The father of the Croatian historical novel and realism
August Šenoa is one of the most important Croatian writers whose literary works shaped the Croatian literary scene. He influenced many future domestic writers, and his works are compulsory reading in Croatian schools. Šenoa is most famous for introducing the historical novel to Croatia and for leading Croatian literature from romanticism to realism. His name is not well known outside of Croatia and we’d like to contribute a little to acquainting the global audience with his life and work.
August Šenoa, full name August Ivan Nepomuk Eduard Šenoa (the surname originated from Schönoa) was born on 14 November 1838 in Zagreb. His father was a German from the Czech Republic who moved to Zagreb in 1830 and worked as a bishop’s pastry chef. August’s mother was a Slovak from Budapest.
He started the first grade in Pécs (Hungary), but finished the rest of high school in Zagreb in 1857. Some of his teachers were Vjekoslav Babukić, Antun Mažuranić and Adolfo Veber Tkalčević. All aforementioned were prominent Croatian intellectuals at the time and also writers whose national activism had an impact on young Šenoa.
Continuing his education, he enrolled in medicine and later received a J.J. Strossmayer scholarship to study law in Prague, but he never finished it. He briefly lived in Vienna, and in 1866 he came back to Zagreb.
Šenoa worked in the editorial office of Prozor until 1867, when he was appointed city notary, and in 1871 a great city notary. In addition, from 1868 to 1870, Šenoa was the artistic director of the Croatian National Theatre, and later he worked there as a dramatist. In addition, he worked as a theatre critic for almost two decades.
In 1873 he became a city senator. He was also active in politics and was a member of the People’s Party (Croatian:Narodna stranka) and a vice president of Matica hrvatska.
He was the editor of Vienac, a journal for literature, art and science, published by Matica hrvatska. The journal was at its peak under Šenoa’s leadership, from 1874 to 1881. He wrote his own pieces and translated foreign pieces from English, Czech, German and French.
With his work, he contributed to the growing sense of national identity among Croatians in the Austria-Hungary empire.
At the end of his life, he worked as a Vice President of Matica Hrvatska, and from 1881 an honorary member of the Croatian Pedagogical and Literary Association and honorary citizen of Zagreb.
He died at the age of 43 but left a lasting mark in Croatian culture and history. The cause of his death is not known but it is suspected that he died from complications of transient pneumonia and streptococcal infection which he got after he helped the victims of the great Zagreb earthquake of 1880. He was buried in the Mirogoj cemetery.
Although his first known literary work was a poem to commemorate the death of a school colleague, in 1955, the majority of his writings were made in a short span of time from 1965 to 1981. In Croatian history, those 16 years even have a name Šenoa’s time (Croatian: Šenoino doba).
In those sixteen years he finished several historical novels, wrote short stories, poetry, critique and literary manifestos. He tried almost every other literary genre and he was active in journalistic work. For instance, for several years, he wrote Zagrebulje, engaging and witty features in which he was delivering a critique of the civil society of that time through patriotism and Zagreb’s everyday life. He wrote them under the pseudonym Petrica Kerempuh (a literary character from a number of Croatian and former Yugoslav works).
Almost every Croat has read at least one of his historical novels, many read them in school because it was (and still is) mandatory. The most famous are The Goldsmith’s Gold (Croatian: Zlatarevo zlato), Pirates of Senj (Croatian: Čuvaj se senjske ruke), Peasants’ Revolt (Croatian: Seljačka buna), and Diogenes. A year before his death, Šenoa started writing his fifth historical novel Curse (Croatian: Kletva) but his early death got in the way. The novel was later finished by Josip Eugen Tomić.
At the time, Šenoa gained great success with his epic poems, called Povjestice. One of the most popular was Petrified wedding (Croatian: Kameni svatovi), a legend about a rock formation resembling a group of people located in the northwestern part of Medvednica. A story says that a mother cursed the wedding party because she wanted her son to marry a wealthy girl and not the girl he loved.
In his short life, August Šenoa left an enormous legacy. He also advocated for social justice and education. Above all, he was a great patriot and a promoter of Croatian nationalism, language and culture. If you still haven’t read any of his works, you’ve probably heard his Croatian song (Croatian: Hrvatska pjesma), which became popular after Ivan Zajc composed the melody and is now known by the name Long live Croatia (Croatian: Živila Hrvatska).