Literary historians often mix literary order with biography although this frequently stigmatized practice requires various reservations, intuition, and caution. One more important and even more direct piece of evidence is the writer’s epistolography. I am going to examine here the testimony coming from the times of his trip to America. The testimony, which was well-known, attention-grabbing and unique, full of pretended sincerity formed, in fact, from many clichés and masks. It is a letter to Sienkiewicz’s friend, a critic and a journalist, a playwright and a neighbor from Niecała Street in Warsaw: Daniel Zgliński, whose real name was Freudenson (Freudensohn), written in May 1877. The letter was written in or sent from San Francisco. Sienkiewicz encourages his friend to visit America. The new continent is supposed to be a cure for frayed nerves, hamletic doubts, apathy, and aversion to life. Sienkiewicz describes his life in the New World in an adventurous, if not saucy, convention:
And so in those mountains, all the way from Oregon to Arizona – I hunt. I do not care about tomorrow; in a word, I live like Robinson. Sometimes, I visit a settlement to buy a sack of flour. Besides, I spend long weeks on my own. The game is plenty – I learned to shoot like an angel. The sun has burnt my skin so that I look as if I were a Turk or an Indian. I lost weight because all my fat evaporated, but I got smoked, and I toughened, and I am as healthy as a horse. Having known me earlier, you wouldn’t believe how wild my life is for the bigger part now, but I give you my word that it is really so. I sleep well, I eat like a horse – I don’t worry about tomorrow. I light a bonfire, wrap myself in a quilt, and “all right.” When I recall the old silly fear, this vague anxiety that accompanied me when I went to sleep – just think about the satisfaction, the feeling of power and health when I sometimes tell myself, ‘I don’t give a shit about those nerves!’. Only sometimes, when I get very tired, I think it is only a temporary improvement, which is going to be followed by an even worse crisis. But next morning I feel healthy and confident again, as if I were 16 years old, and were to start my life anew. It was not too late for me yet because I had sufficient natural powers (You are awfully thin, Sir [?] – that is true). My dormant enterprise was resurrected, too. It could not be any different here. In this country, you literally breathe energy: you cannot help being vigorous, even if you do not want to. True, the thing you love above all is sometimes not on offer, but Chinese girls do their best to make up for this deficiency. Only my modesty, my utter humility stops me from boasting how, and how many times… It feels so strange now to think back to my Warsaw efforts to resist the temptation of sinful desires! Apropos – Chinese women shave, but not often, so “this business” resembles a stiff-bristled brush. Indian women have millions of lice, and American women are cold; Irish women too devout, so they do not want to give themselves voluntarily but ask to be raped. Finally, all of them have the disgusting habit of asking: Are you satisfied? My answer is: “No!,” so once again they ask: Are you satisfied?, and ten minutes later: No!, etc. All Irish women repeat during the action “Ah, let me alone,” and that is why when a loutish miner meets an Irish woman in the street, he starts to squeal: “Let me alone.” […] I forgot about black women. And I tell you: lo and behold! You should import one to learn about these pleasures. As for the pure American women, in order to give you an idea about young misses, let me just tell you this: do you remember at Andzia’s place, when Zosia, Walerka or Olesia was going by, carrying the plates, and everyone was pawing her tits, her ass, her thighs? Well, it is the same here, but misses do this to men. It may be slightly exaggerated, but – I swear – not as much as you could think. What an indecent letter! But you are worth it. I have not forgotten that you indulged in debauchery, but hope a bit that having read the paragraph above, you will abandon the thought of Dunkirk, and will come here, from which I will also benefit. Do not show my letter to the modest people, though – perhaps with the exception of Janek Kamiński. Although already married to a nice lady, he had a beautiful history, and he would understand and judge both the subject and the experiences.
What can be concluded from this message? What knowledge regarding the sexuality of the sender does this letter provide? We are struck by the immaturity of the author, a 31-year-old man – the age which was regarded as more mature in the late 19th century than it is today. The man who boasted to his friends about his virility, lust, and sexual appetite. The rest seems less important: the disrespectful attitude towards women, certain brutality of language, which is motivated by the convention of privacy, similarly to the reasons for leaving Warsaw: certain mental problems (nerves!). Apart from this striking immaturity, the content of this letter fragment seems standard: who does not experience life dilemmas, the moments of bad mood, breakdowns, the feeling of meaninglessness of one’s own life?
Why did Sienkiewicz have such a strong need to boast to his friends about his conquests? Why did he actually encourage his friend to show the letter to at least one more person, which, even when done in privacy, meant the inevitable publication of the American adventure? The explanation is provided by the key – in my opinion – sentence of this letter, marked with a question mark probably by the editor – thus difficult to decipher, not certain, and putting our hypothesis up against the wall: “You are awfully thin, Sir [?]”? The author of the letter quotes somebody who, by expressing such an opinion, casts doubt upon the writer’s vitality, his virility. Is it not so that the quoted letter confronts this painful diagnosis and denies it in all respects? I do not know if Sienkiewicz was a debauchee or a libertine, but I know that at this moment of his life he wanted to be perceived as such – by his friend, by the Warsaw circle. Was this motivated by some complexes? Bad experiences, hurtful words, gossip – it is hard to conclude. And one more thing: the slightly naïve conclusion that Jan Kamiński had a beautiful erotic history, but now – as a married man – he can be described as an ex-debauchee. I do not impute anything to Kamiński, but did Sienkiewicz not take a different solution into consideration: that the debauchee remained a debauchee in spite of the fact that he started a family? It seems he did not; the writer seems to have excluded that kind of extramarital erotic activity. As a result, is it not so that the proper subject of his dreams was not debauchery but marriage, not casual sex with many partners but one lasting relationship?