The year was 1876, the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, and a young Pole, a promising author, was traveling through the United States with the most renowned Polish actress of her time, Helena Modjeska, and her husband, and a few other young people. They were trying to rid themselves of the miseries of a nation they loved, which for many years had been gobbled up by its greedy neighbors, and which, when the man died 40 years later, had still not regained its independence.
They were going to move to California to do ranching and farming, in an idealistic commune after the fashion of Brook Farm, but reality intruded, the project fell through, Mrs. Modjeska returned to the stage (much to the delight of Americans), and the young man, Henryk Sienkiewicz, began to make a name for himself, writing his own impressions of democracy in America, to be published back home—in the land he loved so dearly, the land to which he would return, the land and its Christian faith, that would inspire all his greatest works.
I am re-reading the second novel, The Deluge, in his vast historical trilogy set during the reign of John Casimir II (r. 1648-1668), when invaders from Sweden poured in from the north and nearly wiped the kingdom out, because the Polish nobility were fractious—preferring private interests and an ignoble peace before loyalty to their prince, and even before the freedom of their commonwealth.
Ask a Polish schoolboy what began to turn the Swedes back, and he will reply without delay, “Jasna Gora!”—that is, Bright Mountain, the site of a monastery overlooking the town of Czestochowa, and he may also recount the miracle one morning that sank the hearts of the Swedes who beheld it, as the monastery appeared to be looming above them, shining and rising farther and farther, as if to say to them that despite their thousands of soldiers and their battery of cannons, the monastery—and with it the faith, and the nation whose heart was in that faith—was impregnable.
Well, there still is a United States of America—on the map at least—and we still have a Congress and a president and 50 states. Prussia and Austria and Russia and others are not going to collude to pick us to pieces. But when the soul is gone, what is left but a shell? And even if that shell walks and talks and uses the words that real human beings who loved their land once used, without the animating faith and love the words mean nothing. They are empty counters in a political game, or things to shout at your enemies as you rave and rage about the remains of a culture.
When Sienkiewicz wrote his epic novels, he did not intend them to be read by a few literati at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the nearest large city to Jasna Gora. They were, like the novels of Mark Twain on this side of the ocean, published serially in what were then the land’s most popular magazines, so that all kinds of people, from children to their eldest grandparents, boys and girls, men and women, doctors and farmers, lawyers and carpenters, priests and laymen, would immerse themselves in a time in their history that was at once shameful and heroic. Shameful, because, as Sienkiewicz shows, Poland was self-defeated, overcome by the selfishness, cowardice, and treachery of her own citizens; and then heroic, because those same citizens repented of their ways, and despite all the worldly profit they might gain by taking the last step into disgrace, they never did raise their hands against the person of their anointed King, and they never did renounce their faith in Christ, their sole hope and redeemer.
What kept Poland alive during the more than a hundred years when her neighbors tried to absorb and dissolve her? The same thing that kept her alive in the 20th century, when the Soviets and their creatures descended upon the land like a plague of locusts. It was not trust in some political system. It was a deep, abiding faith in the God who never abandons sinful man to his self-destructive devices, a faith that is the best and truest fount of patriotic love. It burned in the blood of Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa and millions of other Poles, until the great might of the Soviet Union was consumed, like a bit of chaff in a roaring fire.
We do not have an American Sienkiewicz now, in part because we lack the readers. We are deluged by junk. Let me cite a few reviews of the first book in the trilogy, With Fire and Sword, to lend credence to what I say. “A battle piece, painted with the minuteness of a Meissonier and the breadth of a Vereshchagin,” says one reviewer, referring to the great French painter of the armies and battles of Napoleon, and the Russian painter of the terrors of war. That review came not from Slowo (The Word), the magazine that published the book, but from the Chicago Post. “A great novel,” says another reviewer. “He exhibits the sustained power and sweep of narrative of Walter Scott, and the humor of Cervantes. A greater novelist than Tolstoy.” That review came not from Czas (Time), one of the journals that would serialize his later work, set in the apostolic age, Quo Vadis?—the work that probably sealed Sienkiewicz his Nobel Prize in 1905. It came from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I could go on, but the point seems clear enough. Americans were steeped in the histories of many nations. Great art and literature meant much to them. They saw themselves as the inheritors of western Christendom and its Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural foundations. Because they loved their country, they embraced others who loved their countries. Because they were interested in the glory of America, not unmixed with sin and shame, they wanted to hear about other countries, and what they had suffered, and how they had emerged victorious.
But what audience could Sienkiewicz’s works now command, when so few people read good books, and when people sneer at their own forefathers and bring their statues down, because the men were men and not angels, and no one has any historical sense? What readership, when no one engages in the most terrifying of ventures, which is not to send robots into outer space but to turn the eye inward upon the conscience, that dreadful frontier, where our deeds are made to testify to the truth and not to what we want to believe about them?
Yet Sienkiewicz has much to teach us. If America—the reality, not the shell or the simulacrum—is to live on, it must be as Poland lived on during his life, and that is by an uncompromising devotion to what is and has been best in her, inseparable from her faith in God who made the world. For God, as Lech Walesa valiantly affirmed—Walesa the electrician who was inspired by Sienkiewicz, and who quoted him when he received his own Nobel Prize in 1983—is greater than any king or any occupying army, or, as we might say here and now, greater than mass entertainment and its tawdry lies, greater than Congress and its treacherous ineptitude, greater than the swamp of self-seeking and corruption and power-mongering that sits on the Potomac, greater than all the money and the madness in the world.
For to the Lord, all the nations and their deluge, as the prophet says, are but a drop in the bucket.