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Polish Literature from 1864 to 1918: Realism and Young Poland: An Anthology

George Gasyna

By Michael J. Mikoś. Bloomington, Indiana: Slavica Publishers, 2006. xii + 388 pages. Illustrations, select bibliography. No index. ISBN: 089-3573256. Cloth: $34.95.

Let me begin with two general observations. A current truism in Slavic studies discourse holds that any new anthology of Polish literature in English and aimed at a general North American readership must be either long overdue or urgently needed. From that perspective, Michael Mikoś’s anthologies can be seen as most welcome interventions. However, Mikoś’s collections represent something more important-and more timely-than simply compilations of selections from the canonical greats of Polish literature. Their appearance constitutes an event, welcomed equally by instructors and students of Polonistyka in the United States. Mikoś’s anthologies have established themselves as an excellent example of a drive toward comprehensiveness without either excessive generalization or atomization, and the newest book continues this trend. Mikoś, who is Professor of Polish literature at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, is noted for his skill as a translator of prose and poetry. In fact all the translations in this volume are his own, with many of the texts appearing in English for the first time; true to form, the translations range from the very serviceable to the indisputably poetic. Each anthology (five have now been published; the sixth, which discusses the twentieth century beginning with the post-Versailles era, is now in preparation) traces a major epoch in Polish cultural history and synthesizes its social dominants, thus distilling crucial periods of the country’s literary and social history into essential compilations of a format this is manageable for undergraduates in Slavic studies and the general reader alike.

With a few exceptions, the texts selected for Polish Literature from 1864 to 1918 impart the sense of an extremely rich literary half-century while highlighting-rightly, I think, given the collection’s pedagogical purpose-the work of the major authors. Any anthology, of course, must also be a work of exclusion, but given Polish Literature’s overall purview, one wishes that the most interesting literary presences (such as Tadeusz Miciński, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Wacław Berent, or Stanisław Brzozowski) had been covered in greater depth, even at the expense of other, prominently featured authors. This can be said in particular of Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose works are already well-established in translation, and who is given ninety pages in the “Realism” section. However, given the general lack of this sort of anthology in the English-language market, Mikoś’s decision to weigh his collection substantively in favor of the big names and to aim it at the “general reader” (Foreword, vii)-thus in a sense producing a reading list that might be presented to a high school senior for his or her Matura in Polish philology, or to a university freshman in the United States-is ultimately hard to fault, even if it did require erring on the safe side.

At nearly four hundred pages, the book’s scope is ambitious and its breadth inclusive. The two major cultural ascendants of the last decades before Poland’s independence was regained-Positivism and the Young Poland movement-are adroitly juxtaposed in a chronological narrative that elucidates the strong reliance on certain literary styles and justifies the contemporary public’s ready consumption of them. For example, in an introductory section titled “Historical Background,” Mikoś writes of Polish Positivism: “The program. . . put stress on ‘organic work’, asserting that the strength and unity of a society required that all of its members excel in their efforts. . . .The long-range plan urged individuals and all classes to work ‘at the foundation’, with the goal of establishing a just society. . . .As its ultimate goal, positivism envisioned novel ways of thinking, a new social consciousness, in a word-a renewed nation” (1). Of the textual selections that reflect this paradigm (including several by Sienkiewicz), Maria Konopnicka’s folksy poems (37-47), excerpts from Prus’s The Doll, and the journalistic fieldwork of his “Chronicles” are particularly poignant illustrations of the extent to which the drive to reimagine and resurrect the nation-incorporating the twin imperatives of returning to the roots and forging a new social contract-became engrained in Polish letters over the two decades following the failed rising of 1863.

Though the Positivist agenda was implicitly and explicitly (see p. 3) opposed to the insurrectionary drive and the theme of a martyrological sacrifice to the nation that dominated and perhaps overdetermined the first half of the nineteenth century, that antecedent, i.e., Polish Romanticism, is given only a basic contextual treatment. This may or may not be a problem: some readers of this anthology will undoubtedly have read Mikoś’s volume devoted to Polish Romanticism (Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2002) or similar reference works. Others may reach for those volumes as a result of their encounter with this one. In the end, however, the spectral presence and overt influence of the great poets of the first half of the nineteenth century, in both the work of the positivists and the artists of the Young Poland movement, could have been acknowledged more overtly.

On the other hand, with regard to the legacy of the 1863 rising that launched Positivism as a movement, insofar as this episode constituted the last spasm of Romanticism in Poland and the ideational lineage for what happened next is well established, Mikoś is on firm ground. Positivism, which in its specific Polish variation meant a distinctly anti-Romantic imperative of organic, synthetic work for the material survival and cultural maintenance of an internally displaced people, managed by the end of the nineteenth century to produce a clear if contested systematization of what precisely modern Polish culture should mean, and what it ought to incorporate should the nation reappear as a nation state again. Mikoś’s judicious commentary here (pp. 5-9) leaves little doubt as to the fact that, as a modality of anticolonial resistance and social praxis, Positivism combined a grand rhetoric of inclusivity with the ironies of patronizing the lower classes (there were some noteworthy exceptions, of course, such as Eliza Orzeszkowa, whose work is given some twenty pages). The question of what and who a Pole is and is not found distinct, if always locally inflected, resonance with the gentry classes and with the emerging bourgeoisies of the newly industrialized cities (pp. 1, 237, 247). The nation was thus narrated along already rigid and gradually ossifying class, regional, and religious lines-all of which did not augur well for the everyday life of the Second Republic, which was born in 1919 (this is a point nicely picked up in a number of recent studies, most notably historian Adam Zamoyski’s The Polish Way [1994], which tackles head-on the hidden and not-so-hidden discords of the Dwudziestolecie). I used this text in a senior seminar on Polish exilic literature; some of my students felt that the emancipated peasantry and, later in the nineteenth century, the urbanized proletariat, grudgingly included in the project of Polish nation-building, were elements that constituted an awkward fit with the dominant imagined community of the Poles that, to a notable degree, was dictated by its gentry class-and simply could not be wished or theorized away. In addition to Orzeszkowa and, in the Młoda Polska section, selections from Władysław Reymont’s The Peasants, further readings that highlighted this particular tension in the cultural imaginary of the Polish nation or that sought to polemicize the hegemonic modes of social reification would have been useful.

The final 140 pages of the anthology are devoted to the Young Poland or Młoda Polska movement. Standard historiography treats this protomodernist symbolist and impressionist ascendant of art and literature produced during the two decades prior to the Great War as an involuted genre with highly fraught iconography, which opposed the commonsensical and occasionally reductivist programs of the Positivists. Young Poland‘s symbology and even its ideological filiations with Romanticism are obvious: symbolism can be read as a reaction to the formulae and conventions of organicist realism, with the trope of the poete maudit appearing as a continuation of the imagery of the Romantic sublime. While these similarities in modes of self-inscription are noted, Mikoś does not analyze them in length, as witnessed by his “Background” section dealing with the movement (237-47) or in the short introductions that accompany the works of individual writers and poets. As a related matter, the second decade of the twentieth century also signals the rise of avant-gardism throughout Europe. Given this fact, an inclusion of such founding figures of the Polish avant-garde as Bruno Jasieński and Aleksander Wat, together with a nod at the manifesto-mania of the early S. I. Witkiewicz, would have closed off the decade nicely while providing a glimpse of what was to come next in Polish letters.

The antinomian thematics and assumptions governing Positivism and early modernism in Polish arts and letters are not merely a case of generational opposition. Mikoś’s new anthology demonstrates that as far as cultural production is concerned, their specific interrelationships and imbrications were in fact quite entangled-something that will become clear to readers as soon as they begin to explore the textual materials for themselves. Polish Literature from 1864 to 1918, like the author’s previous anthologies, fills a significant need; it is a fine and highly accessible work of synthetic scholarship. I recommend it highly, and not only to general readers.

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