A Polish perspective on the American West
Lillian Morris and Other Stories is a collection of works by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The volume contains a novel of about 150 pages, entitled Lillian Morris, and three short stories, each of 50 pages or less. It’s unclear if these works were ever published together in Polish. The English-language edition, consisting of translations by Jeremiah Curtin, was published in 1894. Two of the works, including Lillian Morris, are set in the American West, while one short story is set in Poland and another in Spain.
From 1876 to 1878 Sienkiewicz lived in America, mostly in California. During those years he explored the West, traveling through mountains and deserts and visiting mining camps and Native American villages. In a brief introduction to Lillian Morris, Sienkiewicz explains that the novel is based on a tale related to him over a campfire in the Santa Lucia Range. The narrator is Captain Ralph, a Polish immigrant charged with leading a wagon train from the East Coast to California. Along the way he meets Lillian Morris, a young woman traveling alone, and falls in love with her. Sienkiewicz’s literary style and the distinctly American subject matter make for a curious mix. At first his European Romanticism overpowers the narrative, resulting in a familiar two-lovers-in-a-Garden-of-Eden story that just happens to take place on the Great Plains. Once Sienkiewicz starts to get into the nitty gritty of Indian relations and the harsh reality of traversing rugged mountains and hellish deserts, however, the story makes a turn for the better into the type of Western lore one expects from Zane Grey or Owen Wister. Still, Sienkiewicz stays true to his Romantic roots. The final chapter is as emotionally intense as any of the military epics for which he’s primarily famous. Lillian Morris is a great read for fans of Sienkiewicz, or even anyone who just enjoys a great Western yarn.
Even better is the short story that follows, entitled “Sachem.” A small town in Texas is forced to confront its genocidal past when a traveling circus comes to town. The program’s headline act is a performance by an Indian chief of the very tribe they exterminated. Here Sienkiewicz expertly straddles the line between shameful tragedy and biting wit. The next selection, “Yamyol” (or “Angel”) doesn’t fare as well. A funeral takes place at a Polish village church on a snowy night. At the conclusion of the ceremony, an orphan girl, left behind by the deceased, departs for a nearby mansion where she will be housed as a servant. If you read enough about Polish literature on the web, you’ll find a fair amount of complaints about the work of Jeremiah Curtin, Sienkiewicz’s most prolific translator. Though I don’t read or speak Polish, it seems that this story in particular contains many awkward passages that were likely caused by too-literal interpretations of slang expressions or idioms. The final piece in the book, “The Bull Fight: A Reminiscence of Spain,” is exactly what the title indicates. Sienkiewicz describes in exquisite detail a bull fight in Madrid. Though there’s little storyline, it is a well-rendered, naturalistic evocation of its topic, at times exciting and always educational.
Though the subject matter of these works may be atypical for Sienkiewicz, for the most part the quality of the writing is what you would expect from this Nobel-calibre author. Lillian Morris and Other Stories is a testament to his versatility and a satisfying showcase of his short fiction.
Works in this collection
The Bull Fight
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