BORN: 1868, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
DIED: 1936, Moscow, USSR
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
The Lower Depths (1902)
In the World (1916)
My Universities (1923)
My Childhood (1928)
Maxim Gorky (a pseudonym for Alexei Maximovich Peshkov) is recognized as one of the earliest and foremost exponents of socialist realism in literature. His brutal yet romantic portraits of Russian life and his sympathetic depictions of the working class had an inspirational effect on the oppressed people of his native land. From 1910 until his death, Gorky was considered Russia's greatest living writer. Gorky the tramp, the rebel, is as much a legend as the strong, individual characters presented in his stories. His
hero was a new type in the history of Russian literature—a figure drawn from the masses of a growing industrialized society; his most famous novel, Mother (1907), was the first in that country to portray the factory worker as a force destined to overthrow the existing order.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Orphan and a Runaway Gorky was orphaned at the age of ten and raised by his maternal grandparents. He was often treated harshly by his grandfather, and Gorky received what little kindness he experienced as a child from his grandmother. During his thirteenth year, Gorky ran away from Nizhny Novgorod, the city of his birth (later renamed Gorky), and lived a precarious existence as a tramp and vagrant, wandering from one job to another. Frequently beaten by his employers, nearly always hungry and ill-clothed, Gorky came to know the seamy side of Russian life as few writers before him. At the age of nineteen, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The event became a turning point in Gorky's life; his outlook changed from one of despair to one of hope. Within a few years he began publishing stories in the provincial press. Written under the pseudonym Maxim Gorky (Maxim the Bitter), these stories stressed the strength and individualism of the Russian peasant. When they were collected and published in Ocherki i rasskazy (1898–99), Gorky gained recognition throughout Russia. His second volume of stories, Rasskazy (1900–10), along with the production of his controversial play The Lower Depths (1902), assured his success and brought him acclaim in western Europe and the United States.
Revolutionary Writer Gorky's fame in the West coincided with increasing suspicion from the Russian authorities, who considered the author a source of the country's growing political unrest. In 1901, he was briefly jailed for publishing the revolutionary poem “Song of the Stormy Petrel” in a Marxist review. Three years later, he established the Znanie publishing firm to provide a forum for socially conscious writers. The friendship and advice of revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin strengthened Gorky's growing political radicalism. He was very active during the revolution of 1905, and after its failure he was forced to flee abroad. He was allowed to return home in 1913, and again he resumed his revolutionary activities. During the 1917 revolution and the ensuing years of political chaos, Gorky saved the lives of several intellectuals by interceding on their behalf with the communist regime. He left Russia one last time and settled on the island of Capri for health reasons. In 1928, on his sixtieth birthday, he returned to the Soviet Union to a national celebration of his literary, cultural, and moral contributions to the socialist cause. His death several years later, allegedly by poisoning, is still enveloped in mystery.
Works in Literary Context
The Proletarian, or Working Class, Hero Gorky's heroes represent protest and unrest: either tramps, cold and hungry but free and without superiors to command them; or strong, positive, lonesomemen.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Gorky's famous contemporaries include:
Thomas Edison (1847–1931): Edison was the first inventor to industrialize his efforts. His most notable inventions include the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and direct current (DC) electricity distribution.
Joseph Conrad (1857–1924): Polish-born Conrad did not learn English until adulthood, but became one of the greatest English-language novelists; several of his books were adapted into films, notably Heart of Darkness, which inspired the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.
Ezra Pound (1885–1972): A leader in the Modernist movement and an American expatriate who once called America “a lunatic asylum,” Pound remained a respected poet, translator, and literary critic to his death.
Edith Wharton (1862–1937): Wharton was an American novelist and short story writer known for her piercing, ironic critiques of the hypocrisies and mores of upper-class Edwardian society.
Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924): A leading revolutionary in Tsarist Russia, Lenin went on to lead the October Revolution of 1917 and became the first leader of the Soviet Union. His contributions to Marx's work spawned a new form of Communism known as Leninism.
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904): A practicing doctor for most of his life, Chekhov was known for his short stories and plays.
Gorky differentiates his characters according to their ideology; their personal relationships only emphasize their ideological clashes. The domestic conflict, for example, in Smug Citizens (1902) is projected onto a social canvas, and the play acquires a political dimension especially topical in pre-1905 Russia. Also in Smug Citizens, the worker Nil emerges as the first proletarian character in Russian theater. He, like Gorky himself, hates the small bourgeoisie and their materialism. Gorky once explained that Nil was “a man calmly confident in his strength and in his right to change life,” the shortcomings of which aroused in his soul “only one feeling—a passionate desire to do away with them.” The working men, “tattered, drenched with sweat,” were singled out by Gorky as the only hope for the future. In the smug middle class he saw nothing but decay. Through this attitude, the formerly romantic Gorky arrived at the straightforward and rugged
realism that connected him with one of the basic traditions of Russian literature.
Attack Against the Intelligentsia After 1902, Gorky wrote a series of plays attacking the new intelligentsia. Summer Folk takes up where Chekhov's Cherry Orchard leaves off: the inheritors of a cherry orchard have, instead of creating a better world, settled for the complacency and futility of their predecessors' lives. “We do nothing except talk an awful lot,” says one character, while another ends a long diatribe on the intelligentsia's alienation from the masses with self-reproach: “We have created our alienation ourselves … we deserve our torments.” Summer Folk is one of Gorky's most static plays; however, the topicality of the play excited the audiences of the day.
Writing Across Genres, From Short Stories to Plays Gorky's work can be divided into three distinct groups. The first comprises his short stories, which many critics consider superior to his novels. In a highly romantic manner, these stories portray the subjugation of Russian peasants and vagrants. Many of these tales, such as “Makar Chudra” and “Chelkash,” are based on actual peasant legends and allegories. In them, Gorky championed the wisdom and self-reliance of vagabonds over the brutality of the decadent bourgeoisie. The second group consists of Gorky's autobiographical works, notably the trilogy My Childhood (1928), In the World (1916), and My Universities (1923), and his reminiscences of Tolstoy, Reminiscences of Leo Nicolayevitch Tolstoi (1919). The trilogy is considered one of the finest autobiographies in the Russian language. The work reveals Gorky as an acute observer of detail with a particular talent for describing people. The third group, by far the largest, consists of a number of novels and plays that are not as artistically successful as his short stories and autobiography. Gorky's first novel, Foma Gordeyev (1900), illustrates his characteristic admiration for the hard-working, honest individual. The novel was the first of many in which the author portrayed the rise of Russian capitalism. Among the twelve plays Gorky wrote between 1901 and 1913, only one, The Lower Depths, deals with the “dregs of society.” Though the play has most of the structural faults of his other dramas, primarily one-dimensional characters and a preachy tone, it is still regarded as one of the greatest proletarian dramas of the twentieth century. Gorky's other plays, including The Smug Citizens (1902), The Barbarians (1906), and Yegor Bulichov and Others (1932), focus either on the intelligentsia or on the struggle between capitalist and socialist forces in pre-Soviet Russia.
Works in Critical Context
Whatever the ambiguities of Gorky's political allegiances after the Bolsheviks (the early Communists of the 1917 Russian Revolution) came to power, the Soviet government saw him as a figure who could help bring prestige to the young regime. The authorities came to refer to him as the “father of Soviet literature” and even named various schools, theaters, institutes, ships, and factories after him during his lifetime. Yet, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some of the most prominent entities reverted to their former names: hence, Gorky Street in Moscow again became known as Tverskaia Street, and the large city where he was born, located on the Volga River, reverted from Gorky to its earlier name of Nizhny Novgorod.
Ideology over Artistry Despite his success and importance as a socialist writer, most modern critics agree that Gorky deserves little of the idolatrous attention that he has received. They argue that his work suffers from an overly dramatic quality, a coarse, careless style, and an externally imposed structure that results in fiction motivated by ideology rather than by artistry. Many critics suggest that his failure to develop his characters and his tendency to lapse into irrelevant discussions about the meaning of life greatly damage the seriousness of his subjects. However, in his short stories and, especially in his autobiography, Gorky fully realized his artistic powers. In these works he managed to curb his ideology and focus on those talents for which he has been consistently lauded: realistic description and the ability to portray the brutality of his environment. For these, Gorky was called by Stefan Zweig one of “the few genuine marvels of our present world.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Gorky practically defines the literary genre of social realism, yet other works address similar themes.
The Jungle (1906), by Upton Sinclair. Although written as a novel, this work by crusading journalist Sinclair was also intended as an exposé of the unsanitary conditions prevailing in American meat plants and of the inhumane conditions low-wage workers were forced to endure on the job. The novel sparked public outcry and forced the government to impose laws governing safe preparation of food.
Germinal (1885), by Emile Zola. Considered by many critics to be the greatest French-language novel ever written, this seminal work of realist literature tells the story of a coal miners' strike in harshly realistic terms.
Sister Carrie (1900), by Theodore Dreiser. Scandalous upon its initial publication, this novel tells the story of a young woman who uses her charms to seduce a succession of men in pursuit of becoming an actress.
Studs Lonigan (1938), by James T. Farrell. This trilogy of novels traces the coming of age of a young Irish-American living on the South Side of Chicago while it simultaneously takes a larger look at the self-perpetuating nature of ethnic ghettos.
Intellectuals and Common Men While critical regard for his work fluctuates, Gorky has been positioned
as the precursor of socialist realism and, therefore, an important stimulus in twentieth-century Russian literature. With Vladimir Mayakovsky and Aleksandr Blok, he was one of the few Russian writers who played an equally important part in his country both before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. Although Gorky was an intellectual, and thus distanced from the common people who overthrew the Czarists and Mensheviks, he used his influence and talent after October 1917 to prevent the revolution from consuming itself in a savage blood-frenzy. As Janko Lavrin has noted, “It was here that his personality and his work served as a bridge between the creative values of the old intelligentsia culture and the culture of the risen masses, anxious to build up a new world.”
Influence In the cultural world Gorky was the guiding force behind literary groups before the revolution, did all that he could to protect and nourish a fragile Russian culture during the Civil War, and later helped many young writers make their way into Soviet literature. Some of his own writings, in particular his novels, have had a mixed reputation, but many of the works that have largely fallen out of view—most of his plays of the 1910s and his stories of the 1920s—are worthy of rediscovery. Ultimately his literary reputation rests securely on a handful of acknowledged masterpieces: his play The Lower Depths; stories such as “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl”; his memoirs of leading writers (especially Tolstoy); and, finally, his autobiographical writings, which offer an unmatched view of provincial Russia.
Responses to Literature
- Gorky infused his characters and place names with symbolic meaning. Read one of Gorky's short stories and analyze the symbolism behind its setting and characters in a 3–4-page essay.
- Read Gorky's play Summer Folk. In a 5–7-page essay, analyze how the Russian Revolution might have impacted Gorky's work and literary style. Use examples from the text to support your ideas.
- With a classmate, research the terms “socialist realism” and “simple realism”. Then, discuss what you think makes Gorky's work socialist realism as opposed to simple realism.
- In his play The Lower Depths, Gorky contrasts the moral standpoints of “truth” versus the “consoling lie.” Write a personal essay describing your feelings on this issue. Is it better to always tell the truth, or to spare someone's feelings with an omission or half-truth?
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———. Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 295: Russian Writers of the Silver Age, 1890–1925. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Judith E. Kalb, University of South Carolina, and J. Alexander Ogden, University of South Carolina. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
Donchin, Georgette. “Gorky.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Edwards, George Clifton. “Maxim Gorky.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Gourfinkel, Nina. Gorky. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.
Hare, Richard. Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.
Huneker, James. “Maxim Gorky's ‘Nachtasyl.’” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Levin, Dan. Stormy Petrel: The Life and Work of Maxim Gorky. New York: Appleton-Century, 1965.
“The Lower Depths.” Drama for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Mirsky, Prince D. S. “Gorky.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
“Overview of Alexei Maximovich Peshkov.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
“Peshkov, Alexei Maximovich (1868–1936).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
“Study Questions for Alexei Maximovich Peshkov.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Weil, Irwin. Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life. New York: Random House, 1966.
GORKYC, MAXIM (pseudonym of Alexei Maximovich Peshkov; 1868–1936), Russian writer.
Maxim Gorky was one of the most influential public voices in pre–World War I Russia, as a result of his stories of ordinary but restless individuals struggling against humiliation and suffering, and his own persona as a "writer from the people." Gorky was born on 28 March (16 March, old style) 1868 in the Volga River town of Nizhny Novgorod into a lower-middle-class family. His father's death forced him to live with his maternal grandparents, who raised him in an atmosphere of petty-merchant narrow-mindedness, family violence, deep religiosity, and growing poverty. His formal education lasted only from 1877 to 1878, but he had learned to read from his grandfather, and his grandmother inspired him with folktales. Gorky soon became a voracious reader.
In 1878 poverty forced ten-year-old Gorky to begin his formative years of wandering and labor. He worked as a helper in a shoe store, an apprentice and errand-boy in a drafting workshop, a cook's helper on a Volga steamboat (where the cook was a self-educated folk philosopher), an apprentice in an icon studio, a construction worker, and a sales assistant at the public market. In 1884 he moved to Kazan hoping to enter the university but was not admitted. Here he was introduced into illegal student "self-education" circles, where he encountered populist socialism. Hardship, uncertainty, and personal doubt continued to torment him. In 1887 he shot himself in an attempted suicide. After recovering, he took part in efforts to educate peasants in the ideas of socialism—an experience that helped convince him of peasant backwardness. In 1888 he returned to Nizhny Novgorod, where, the following year, government authorities briefly imprisoned him for associating with radicals. In 1891 he resumed "tramping" around Russia, not "for the sake of wandering itself but from a desire to see where I am living and what sort of people are around me" (from a 1910 letter).
In 1892 Gorky began writing. He published his first story under the pseudonym Maxim Gorky, or "Maxim the Bitter," a name reflecting his simmering anger about life in Russia and a determination to speak the bitter truth. He wrote incessantly, publishing in local newspapers. He viewed literature less as an aesthetic practice (though he worked hard on style and form) than as a moral and political act that could change the world. He described the lives of people in the lowest strata and on the margins of society, revealing their hardships, humiliations, and brutalization, but also their inward spark of humanity. From 1895 to 1896, he worked as a journalist for a newspaper in Samara, writing daily columns and sketches that exposed moral and social abuses. He later worked for other newspapers and magazines, while continuing to publish stories and the occasional poem, which were beginning to attract a national audience.
Gorky's reputation as a unique literary voice from the lower depths of society and as a fervent advocate of Russia's social, political, and cultural transformation (by 1899, he was openly associating with the emerging Marxist social-democratic movement) helped make him a celebrity among both the intelligentsia and the growing numbers of "conscious" workers. At the heart of all his work was a belief in the inherent worth and potential of the human person (lichnost). He counterposed vital individuals, aware of their natural dignity, and inspired by energy and will, to people who succumb to the degrading conditions of life around them. Still, both his writings and his letters reveal a "restless man" (a frequent self-description) struggling to resolve contradictory feelings of faith and skepticism—of love of life and disgust at the vulgarity and pettiness of the human world.
The years 1900 to 1905 saw growing optimism in Gorky's writings and growing participation in the opposition movement, for which he was again briefly imprisoned in 1901. Now a financially successful author, editor, and playwright, he gave needed financial support to the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, though he also supported liberal appeals to the government for civil rights and social reform. The brutal shooting of workers marching to the tsar with a petition for reform on 22 January (9 January, old style) 1905 ("Bloody Sunday"), which set in motion the Revolution of 1905, seems to have pushed Gorky more decisively toward radical solutions. He now became closely associated with Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik wing of the party—though it is not clear whether he ever formally joined, and his relations with Lenin and the Bolsheviks would always be rocky. His most influential writings in these years were a series of political plays, most famously The Lower Depths (1902). In 1906 the Bolshevik Party organized a fund-raising trip to the United States, where Gorky wrote his famous novel of revolutionary conversion and struggle, Mat (Mother, 1907). His experiences there—which included a scandal over his traveling with his lover rather than his wife—deepened his contempt for the "bourgeois soul" but also his admiration for the boldness of the American spirit.
From 1906 to 1913, Gorky lived on the island of Capri, partly for health reasons and partly to escape the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Russia. He continued to support the work of Russian social democracy, especially the Bolsheviks, and to write fiction and cultural essays. Most controversially, he articulated, along with a few other maverick Bolsheviks, a philosophy he called "god-building," which sought to recapture the power of myth for the revolution and to create a religious atheism that placed collective humanity where God had been and that was imbued with passion, wonderment, moral certainty, and the promise of deliverance from evil, suffering, and even death. Though god-building was suppressed by Lenin, Gorky retained his belief that "culture"—the moral and spiritual awareness of the value and potential of the human self—would be more critical to the revolution's success than political or economic arrangements.
An amnesty granted for the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913 allowed Gorky to return to Russia, where he continued his social criticism, mentored other writers from the common people, and wrote a series of important cultural memoirs, including the first part of his autobiography. On his return, he wrote that his main impression was that "everyone is so crushed and devoid of God's image." The only solution, he repeatedly declared, was "culture." His later years were marked by ambivalence about the Bolshevik Revolution—he continued to insist on the need for culture and morality even while supporting the cause of socialist transformation in Russia.
In Soviet times, all the complexities in Gorky's life and outlook were reduced to an iconic image (echoed in heroic pictures and statues still seen throughout the former Soviet Union): Gorky as a great Russian writer who emerged from the common people, a loyal friend of the Bolsheviks, and the founder of the increasingly canonical "socialist realism." In turn, dissident intellectuals dismissed Gorky as a tendentious ideological writer, though some Western writers noted Gorky's doubts and criticisms. In the early twenty-first century greater balance is to be found in work on Gorky, where one finds a growing appreciation of the complex moral perspective on modern Russian life expressed in his writings. Some historians have begun to view Gorky as one of the most insightful observers of both the promises and moral dangers of revolution in Russia.
Gorky, Maxim. Autobiography of Maxim Gorky. New York, 1962. Also published in three separate volumes: My Childhood, My Apprenticeship (or In the World), and My Universities.
Kaun, Alexander. Maxim Gorky and His Russia. New York, 1931.
Scherr, Barry P. Maxim Gorky. Boston, 1988.
Yedlin, Tovah. Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. Westport, Conn., 1999.
Mark D. Steinberg
(1868–1936), renowned writer and playwright.
Maxim Gorky (Maxim the Bitter) was born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov in Nizhny Novgorod during the reign of Tsar Alexander II and died in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Gorky was orphaned at an early age, and his formal education ended when he was ten because his impoverished grandparents could not support him. He was self-taught in many areas, including literature, philosophy, and history, both Russian and Western.
Gorky rose to prominence early in life and made his mark as a writer, playwright, publicist, and publisher in Russia and abroad. His literary career began in 1892 with the publication of the story "Makar Chudra." His articles and stories were soon appearing in provincial newspapers and journals. His ideas of the writer's involvement in the social, political, and economic problems facing Russia were close to those of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir G. Korolenko, who became his mentor and friend. Some of his literary works had important political significance,
such as the poem Burevestnik (The Stormy Petrel ), which in 1901 prophesied the oncoming storm of revolution. While visiting the United States in 1906 on a mission to win friends for the revolution and raise funds for the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP), he wrote the novel Mat (Mother ). Gorky's revolutionary ideology lay in his insistence on the inevitability of radical change in Russian society.
Disillusioned with the passivity and ignorance of the peasant, Gorky gradually abandoned narodnik (populist) ideology in favor of social democracy. He financed Vladimir Lenin's Iskra (The Spark ). At the same time he supported other parties, such as the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Liberals.
The events of Bloody Sunday and the Revolution of 1905 induced Gorky to become involved, for the only time in his life, in revolutionary work. He wrote articles for the first legal Bolshevik newspaper, Novaia zhizn (New Life ), gave financial assistance, and criticized the tsar's October Manifesto for its conservatism. Warned of his imminent arrest, Gorky left Russia for the Italian island of Capri and did not return until 1913. Alienated by the Lenin and the RSDWP, Gorky joined a group led by Alexander A. Bogdanov, who shared his belief in mass education. With Bogdanov and Anatoly V. Lunacharsky, he organized a school for under-ground party workers. This was also the time of the emergence of a new religion called Bogostroitelstvo (God-building ), best defined as a theory of the divinity of the masses. Gorky's Ispoved (Confession ), written in 1908, served as an exposition of this belief and led to a break with Lenin.
On his return to Russia in 1913, Gorky devoted his time, ability, and resources to advancing Russian education and culture, projects brought to an end by World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Gorky was enthusiastic about the February Revolution, hoping that Russia would become a liberal democratic state. Soon after Lenin's return to Russia in April 1917, Gorky, writing in Novaia zhizn (New Life ), criticized the Bolshevik propaganda for a socialist revolution. These views appeared in articles called Nesvoevremennye mysli (Untimely Thoughts ). Russia, wrote Gorky, was not ready for the socialist revolution envisioned by the Bolsheviks.
Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Gorky saw it as his task to save Russia's cultural treasures and intellectual elite. In 1921, horrified by the cruelty and bloodshed of the civil war, he decided to leave Soviet Russia but not before he succeeded in obtaining American aid for the country's famine victims.
His second exile was spent mostly in Sorrento, Italy. Among his political writings of this period is the essay O russkom krestianstve (On the Russian Peasantry ), which appeared in 1922 in Berlin and during the 1980s in the Soviet Union. A bitter indictment of the Russian peasantry, it was resented by both the Russian émigré community and Soviet leaders. In 1928, under pressure from Josef Stalin, Gorky returned to the Soviet Union. The years from 1928 to 1936 were trying for him, for he could see but not speak of the realities of Stalinist Russia. He became an icon and cooperated with the regime, apparently believing that socialism would modernize Russia.
The cause of Gorky's death in 1936 is still debated, some maintaining that he died of natural causes, others that he was a victim of a Stalinist purge. Similarly, opinion in today's Russia is divided on the question of Gorky as a political activist. Gorky was a great political activist and writer of short stories, plays, memoirs, and novels such as Foma Gordeev, The Artamonovs, the trilogy My Childhood, In the World, and My Universities, and The Life of Klim Samgin.
See also: korolenko, vladimir galaktionovich; social democratic workers party; socialist realism; tolstoy, leo nikolayevich
Scherr, Barry P. (1988). Maxim Gorky. Boston: Twayne.
Weil, Irwin. (1966). Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life. New York: Random House.
Yedlin, Tovah. (1999). Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. Westport, CT: Praeger.
The cultural and political activities of the Russian author Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) made him known in the Soviet Union as the greatest Russian literary figure of the 20th century.
Maxim Gorky whose real name was Aleksei Maximovich Peshkov, was born on March 16, 1868, in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, which in 1932 was renamed Gorky in his honor. His father, a cabinetmaker, died when Gorky was 4 years old, and the boy was raised in harsh circumstances by his maternal grandparents, the proprietors of a dye works. From the age of 10 Gorky was virtually on his own, and he worked at a great variety of occupations, among them shopkeeper's errand boy, dishwasher on a Volga steamer, and apprentice to an icon maker. At a very tender age he saw a great deal of the brutal, seamy side of life and stored up impressions and details for the earthy and starkly realistic stories, novels, plays, and memoirs which he later wrote.
Almost completely self-educated, at the age of 16 Gorky tried without success to enter the University of Kazan. For the next 6 years he wandered widely about Russia, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus. In 1888 he worked in fisheries on the Caspian Sea. Gradually he developed revolutionary sympathies; he was arrested for antigovernmental activities for the first time in 1889 and from then on was closely watched by the police. In 1891-1892 he spent a year in Tiflis, where he worked in railroad workshops, and where his first published short story, "Makar Chudra," appeared in a newspaper in 1892.
From then on Gorky devoted himself mainly to literature, and in the next 5 years his stories appeared chiefly in newspapers along the Volga. His first collection of stories, published in 1898, made him famous throughout Russia, and his fame spread rapidly to the outside world. These early stories featured tramps, vagabonds, derelicts, and social outcasts. Gorky portrayed the bitterness of the oppressed and exploited people of Russia and demonstrated a proud defiance against organized, respectable society. He often found strong elements of humanity and individual dignity in even the most brutalized and demoralized of these "down-and-outers." His sympathy for the underdog made him known as a powerful spokesman for the illiterate masses—their sufferings and their dreams of a better life.
Foma Gordeyev (1899) established Gorky as a major novelist. It is the story of a well-intentioned but weak man who feels disgust, boredom, and guilt as the inheritor of a profitable family business. He rebels against his family and his class, but he is lacking in moral fiber, and in the end the forces of tradition defeat and destroy him. In this novel and all his later works, Gorky identified himself as being a bitter enemy of capitalism and depicted the society of prerevolutionary Russia as drab and dreary.
During this same period Gorky began writing plays and formed close connections with the Moscow Art Theater, which in 1902 produced his most famous play, The Lower Depths. It shows the misery and utter hopelessness of the lives of people at the bottom of Russian society and at the same time examines the illusions by means of which many of the unfortunate people of this earth sustain themselves.
Tall and rawboned, Gorky affected coarse dress and often crude manners at this stage of his life, but his personality was colorful and attractive. Even as a young man, he made many influential friends, including the two most famous writers of the day, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. His memoirs of these two men, written many years later, are among his finest works.
Gorky became increasingly active in the revolutionary movement. He was arrested briefly in 1898, and in 1901 he was exiled to the provinces for having helped organize an underground press. When he was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1902, the Czar vetoed the appointment because of the author's subversive activities. During the 1905 Revolution, Gorky was again imprisoned for writing proclamations calling for the overthrow of the Czar's government.
In 1906 Gorky left Russia illegally and went to America to raise funds for his fellow revolutionists and spent most of the year there, where he wrote the novel Mother. This is a propaganda novel which tells of how a simple working-class woman, inspired by the example of her son, who is a militant revolutionist, herself becomes an activist in the class struggle. Mother was regarded in the Soviet Union as a classic of "socialist realism."
From 1906 to 1913 Gorky lived in Italy on the island of Capri, where his home became a center of literary and political activity among Russians abroad. In 1913 he received an amnesty from the Czar's government and returned to Russia. In the next 3 years he completed the first two volumes of his autobiography, Childhood (1913) and My Apprenticeship (1915). (The third volume, My Universities, was published in 1922.) Gorky's autobiography is his finest work, describing dramatically and colorfully the people he knew and the adventures he had from boyhood to young manhood. It paints a fascinating picture of the Russia of his times. In many respects Gorky's nonfictional works are superior to his fiction.
In the years immediately following the October Revolution of 1917, Gorky worked tirelessly to help preserve the Russian cultural heritage. He organized homes for writers and artists, founded publishing houses and theaters, and used his influence with the new Soviet regime to encourage the development of the arts. He spent most of the period from 1921 to 1933, however, in Germany and Italy, partly for treatment of a lung ailment and partly because of disagreement with policies of the Soviet government. During this period he wrote the large novels The Artamonov Business (1925) and The Life of Klim Samgin (an epic novel translated into English as four separate novels—The Bystander, The Magnet, Other Fires, and The Specter), all of them severely critical of life in prerevolutionary Russia. These novels are long and slow-moving, and many readers find them dull and ponderous.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Gorky made several trips to the Soviet Union, and he returned to stay in 1933. Once again he was very active on the cultural scene, chiefly in book and magazine publishing and literary criticism.
Gorky died near Moscow in 1936. Even in his lifetime he had been enormously celebrated in his native land. Since his death he has been officially hallowed as the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, and numerous theaters, museums, streets, universities, and even factories and collective farms were named after him.
The best study of Gorky's works and of his place in Russian literature is Irwin Weil, Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life (1966). An interesting account of Gorky's life and works up to 1930 is Alexander Kaun, Maxim Gorky and His Russia (1931). Helen Muchnic, From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Writers in Soviet Russia (1961), contains a stimulating critical analysis of his works.
Troyat, Henri, Gorki, Paris: Flammarion, 1986; New York: Crown, 1989. □