like a complete and readable English translation until after Ayn Rand’s death. In the introduction to that 1991 translation, supported by contributions from American Polish groups, the novelist James Michener paid a personal tribute to Sienkiewicz, beginning by telling American readers how to pronounce his name (Sin-KAY-vitch). Michener had loved Quo Vadis? as a boy, but explained that until 1991 there was no practical way to enjoy the trilogy.


Sienkiewicz completed the work in 1887 and believe it or not the whole epic was serialized in Polish newspapers as he wrote it. He published it during a period when Poland had lost its independent nationhood, partitioned by the German, Austrian, and Russian empires. Desperate Polish uprisings against the Tsarist empire littered Polish forests with the dead and dotted the countryside with gibbets. The trilogy, Sienkiewicz said, was written to "uplift the hearts" of his countrymen and keep alive hope and desire for the nation. It has done this for more than a century through trials that Sienkiewicz scarcely could have imagined. In a very brief speech on accepting the prize, he said: “If this honor is precious 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.”

During the Cold War, when Poland was a captive nation of the Soviet empire, the communists, with a sure intuition, pulled down statues of Sienkiewicz. With liberation of Poland from Soviet domination in 1989, cities and town across Poland joyously re-erected statues of Sienkiewicz.

With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in The Steppe all describe the wars and internal struggles of Poland, then part of the "Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth," to repel invasion. The insurmountable problems, of course, were not military; the problems were factions struggling to wrest advantage from government, the inability to extend genuine freedom to all classes, and a loss of reverence for the values that motivated the country in earlier times. For example, unlike its monarchist neighbors, where the divine right of kings determined succession, in Poland the king was elected. There were extensive (for that time) guarantees of freedom, property, religious toleration--though not extended equally to all groups.

It was the indomitable Polish knights who for decades repelled the attempts by Islam to invade Europe, failed attacks that nevertheless carried back women to populate Turkish harems and men to row in the galleys. In 1683, to the horror of all Europe, the Muslim Ottoman Empire and its vassal and tributary states laid siege to Vienna. The great Polish general, later king, John III Sobieski, resisting all panic and pressure, organized a European Catholic army that not only lifted the siege of Vienna but relentlessly pursued and rolled back the Ottomans literally for centuries. The story is told in the final novel of the trilogy, Fire in The Steppe.

The great universal themes of the trilogy are that no nation survives loss of its founding ideas and values; and that salvation of a nation ultimately lies in the mind of each citizen.

Although I hope to write much more about the trilogy, notable glories of the book are the portrayal of courage, comradeship, and valor in the wars; the achingly intense and beautiful romance in each of the three books; the depth of analysis of the moral corruption that brings a great country to enslavement; and the blazingly colorful, complex characters and their moral grandeur. That moral greatness, for Sienkiewicz, was in the individual’s willingness to “sacrifice” for the nation, although considering Poland’s fate when it finally lost its independence, I would call it patriotism.

A few interesting notes about the trilogy are that young Sienkiewicz traveled in America for two years, around 1876, the very apex of American capitalism, and fell lastingly in love with it, writing about it in dispatches that captured the attention of his countrymen; that he translated Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three into Polish; that the translation, at last, of the trilogy into English required eight years of dedicated work by the novelist W.S. Kuniczak, who set aside his own successful career to do so; and that the work was carried out with the financial and moral support of dozens of Polish-American organizations, including the Copernicus Society of America.


It is tempting to me to speculate on why Ayn Rand never so much as mentioned the trilogy. It was the climax of the Romantic movement that she revered by the author who seized the torch from Hugo and carried it forward to receive the Nobel Prize in the very twilight of Romanticism in literature.

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I cannot imagine that the problem was its focus on Poland’s great wars. Among her favorites by Hugo was Ninety-Three, set in the war that the French Revolutionists fought to suppress rebellion in Brittany. Nor could the problem be that in some ways the three Sienkiewicz novels are “costume Romanticism,” featuring knights and ladies and castles and dashing steeds. So too is The Man Who Laughs, which she called “the greatest novel in world literature.” It is set in Seventeenth Century England in a world of gypsies, kings, queens, and court intrigue.

In the end, the explanation is either mundane (there was no decent translation during her lifetime or for her Poland simply was not “Romantic”) or it was fundamental. And that takes us back to her characterization of “the top rank” in Romanticism:

The distinguishing characteristic…is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world. Maintaining a perfect integration of these two aspects, unmatched in the brilliant ingenuity of their plot structures, these writers are enormously concerned with man’s soul (i.e., his consciousness).

That is a judgment to be reached only after a thorough literary analysis and appreciation of the Sienkiewicz trilogy by a critic, preferably Polish speaking, with a solid grasp of the Objectivist esthetics. I have not pretended to anything remotely approaching that level of appreciation of Sienkiewicz. But it is an assignment that if well executed might be the first step in literary rediscovery of the true giant of the Romantic movement, almost ignored, today outside of Poland. The ultimate stature assigned to Sienkiewicz depends on the outcome of that assessment. Whether he ranks above Hugo, as the very apex of Romanticism, or does not, is far less important than the world’s rediscovery of one of the great Romantic novelists of all time—buried beneath a century or more dogmatic Naturalism (Realism).

May I live to see the day.


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Walter Donway


Walter Donway

Walter Donway was a trustee of the Atlas Society from its founding until 2010. He launched the organization's first publication, "The IOS Journal," and contributed articles and poems to all later publications. He is the author of poetry collections, novels, and works of nonfiction, including his book, "Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist," with a foreword by David Kelley. He analyzed the philosophical meaning of the 2016 presidential election, and the import of Donald Trump's election, in his book "Donald Trump and His Enemies.: How the Media Put Trump in Office." He is an editor and regular contributor to an online magazine, "Savvy Street," that presents current events in the context of Objectivism. He lives in East Hampton, New York, with his wife, Robin Shepard.

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