Konrad Niciński (Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences)
Sienkiewicz on the American Frontier: The Literary Material of the Trilogy?

Much has been written about Sienkiewicz’s American journey. Few have dared to question its cardinal importance in his biography, and in the light of the present state of research, it would not be wrong to argue that the journey was, in fact, nothing less than a rite of passage. The initiatory nature of Sienkiewicz’s two-year-long journey through, or rather stay in, the United States has been explored from many an angle: it has been read in a strictly biographical context, as the thirty-year-old writer’s rite of passage,[1] but also interpreted as a worldview change, one which involved his parting ways with a radical form of Polish positivism,[2] or analyzed as an exploratory episode that triggered a developmental change (embarking on the journey across the ocean, Sienkiewicz is not only departing from Mazovia and taking a course for California but also leaving his settled way of life, which begins his lifelong passion for traveling, the passion that would feed his creative powers from then on[3]), or yet seen in terms of his development as a writer. It is the last perspective that has been examined in greatest detail and in the most diverse ways – it has been explored, for instance, in its inseparability from the approaches listed above, which is to say, in such a way as to lay bare the changes in Sienkiewicz’s writing (e.g., his gradual renouncing of the positivist bias, of using literature as a means of exemplifying the principles of Polish positivism – or his making increasing use of American themes, drawing on what he experienced in the course of his American journey, transforming the persons he met into literary characters) which may have been brought about by his American experience. That said, the development of Sienkiewicz’s literary craft has also been extensively written about in the context of the American experience.[4] What has been studied most is clearly Portrait of America: Letters of Henryk Sienkiewicz (Listy z podróży do Ameryki), the volume analyzed both as an independent text (and the rise of such genres as the reportage or feuilleton) and explored as a token of the transformations of Sienkiewicz’s literary craft seen in status nascendi. Bogdan Mazan, the first scholar to carry out a (mostly descriptive) analysis of Sienkiewicz’s prose-writing techniques, has shown that the writer’s American experience was a formative factor in the emergence of what he sees as Sienkiewicz’s impressionist style of description.[5] The most recent attempts to shed light on the American journey rely on postmodern models of reading, predominantly on gender and postcolonial studies.

Nevertheless, it would appear that however important such research may well be, the topic that still keeps inviting one to explore it in novel ways is Sienkiewicz’s use of the American journey as the literary prime matter of his later work, above all – including those texts of his in which American themes are not explicitly present at all. I would submit that the subject is far from having been sufficiently examined – and the perspectives from which it has been approached certainly leave much ground still uncovered. Mazan’s study shows how Sienkiewicz’s experience of America, also in its sensual aspect, could be translated into literary forms. This could be extended into an analysis of the processing of the narrative and the storyline understood in a broader, culture-oriented manner – as a story about a culture, as a transformation of the story the American culture tells about itself (and the storytelling methods it relies on in such undertakings) into Sienkiewicz’s own story about another culture. The aim of the present paper is to examine Sienkiewicz’s American journey as a possible literary material of the Trilogy.


  1. See Jerzy R. Krzyżanowski, “Na kalifornijskim szlaku Sienkiewicza” [Sienkiewicz on the California trail] Pamiętnik Lite­racki 2003, vol. 2. See also Zdzisław Najder, “O ‘Listach z podróży’ do Ameryki Henryka Sienkiewicza” [On Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Portrait of America], Pamiętnik Lite­racki 1955, vol. 1.
  2. Tadeusz Bujnicki, “Pozytywista-neokonserwatysta” [Positivist-neoconservatist], in Pozytywista Sienkiewicz. Linie rozwojowe pisarstwa autora “Rodzi­ny Połanieckich” [Sienkiewicz the positivist: Lines of literary development], Kraków 2007; Maciej Gloger, Sienkiewicz nowoczesny [Modern Sienkiewicz], Bydgoszcz 2010; Ewa Kosowska, Eurosarmata. O postawach i wyborach Henryka Sienkiewicza [Euro-Sarmatian: On Sienkiewicz’s worldviews and choices], Katowice 2013.
  3. Most of all Jolanta Sztachelska, “Ameryka – dotknięcie Nowego Świata” [America: Touching the New World], in Mity Sienkiewiczowskie i inne studia tylko o nim [The myths of Sienkiewicz], Warsaw 2017.
  4. Kazimierz Wyka, “Sztuka pisarska Sienkiewicza” [Sienkiewicz’s art of writing], in Henryk Sienkiewicz – twórczość i recepcja światowa. Materiały konferencji na­ukowej, listopad 1966 [Henryk Sienkiewicz: Works and reception. Conference proceedings, November 1966], edited by A. Piorunowa and K. Wyka, Kraków 1968; “O nową drogę do Sienkiewicza” [A new road to Sienkiewicz], Miesięcznik Literacki 1967, vol. 1; Jolanta Sztachelska, “Listy z podróży do Ameryki a XIX-wieczne korzenie polskiego reportażu” [Portrait of America and the birth of the Polish reportage], in Henryk Sienkiewicz i jego twórczość. Materiały z konferencji naukowej w Wyższej Szkole Pedagogicznej w Częstochowie, 5–7 maja 1996 r. [Henryk Sienkiewicz. Conference proceedings, May 5–7, 1996), edited by Z. Przybyła, Częstochowa 1996.
  5. Bogdan Mazan, “Impresjonizm” Trylogii Henryka Sienkiewicza [The impressionism of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy], Łódź 1993.