If the name of the American ethnographer and folklorist, Jeremiah Curtin, has any meaning for us today, it is due to his English translations of Henryk Sienkiewicz's works of fiction. Curtin's relationship and cooperation with the Polish writer was described in his Memoirs, a work which for years was considered a unique and valuable source of information regarding the Sienkiewicz translations. However, the Memoirs fell into disrepute when it was discovered that they were written not by Curtin himself but by his wife Amy, and with scant regard to accuracy. With no little skill, Amy crafted the work by splicing extracts from her own diaries and letters to her family. It was her hope that by passing her work off as an authentic document, she could project and establish a highly positive image of her late husband. Indeed, the Memoirs make him out to be not only a prodigiously gifted translator but a man who singlehandedly made Sienkiewicz famous.
Professor M.J. Mikos, who selected, translated and annotated part of Amy Curtin's archives, seems to have had great fun in arranging and structuring the book as a 'chase story.' He indicated as much by titling the book "Chasing Sienkiewicz" (W pogoni za Sienkiewiczem). By employing this genre, Mikos added a faster pace, giving his story more character and color than what the text (that in parts is rather unevenly translated) would otherwise allow.
Amy Curtin's diaries and letters are currently under the guardianship of the Milwaukee County Historical Society. They are interesting as raw material for Sienkiewicz scholars, as well as a footnote to the history of human vanity. In the world according to the Curtins, Sienkiewicz owed his popularity and recognition abroad exclusively to his 'associate' Jeremiah Curtin. How dubious this claim was can be gauged among others by the fact that Jeremiah Curtin was poorly prepared to translate Polish fiction, especially that which was written with such high-spirited gusto characteristic of Sienkiewicz's prose. Curtin's knowledge of the Polish language was hardly adequate, particularly at the beginning of his endeavor when he was obliged to translate Sienkiewicz from the Russian, a language of which he had a better command. He demonstrated little knowledge and interest in Polish culture, and he worked too hastily not to pay the price in clarity and artistic quality. However, he possessed determination and discipline, and he worked hard at his translations.
Amy Curtin's diary makes for curious reading. Her portrait, as it emerges from the diary, shows her to be a hard-working, dutiful and pragmatic wife. Also, a secretary and domestic to her husband who entirely overshadowed her: 'I cleaned the room and we began to work,' reads one entry.
At the end of the nineteenth century Sienkiewicz was a highly marketable writer. It was for this reason that the Curtins sought contact with him. An inveterate traveler, Sienkiewicz was not an easy man to reach, and the Curtins pursued him all over Europe until they finally caught up with him in the resort town of Ragaz in Switzerland. Amy Curtin notes after their first meeting: 'Sienkiewicz does not look the way we imagined him. He is shorter, smaller and older than we thought....He is not a man whom one could notice in a crowd as someone particularly gifted.' Sienkiewicz's impressions of the same occasion survive in a letter that is quoted in a footnote: they are just as critical, but they are wittier and better written.
In time, as the two parties became better acquainted, their relationship improved and warmed up to the point there the writer signed a contract that gave all copyright authority to Curtin (who incidentally was not Sienkiewicz's only English language translator). Sienkiewicz's generosity is best exemplified by his acquiescence to Curtin's request that his translations appear even before the Polish originals had been published. It is equally telling that Sienkiewicz earned very little from his American publications, while his translator Curtin and his publisher Little, Brown and Company, made quite a little fortune from them.
As we later discover, the Curtin-Sienkiewicz cooperation eventually underwent a change. Because the writer began to question the contract that so thoroughly exploited him, the translator, with unremitting gall, declared his bitter disappointment and began to call Sienkiewicz ungrateful. The book that Amy subsequently wrote (the alleged Memoirs of her husband) was intended to confirm this interpretation. But from Amy's diaries and letters the Curtins emerge as an ingratiating, self-indulgent couple: in particular, the florid pretenses of Amy shine through. In one passage, she goes so far as to claim that her husband not only 'discovered Sienkiewicz,' but that he 'improved his fiction' and 'made alive and beautiful each of his thoughts.'
The Sienkiewicz-Curtin partnership lasted 16 years. One comes away from this book wishing that Sienkiewicz had been granted a more appreciative and authentic chronicler than Ms. Amy Curtin.
Bozena Shallcross is Assistant Professor of Polish at Indiana University.
Selling the Lite of Heaven, by Suzanne Strempek Shea. New York. Pocket Books [Simon & Schuster, 1250 Avenue of the Americas, New York 10020]. 1994. 275 pages. Hardcover. $20.00.
This delightful first novel records the coming-of-age of a Polish American woman, pimples and all. With an uncanny eye for detail and a sense of humor, the author articulates the life of a small Polish American community in northeast United States. With delicacy and charm, she tells everyday stories which virtually all Polish Americans remember from their childhood and youth. Michael Novak once wrote that somehow, somewhere, those mute Polish miners from Pennsylvania and elsewhere would find their spokespersons. The miners are still waiting, but quite a few Polish communities will see their own life pictured in this book. Even those who do not usually read novels will spend a joyful evening devouring this compact story. "I can't imagine a single reader who will be disappointed," said the Washington Post reviewer. We cannot either. Habemus scriptorem! Much recommended.