Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Stories of Poland by Robin Carver

Polish history for 19th century American youths
Stories of Poland,
a book by Robin Carver, was published in 1834. I don’t know anything about the author, other than he or she was likely a Bostonian who also wrote a History of Boston and The Book of Sports. Carver also did something that probably few Americans of the 1830s could claim to have done—traveled to Poland—which makes him or her relatively qualified to write a book on the nation in question. Despite the word “Stories” in the title, this is a nonfiction book, not a collection of literature. A scanned digital copy can be found at the HathiTrust web site.

Stories of Poland was written for a young audience. Children’s books of the 1830s, however, were apparently a more serious affair than the kid lit of today, since a relatively advanced reading level and substantial attention span would be required for a kid to understand and maintain interest in this book. Carver’s prose is familiar in tone, sometimes addressing young readers directly, but can sometimes be confusing in its relating of events. Most of the historical content is about politics and warfare, with very little softening of the harsh realities for a young audience.

The book contains a dozen engravings illustrating various aspects of Polish life. These are all ganged up at the front of the book, prior to the title page. The text consists of 21 brief chapters, some of which serve as a travelogue of contemporary Poland, such as descriptions of Warsaw and Krakow, a visit to the salt mines, or a fancy ball at the villa of a family of Polish nobility. Most of this travel writing concerns the upper classes, though a brief attempt is made to describe the living conditions of the peasants in their thatched cottages. Carver does succeed in granting the viewer a cursory, sanitized view of what life was like in Poland in the early 19th century.

The majority of the chapters, however, are devoted to tales of Poland’s history, from the 17th century to just prior to the date of publication. These condensed historical narratives read like part history and part folklore, the purpose of which is to present the reader with a series of Polish heroes, including King Jan III Sobieski, King Stanislaw I Leszczynski, Karol Stanislaw Radziwill, Casimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (these are the spellings from Wikipedia; Carver’s spellings vary). The narrative also occasionally includes villains, like the tyrant Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander and tyrant governor of Russian-occupied Poland. Carver gives quite a bit of coverage to the recent November Uprising of 1830, a failed Polish rebellion against the Russians. Antonina Tomaszewska, a teenage military heroine of the Polish-Russian War, is hailed as a sort of Polish Joan of Arc.

This book is unlikely to interest youths of today. It will primarily be of interest to adults intrigued by Polish history. Carver provides only the briefest, romanticized summary of events, the details of which are of questionable veracity. This book can, however, generate enough interest to lead the reader to seek out more info on these historical figures and events from other sources. Carver doesn’t cite any references, except for the material on the November Uprising, much of which was drawn from the account of Major Joseph Hordynski, author of the 1832 book History of the Late Polish Revolution. Though Carver’s book may have been written for children, most Americans are basically kids when it comes to knowledge of Polish history, so Stories of Poland can serve as a primer to those readers who are interested in finding out more.

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