Kulczycki Book Prize in Polish Studies

2013 Citation Recipient

Beth Holmgren

The Kulczycki Book Prize in Polish Studies (formerly the Orbis Book Prize), established in 1996 and sponsored by the Kulczycki family, former owners of the Orbis Books Ltd. of London, England, is awarded annually for the best book in any discipline, on any aspect of Polish affairs, published in the previous calendar year.

Winner: Beth Holmgren
Title: Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America (Indiana University Press)

Beth Holmgren’s Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America is a masterly narrative that combines broad and meticulous research and attention to detail with lively, approachable, and exciting prose. The book is as rich in its multiple subjects of interest as the life and story of its heroine, Helena Modrzejewska, who performed in the United States under the shortened stage name Modjeska. Exploring its subject’s conscious refashioning of herself on American soil, the study delves into nineteenth century theater history both in Poland and America, contrasting the cultural consequences of Poland’s political partitions with America’s regional specificities and social tensions. Holmgren maps Modjeska’s life and career with a nuanced understanding of the crossroads of social standings, languages, cultures, and life projects and what these entailed for a woman of the period. She makes her reader fully appreciate Modjeska’s talent, discipline, imagination, intelligence, and daring. Modjeska’s illegitimate origins, uncommon – at the time – common-law marriage, and then unlikely marriage to a count, the grueling conditions of her early career and her rising to prominence as a leading Polish actress in Kraków and Warsaw have been the focus of academic attention in Polish scholarship. Beth Holmgren’s book writes Modjeska into North American theater studies and presents her as an emigre woman, an adventurer, a wife, a friend, a hostess, a professional woman who became a provider, and a Polish patriot. Holmgren understands theater studies as cultural studies and her story takes us behind the stages on which Modjeska performed her most famed roles, on tour of the buildings and the streets on which they stood, into social salons, gatherings and networks, onto the railroads and into hotel rooms, to wardrobes, gardens, and living rooms of her heroes. Even if Modjeska had not existed as an historical figure, Holmgren’s book would have read like a great novel, complete with a wealth of period detail that makes her personality and her era come alive for the reader.