Friday, May 21, 2021

A Pole in America

Today marks 180 years since the death of Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a great Polish patriot and writer. Having been active in politics during years of turbulence while Poland was trying to establish itself as a state, he found himself imprisoned, but then exiled himself to the US for several years. Although a regular diarist, only the diaries of his travels in America have been published in English. These are said to be among ‘the earliest and most important documents in the complex, fascinating and still largely unexplored story of American-Polish cultural relations’.

Niemcewicz was born in 1757/58 into a noble family established for generations near Brest in the Lithuanian part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was educated at the School for Knights in Warsaw, founded by the King, and the only lay school in Poland, before being taken as an assistant by Prince Czartoryski (who later became one of the leading advocates for the Polish national cause). Niemcewicz travelled widely with the Prince; and in addition to writing poetry and travel books, he undertook translations into Polish from French. In 1788, he became deputy in the lower house of the Polish parliament, and was an active member of the Patriotic Party, known for his speaking ability, that pushed through a new constitution in 1791.

Thereafter, Niemcewicz took part in the insurrection of 1794, but was captured at Maciejowice and imprisoned in St Petersburg for two years. On his release, he went first to England and then to the US, where he married and settled. He moved in high circles during this time, and was even a guest of George Washington. In 1807, he returned to live in Poland. Thereafter, he held no public position, and focused on his literary endeavours - his first popular writing success had come in 1790 with the political comedy The Return of the Deputy. His later publications included translations from the English, Polish songs (his famous Historical Songs), and novels such as John of Tenczyn (1825).

In 1831, Niemcewicz travelled to London where, with Napoleon’s son, he tried, unsuccessfully, to win military support for a Polish insurrection against Russia. He spent the last years of his life in Paris, campaigning for Polish freedom. He died on 21 May 1841. Further information is available from Wikipedia and the Virtual Library of Polish Theatre.

Although it seems there are various published versions of Niemcewicz’s diaries, there is only one that has appeared in English, translated/edited by Metchie J E Budka, and published by The Grassman Publishing Company, New Jersey, in 1965: Under Their Vine and Fig Tree. Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805, with some further account of life in New Jersey.

‘Niemcewicz’s American diaries are one of the earliest and most important documents in the complex, fascinating and still largely unexplored story of American-Polish cultural relations,’ Wiktor Weintraub begins in his Preface. ‘But [they] are interesting also in their own right, outside the framework of American-Polish relations. If there ever existed a perfect extrovert, Niemcewicz was one. He travelled widely, by eighteenth century standards, had tremendous gusto for life and a keen eye for life’s minutiae. Everything interested him: the prices of foodstuffs, the conditions of prisons, specific fauna and flora of particular regions, good, or not so good, looks of ladies - the reader of the diaries would hardly guess that in this respect he was far from being a disinterested observer only - good, or bad, manners of children, the political climate of the country, the state of the roads. Mostly on the move, always intellectually alert, curious about people, he had a great capacity for absorbing data. Thus, the diaries form an amusing, richly detailed, variegated, if not especially deep, chronicle of the American life by the end of the eighteenth century.’

‘Until recently,’ Weintraub continues, ‘only parts of the text of the diaries were known, and the manuscript was considered to be lost. The Polish edition of the whole preserved text, with its French parts in Polish translation, appeared as late as 1959. The work on the present edition was started independently, at an earlier date. . . [Dr Budka’s] translation, for being careful, manages to recapture the easy grace, the abandon of Niemcewicz’s Polish and French jotting, and, thus, enables the reader to enjoy the diaries as good reading stuff.’

Here is one extract in which Niemcewicz meets the American president.

8 November 1797

I found all the inhabitants of the town busy in preparing the reception and dinner for Mr John Adams, President of the United States. The cool heads, and the methodical manners of these solemn Americans lead them to go about their business of a dinner with the same rules that they use in discussing affairs of State. A committee was appointed to arrange the dinner and a President and a Vice-President to maintain good order at the table and to receive the chief magistrate. Many evenings were spent on arranging this important affair. Finally Mr Adams arrived, but two hours before the appointed time. Nothing was ready. Immediately, the militia, both mounted and on foot, ran about the streets; the authorities put their wigs on askew; the elegants arrived with their shoes half buckled. The cannon fired a half [hour] after Mr Adams was already well warmed at the fire-place. Little by little everyone settled down and took breath. At one o’clock I was presented to Mr Adams. He was sitting, reading a newspaper, facing the fireplace with Mr Malcolm, a young man 20 years old, his private secretary. I saw a dumpy little man dressed wholly in gray, well-powdered hair and a long pigtail. His face appeared to me that of a good and honest man, touched nevertheless with a grain of a malice. He received me civilly, asked me news of Gl Kosciuszko and then Mar. La Fayette. I passed then into a room opposite and I found there the true counterpart of Mr Adams. It was his wife. Small, short and squat, she is accused of a horrible crime. It is said she puts on rouge. What is certain is that if her manner is not the most affable, her mind is well balanced and cultivated. She was accompanied only by a niece and a maidservant.

At two o’clock Cl Neilson, elected President of the whole ceremony, accompanied Gl White and all the citizens entered into the President’s room. Mr Neilson in the name of all the inhabitants read an address conceived in a style filled with expressions of attachment for the Constitution and the leading public officials. Mr Adams read his response, he spoke to some, shook the hand of all, and then he departed. At three o’clock the same ceremony to invite him to go into the dining hall. He made his way there through the ranks of citizens and thirty of the militia in uniform who lined his path. They saluted him by lowering flags. The table was set for 60 people. Rost-beef, turkeys, Pays [pies?], etc, were served in profusion.

In the middle of the dinner Mr Goss, a man 6 feet tall, over 70 years old, tanner by trade and prattler by habit, got up from the other end of the table, came to the side where the President was, displaced Gl White, who was seated beside him, sat down there himself and occupied his attention with the most coarse and silly tales possible. The good President laughed, then considering his enormous height said to him, “You should have been born in the states of the King of Prussia. You would have been the ornament of his guards.” “Would I have been the second in his kingdom, I would not wish to have been born there,” the tanner said to him. “Nor I,” answered the President “would I have been the first.” ’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 21 May 2011.

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