26.06.2023 Events, Literature

Henryk Sienkiewicz with Stanley Bill

S3E6 and all video recordings are available at:

Encounters with Polish Literature is a video series for anyone interested in literature and the culture of books and reading. Each month, host David A. Goldfarb will present a new topic in conversation with an expert on that author or book or movement in Polish literature. More about the Encounters with Polish Literature series and the timeline.

Novelist and journalist Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1917) became Poland’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1905. He spent time in the United States, recounted in his Letters from America, in part living on a communal farm with a group of utopians who included the great actress, Helena Modrzejewska (“Modjeska” in the U.S.). His most well-known work in his own time was the historical novel, Quo Vadis? (1896) describing the persecution of early Christians in Nero’s Rome and turned into a very successful Hollywood film in 1951.

In this episode, we look at With Fire and Sword, the first novel in Sienkiewicz’s historical Trilogy, recounting Poland’s conflicts with the Cossacks, the Swedes, and with the Ottoman Empire during the seventeenth century. With Fire and Sword brings us to a difficult time in Poland’s relations with the lands that are today Ukraine, during Khmelnytsky’s peasant uprising in 1648 against Polish landowners and their Jewish agents. We ask how the relationship between Poles and the people who lived East of the Dnieper compares to colonialism in countries like England, Belgium, Germany, and France, and how Ruthenians and Cossacks are represented in Sienkiewicz’s novel. We try to gain some insight into what this history meant in the seventeenth century when it happened, in the nineteenth century when the novel was written, and how we can read it today as Ukraine fights for its existence at a time of great solidarity between Poland and Ukraine.

Sienkiewicz was widely translated in his own day, into English primarily by Jerimiah Curtin who was also an expert in Irish folklore and Native American languages and ethnography, and those translations are in the public domain, available freely from Project Gutenberg and through other e-book sources such as iBooks.

Stanley Bill

Stanley Bill is Associate Professor in Polish Studies and Director of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He works on twentieth-century Polish literature and culture, and on contemporary political discourse in Poland. He is the author of Czesław Miłosz’s Faith in the Flesh: Body, Belief, and Human Identity (Oxford University Press, 2021) and co-editor of The Routledge World Companion to Polish Literature (2021). He has published translations of Miłosz’s novel The Mountains of Parnassus (Yale University Press, 2017) and a selection of short stories by Bruno Schulz entitled Nocturnal Apparitions (London, 2022). He is founder and editor-at-large of the news and opinion website Notes from Poland.

Lead image: Henryk Sienkiewicz by Kazimierz Pochwalski, 1890.

Bartek Remisko, Executive Producer
David A. Goldfarb, Host & Producer 
Natalia Iyudin, Producer

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