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    Poland: The Knight Among Nations

Louis E. Van Norman

Introduction by Helena Modjeska

One fine characteristic I have especially noted in the American people: as a general rule, they are not led to an opinion by the verdict of any other nation. Of recent years, particularly, their popular verdicts have been based upon their own independent judgment, and some of these verdicts have afterwards been accepted by the whole world. They were the first to “discover” [Henryk] Sienkiewicz. They did not accept him on the claims of French, or German, or English criticism. By their own native perception they knew he was great, and now the whole world has accepted their judgment.

Therefore, I think it is particularly appropriate that it should be an American who now, for the first time, presents the true Poland, the country of Sienkiewicz, to the American people.

I must confess that I am usually frightened when I begin to read anything foreigners write about Poland and us Poles. So much has appeared that was untrue and distorted and ridiculous. But these “impressions” are so sympathetically written, so discerning and, at the same time, so generally impartial and just, that I am glad to recommend the volume to the dear land of my adoption as the best I know of about modern Poland by an outsider. It is so clear, so interesting, so pleasantly written, that one does not want to put it down before reading the entire book. I was especially pleased with the chapter on “Polish Music and the Slav Temperament.” It is so fair and discriminating. Most of the names mentioned in this chapter are well known to me, are personal friends, and I can recognize the faithful portrayal of these artists who, like myself, were contemporaneous with the first stages of development in the great art movement in Poland. Several of them, including Mr. Sienkiewicz himself, were with my husband and myself in our little colony in California.(1)

Americans know very little of the real Poland. Most of them have read Thaddeus of Warsaw, but this Thaddeus was not the real Kosciuszko,. He was not even a real Pole-only a creature of the author’s imagination. Since Sienkiewicz wrote his Trilogy, Americans have known more. They have much still to learn, for with all her faults, there is much in Poland, with her history, her literature, her art, and her unfortunate people, which Americans ought to know. I am glad this excellent book has been written.


Helena Modjeska was the founder of an agricultural colony for Polish settlers in Anaheim, California in the 1870s. The above Introduction was written in 1907.

Author’s Foreword

An “impression” comes so perilously near being a judgment that the author of this volume feels called upon to offer a few words of explanation.

In the following pages no attempt is made to write a history of Poland, or to present a comprehensive study of the Polish national psychology. To sound the depth of racial character would require many years of actual life near the heart of the people, and elaborate historical research. Nor has the writer ventured to prophesy the political future of the Poles. Nor, finally, has he attempted to describe the condition of Russian Polish cities during the reign of terror of the past two years. (1) The following chapters, many of which have already appeared as magazine articles in this country and in England, are no more than the first-hand impressions of an American journalist who has been permitted to spend a year in the former Polish Commonwealth, visiting almost all the important historical points. Being the first American ever to visit all sections of old Poland for the express purpose of writing about it, he was accorded exceptional facilities for observation and study. The result is a collection of honest impressions of a remarkable people, presented as an humble contribution to race psychology. To make the picture more complete, it has seemed worth while to summon back from the past some of the more potent personalities of Polish history.

Here is the home of a denationalized people, in which there is being enacted a century-long drama worthy of a Homer or a Tacitus.

Here is the home of a denationalized people, in which there is being enacted a century-long drama worthy of a Homer or a Tacitus. Forty-four years ago, in the middle of our Civil War, the Poles had their last uprising against Russian rule. Ten years of “reconstruction” for our South seemed an age. Mutinies, riots, and revolutionary outbreaks, all suppressed in blood and fire, show the world that, after nearly half a century, Poland is not yet fully “reconstructed.” Politically, there is no Poland, but a distinct, individual, resistant people, who are no more conquered and absorbed by the partitioning powers than the Hungarians are assimilated by Austria. The Poles remain a persistent national type, and the “Polish question” is an ever-present “ghost that troubles at every European Council.”

And yet, up to the time when the Trilogy of historical works by Henryk Sienkiewicz appeared, Poland was, of all civilized geographical entities, the least known to Americans. It is in the belief that the country of Kosciuszko and Pulaski, of Copernicus and Sobieski, of Chopin and Paderewski, deserves better of the land of Washington that this book is written.

There are so many striking contrasts -and startling similarities-between Poland and these United States of America, that a study of Polish history and conditions ought to be of peculiar interest to us. We Americans are citizens of a young, powerful, active country, which is the bulwark of freedom and the refuge of oppressed peoples. Poland-if one may still speak of her as a nation-is very old. For a century and more she has been in chains, with no chance for activity, save in her spasms of revolution. Yet how much alike are the two peoples. Both are brave to a fault. Both live in a country which is a confederation. The union, in 1569, of Poland, Lithuania, and Ruthenia, was the first voluntary confederation of independent powers in Europe. Both peoples incline to elective governments; both, while religious themselves, have ever been tolerant to all other creeds. Both love liberty better than life. And, finally, the greatest soldier heroes of both-Washington and Kosciuszko-fought side by side for American independence. But there is a vital present significance also to Americans in the psychology of the Pole. Almost three millions of this highly developed Slav race are now settled in this country, rapidly becoming bone and sinew of American national life. A study of the temperament and genius of this sturdy stock will help us in understanding more than one factor in our own pressing problems.

Of modern books on Poland, available to the general reader, there are very few. Those interested in following up some of the facts and allusions in this book should, first of all read the immortal Trilogy of Sienkiewicz, as well as “Children of the Soil,” “Hania,” Knights of the Cross, and On the Field of Glory by the same author. Georg Brandes’ Poland: A Study of the Land, People, and Literature will also prove of value. W. R. Morfill’s Story of Poland (2) is a good brief reference history, while Herman Rosenthal’s article on Poland in the Jewish Encyclopedia(3) is an excellent resume of the Polish Jews’ part of history.

The list of those who have aided the author in the preparation of this book is so large that it includes practically everyone he met in Poland, and many others in this country. It is impossible to render adequate thanks to all, but the author wishes to express grateful acknowledgment, particularly to the patriotic Poles who have read the manuscript and have made many valuable suggestions. He also desires to acknowledge courteous permission to reproduce articles from The Bookman, The Outlook, The Chautauquan, The Cosmopolitan, Brush and Pencil, The Booklover’s, and other magazines.

The author’s opinions, of course, are his own, and Madame Modjeska’s sympathetic introduction does not indicate, necessarily, her agreement, in detail, with these opinions.
Wyckoff, New Jersey, August 1, 1907.

1. 1905-1906, or the aftermath of the workers’ rebellion in Russian-occupied Polish cities.

2. Poland, by W. F. Morfill. London: Fisher & Unwin, 1893. xvi + 389 pages. Maps.

3. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-06.

Chapter 19 - Henryk Sienkiewicz

A rare honor it certainly is for any one man to be able to introduce his country and countrymen to the world; to recall to the memory of mankind an oppressed and almost forgotten people, and to so revivify its past that the whole civilized world pauses to look and listen as though a new protagonist had stepped upon the stage of the century. Such is, indeed, a rare honor, but it belongs to Henryk Sienkiewicz, incomparably the greatest prophet of Polish nationality.

There are so many striking contrasts -and startling similarities - between Poland and these United States of America, that a study of Polish history and conditions ought to be of peculiar interest to us.

Sienkiewicz has introduced his countrymen to the American people. It is not as “the author of Quo Vadis?” that his name will be longest and best remembered, although such is the popular way (at least in this country) of referring to him. It is as the man who made his country known to the world, as the author of the Trilogy of Polish novels, that he claims the affection and homage of his countrymen.

To the American, the Englishman, the German, Henryk Sienkiewicz is a masterly weaver of fascinating, powerful, realistic romances. To the Pole he is all this, and much more. He is his country’s first adequate interpreter to the world, and his works are the mirror in which “Sarmatia sees her strenuous, beautiful self.” To an audience larger, more widely distributed, and more generally intelligent than that of any other living author-with the possible exception of Tolstoi-he says: “Gentlemen, permit me to present Poland. This is not mere story-telling, literatry portraiture, romance-building. This is a great people; Poland, with all her magnificent virtues, all her lamentable shortcomings. Permit me, ladies and gentelemen, to present to you Poland.”

All his historical novels on Poland, but particularly the incomparable Trilogy, present, in bold, clear-cut, beautiful lines, that unfortunate land and people that is today without a place on the map of nations. In the Trilogy the novelist has gathered up all the threads of the national life and character of his countrymen and woven them deftly into one shining cord: the series of three realistic, historical romances, With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael.

A man in the prime of life, and in the plenitude of his powers, hearty, cordial, and courteous, slightly reserved atr times, always modest and unassuming; a man of the middle height, with a kindly, honest face and quiet manners, with now and then the almost hunted look of one who fears the “lioniser”-such is, in brief, the impression made by Henryk Sienkiewicz. His is a most winning personality, with simple, natural dignity, and an utter lack of pose.

The novelist had just returned from a walk with his daughter when I presented myself at his cottage at Zakopane in the Carpathian Mountains. His naturally olive complexion was flushed with the exercise, and he flourished a ciupaga (or hatchet-headed mountain stick) gleefully as he stepped buoyantly into the room.

Delightful and unique is this zakopianski or Carpathian style of building and carving. It looks like a clever amalgamation of the Norwegian and Swiss, but yet with a new stamp, cast in a new mould, peculiarly its own. The woodcarving of these górale, or peastant mountaineers, is really wonderful. From the massive newel post at the foot of the stairs to the delicate filigree leaf-tracery of the paperknife on Mr. Sienkiewicz’s desk, it is all done by hand, and-Oh, rare temperance and restraint!-left quite unsmirched by the vandal, vulgar paint. Fresh, clean, white wood, wrought into beautiful, artistic forms, with the ozone and tang of the forest still clinging to it, makes grateful, appropriate surroundings for a study. A few books and a couple of fur rugs-the spoil of the mountains-complete the den of the novelist.

A most modest man is this world-famous author. You cannot extract personalities, except the meagerest, from him by any means known to the diplomat’s art or the journalist’s craft. “I toiled at short stories until I could write a good one before I attempted longer productions.” This is the terse way he sums up his early literary struggles, A search among the “biography pigeonholes” of certain Warsaw newspapers supplies the information that, like most eminent literary men, his beginnings were arduous and discouraging. From his mother, Stefania Cieciszewska, who was a poetess of culture, he inherited a taste for literature. He wrote a series of critical articles in 1869, in his 25th year, but they attracted no attention. The next year he tried a novel, but that met a fate strangely appropriate to its title-In Vain. No one credited him with talent, and he lost heart. In the hear of our Centennial he came to this country and joined Madame Modjeska’s famous colony of expatriated Poles in California. Then came his sketches of travel in America. “I know the great West of America as a traveler only,” he said. Here I fancied I could detect the faintest apologetic touch to the voice. Perhaps the novelist has had an inkling of the sensitiveness of Americans to the opinions of distinguished foreigners, like Dickens and himself, who have seemed hasty in their generalizations of America “as seen from a car window.” Mr Sienkiewicz’s reference to pigs in the streets of New York somehow lingers unpleasantly in the memory.

“How do I write a novel?” He laughed. “What a question that is, and how can I possibly answer it? I prepare to write a novel by reading every book and document referring to it in all languages that I can lay hold of. Then I let it all soak for a while.” (The novelist did not use the word “soak,” but explained more in detail that he meant that process.) “Then I write. That is all. Quo Vadis? was comparatively easy. There was a great wealth of books and documents to draw from. Tacitus was a gold mine. It took about eighteen months to complete Quo Vadis? which was my first serious effort in the classical field. The Trilogy was more difficult, requiring very careful research, and the study of old and generally obscure authorities.

Louis E. Van Norman, Poland: The Knight Among Nations. Introduction by Helena Modjeska. New York-Chicago-Toronto-Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company (New York: 158 Fifth Avenue, Chicago: 80 Wabash Avenue, Toronto: 25 Richmond St W., London: 21 Paternoster Square, Edinburgh: 100 Princes Street), 1907. 2d edition. 359 pages, index. Hardcover.

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