Gorky, Maxim (1868–1936)

views updated

GORKY, MAXIM (1868–1936)


Russian writer.

Maxim Gorky (pseudonym of Alexei Maximovich Peshkov), a writer of fiction, poetry, plays, and criticism as well as an editor and activist journalist, was officially called the founder of socialist realism and of Soviet literature. But his record is actually contradictory and enigmatic. Born in Nizhny Novgorod (which for much of the Soviet period was renamed Gorky in his honor) into a family of artisans and entrepreneurs, Gorky's early years are chronicled in his autobiographical trilogy Detstvo (1913–1914; My Childhood, 1915), V lyudakh (1915–1916; In the World, 1918), and Moi universitety (1922; My University Days, 1923). The latter title is ironic because Gorky never received a university education but was an autodidact. He left school at eleven and led a peripatetic existence, going from place to place in the south of Russia and the Caucasus, and working at a variety of unskilled jobs ("universities"). During this period Gorky became involved with leftist groups, initially with a group of idealist socialists, the Populists (narodniki) and their efforts for the political and cultural education of the untutored masses. In this connection he was arrested in 1889, the first in a series of arrests and exiles. Later, especially during the 1905 revolution, he became involved with the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). He joined the party in the summer of 1905 and his association with Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; 1870–1924) began shortly thereafter, but Gorky was never a party organization man, and his membership was not maintained.

Gorky began his literary career in 1892, publishing the story "Makar Chudra" in the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkaz. He initially wrote stories that romanticized the down-and-out, drifters, and loners (including a professional thief in "Chelkash"), moving on to longer works that provided critiques of the emerging entrepreneurial class and of the bourgeois intellectual who joins the proletarian revolutionary cause, such as Foma Gordeyev (1899), Zhizn Matveya Kozhemyakina (1910–1911; The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin), and Delo Artamonovykh (1925; The Artamonov Affair).

Gorky's literary successes enabled him to become a prominent public intellectual in the service of leftist causes. But he was no radical in his literary orientation, favoring realism and periodically attacking "decadents" (modernist writers) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the 1900s he wrote several plays that were performed at the Moscow Art Theatre of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938), such as Dachniki (1904; Summer Folk) and Vragi (1906; Enemies). The most famous of these, Na dne (1902; A Night's Lodging, 1905, better known as The Lower Depths, 1912) combines Chekhovian techniques and social critique with its portrayal of the down-and-outs in a flophouse.

In 1906 Gorky traveled to America to collect funds for the party and meet with intellectuals, publishing his impressions in Moi intervyu (1906; My Interviews) and V Amerike (1906; In America). At this time he also wrote the novel Mat (1907; The Mother), later to become a major model for socialist realist fiction. Mat tells the story of a simple, uneducated widow who is drawn to the revolutionary cause after her worker son is arrested for underground party work. She progressively acquires political consciousness until at the end she is killed as she bears the party banner aloft in a political demonstration. However, Gorky himself was soon drawn to "God-building" (bogostroitelstvo), an unorthodox form of Marxism—denounced by Lenin as a heresy—that he and several other party intellectuals, influenced by the writer Alexander Bogdanov, developed while in exile on the Italian island of Capri, and which is reflected in the short novel Ispoved (1908; A Confession).

In 1913 an amnesty allowed Gorky to return to Russia, where he became politically active. When the Bolshevik Revolution occurred on 7 November 1917, however, he became one of its most prominent critics, expressing dismay at the bloodshed and at the treatment of intellectuals. At the same time, Gorky worked indefatigably as a champion of intellectuals and of culture, editing a series of works in translation, Vsemirnaya literatura (World Literature). Though he became more reconciled to the Bolsheviks after an attempted assassination of Lenin in 1918, he left the country in 1921 (ostensibly because of his tuberculosis) and took up residence in Sorrento, Italy. From there he conducted a prolific correspondence with Soviet writers, advising them on their literary work. In 1928 and 1929 he made return visits to Soviet Russia, producing a volume of sketches in praise of the First Five-Year Plan Po soyuzu sovetov (1929; Around the Land of the Soviets). In 1931 he went back to stay. Gorky's record after his return, when he wrote several articles essentially endorsing the repressive measures of the Soviet state against "the enemies of the people," whom he characterized as "vermin," and his fulsome praise for Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), seem to contradict his earlier, more critical stance vis-à-vis Soviet power, but scholars can only speculate on his motives. Gorky also played a major role in the institutionalization of "socialist realism" after all independent writers' organizations were disbanded in April 1932 and a single Union of Soviet Writers formed. At the First Writers Congress in 1934 he gave one of the keynote addresses defining what the term meant. During the remaining years until his death from tuberculosis in 1936 Gorky worked indefatigably on bureaucratic and editing work. He initiated several series of publishing ventures such as Istoriya fabrik i zavodov (The History of the Factories) and Istoriya grazhdanskoi voiny (The History of the Civil War), both launched in 1931, in which ordinary Soviet citizens were to write their own life stories, a more politicized version of an activity he had fostered since the turn of the century. His literary output in these years was small, though he produced two plays, Egor Bulychev i drugie (1932; Egor Bulychev and Others) and Dostigayev i drugie (1933; Dostigayev and Others), and a reworked version of his earlier play VassaZheleznova (1935), about a despotic merchant on the Volga. He also continued working on Zhizn Klima Samgina (The Life of Klim Samgin), an epic novel about a young intellectual, which he had begun in 1925 and which was intended to provide a canvas of the various intellectual groupings and political trends to be found in the first decades of the twentieth century. However, he was unable to finish the book before his death.

See alsoSocialist Realism; Soviet Union.


Luker, Nicholas, ed. Fifty Years On: Gorky and His Times. Nottingham, U.K., 1987.

Scherr, Barry P. Maxim Gorky. Boston, 1988.

Yedlin, Tova. Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. Westport, Conn., 1999.

Katerina Clark