Wladyslaw Orkan (or rather Franciszek Smaciarz or Smreczynski, as this was his real name), was born in 1875 into a peasant family in Poreba Wielka near Limanowa. Novelist, playwright, poet and journalist, Władysław Orkan would go on to display, in all his works, a great love and affection for this area, this land in which he grew up --the Gorce Mountains. Indeed, the strong regional ties he felt were a major inspiration.
He owed his education to his mother’s commitment and sacrifice. Katarzyna Smreczynska sent him to St. Jacek’s High School in Kraków and worked very hard to pay for her son’s education. In an autobiographical note he once wrote "...for all I have, I am foremost indebted to my mother, whom I consider a genius. I am only her prolongation, but 'less so.'"
While still at school, he edited a school paper in which he presented his early poems -- all written in rebellious tones. This rebellion, he said, was against the wealthy of the world, and to manifest his distaste for such, he would wear worn out boots and shabby clothing. He also found himself an original pseudonym, ‘Orkan,’ meaning ‘wind of destructive force’. He signed his poems with this name, partly out of this rebelliousness, and partly because during the Austrian occupation in southern Poland, students were forbidden to publish. Most of his time Orkan devoted to literature and theatre, neglecting his school duties, and as a result he never received his diploma, finishing school only with a notebook full of ideas and notes and a determination to devote his life to literature.
He came back to his home village where he spent his time running his farm and composing, though never severing ties with the artistic milieu in Kraków. In 1985, thanks to his innovative works and a friendship with Kazimierz Przerwa Tetmajer and Ignacy Maciejewski (two other significant Polish poet-writers) Orkan started cooperating with the Modernists working out of Kraków.
He spent the years 1899 - 1914 travelling to Italy, Switzerland and Germany, and during the first world war he was an officer in the 4th Regiment, Infantry Legion. He kept in touch with his legionnaire friends till the end of his life, despite his disappointment with the government which came to power in the year 1926.
From 1912, Orkan actively participated in the Zjazdy Podhalan (Assemblies of the Tatra Highlanders), where he often spoke on behalf of all highlanders. These assemblies eventually resulted in the founding of Zwiazek Podhalan (Tatra Highlanders' Union), and after the first war, Orkan became chairman of the Zwiazek Podhalan.
Due to his personal ideology, he became engaged in the peasants’ movement in Galicia (of which most of southern Poland was then a part), even though his main concern was to spread the notion of regionalism by popularising and developing a national style in art, following the ideas and concepts of Stanisław Witkiewicz.
His literary oeuvre is strongly connected with rural life and mountain landscapes, and is mostly written in dialect. Orkan’s main poetic work comprises four volumes: Nad grobem Matki (1896, a cyclical poem, By My Mother’s Grave), Z tej smutnej ziemi (1903, Out of This Sad Land ), Z martwej roztoki (1912, From the Dead Stream), and Piesni czasu (1915, The Song of Time). His greatest dramas are Skapany swiat (1897-8, Fallen World) and Franek Rakoczy (1908).
Orkan’s greatest talent is evident in his prose: numerous short stories, studies, vignettes and novels about peasant life. Despite his theory on the objectivity of the narrator, he never manages himself to show a wholly detached outlook. His most important works are short novels presenting his rural life and ideas of reform: Nowele (1898 Short Stories), and Nad urwiskiem (1900 By the Precipice ), and novels: Komornicy (1900 Bailiff), and W roztokach (1903 In Waterways). He wrote in many other literary genres such as traditional short stories, tales told in the oral tradition, genre scenes, allegorical sketches and reportage. Listy ze wsi (1925, 1927 Letters from the Countryside) are considered as his greatest achievement, and can be seen as a unique recapitulation of his life.
Wladyslaw Orkan died in Krakow in 1930, with many of his writing projects unfinished. However, after his death, he seems to be still present in the highlanders’ life, something clearly seen in the number of monuments, schools and institutions, and streets bearing his name. There is a museum in Rabka with a number of his paintings, and a tourist reserve in the Gorce Mountains. In addition, his home has been transformed into a museum. All of these honour and commemorate his contribution to the culture and prestige of the Podhale region.
Faron, B. 1973. ‘Władysław Orkan’. In: Literatura okresu Młodej Polski. ‘Obraz Literatury Polskiej XIX i XX wieku’. S. V. vol. 3. Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie. pp. 83-134.