Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz (US: /ʃɛnˈkjeɪvɪtʃ, -jɛv-/ shen-KYAY-vitch, -KYEV-itch, Polish: [ˈxɛnrɨk ˈadam alɛkˈsandɛr ˈpjus ɕɛnˈkʲɛvitʂ]; 5 May 1846 – 15 November 1916), also known by the pseudonym Litwos [ˈlitfɔs], was a Polish journalist, novelist and Nobel Prize laureate. He is best remembered for his historical novels, especially for his internationally known best-seller Quo Vadis (1896).
Born into an impoverished Polish noble family in Russian-ruled Congress Poland, in the late 1860s he began publishing journalistic and literary pieces. In the late 1870s he traveled to the United States, sending back travel essays that won him popularity with Polish readers. In the 1880s he began serializing novels that further increased his popularity. He soon became one of the most popular Polish writers of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and numerous translations gained him international renown, culminating in his receipt of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature for his “outstanding merits as an epic writer.”
Many of his novels remain in print. In Poland he is best known for his “Trilogy” of historical novels – With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Sir Michael – set in the 17th-century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth; internationally he is best known for Quo Vadis, set in Nero’s Rome. The Trilogy and Quo Vadis have been filmed, the latter several times, with Hollywood’s 1951 version receiving the most international recognition.
Sienkiewicz’s early works (e.g., the 1872 Humoreski z teki Woroszyłły) show him a strong supporter of Polish Positivism, endorsing constructive, practical characters such as an engineer. Polish “Positivism” advocated economic and social modernization and deprecated armed irredentist struggle. Unlike most other Polish Positivist writers, Sienkiewicz was a conservative. His Little Trilogy (Stary Sługa, 1875; Hania, 1876; Selim Mirza, 1877) shows his interest in Polish history and his literary maturity, including fine mastery of humor and drama. His early works focused on three themes: the oppression and poverty of the peasants (“Charcoal Sketches”, 1877); criticism of the partitioning powers (“Z pamiętnika korepetytora”, “Janko Muzykant” [“Janko the Musician”], 1879); and his voyage to the United States (“Za chlebem”, “For Bread”, 1880). His most common motif was the plight of the powerless: impoverished peasants, schoolchildren, emigrants.