Growing up in poverty, Aleksey Peshkov was forced to work from an early age. His interest in writing fortunately caught the eye of writers and publishers, who encouraged him during the 1890’s. Leading literary figures of the period, including Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, praised his talent. Under the pseudonym of “Gorky,” he wrote short stories, plays (notably The Lower Depths, 1902), and novels. By the early twentieth century his work was translated and became known in the West.
Gorky’s reputation in literature was matched by his social activism and his criticisms of Russia’s society and imperial political system. Czarist bureaucrats periodically kept him under surveillance, and he was briefly imprisoned on several occasions. Tolstoy’s personal intercession with the authorities gained Gorky’s release in one instance. Gorky was elected to the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences in 1902, but academy officers overruled his selection because of his objectionable political reputation. Chekhov resigned from the academy in protest.
Gorky briefly participated in Russia’s 1905 revolution, and once again was imprisoned. Widespread public support from the West helped gain his release. Admired as a champion of freedom and democracy, he traveled through Europe and the United States. A controversy occurred in New York in 1906, however, when it became known his female traveling companion was not his wife—from whom he had...
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