Maxim Gorky 1868-1936
Also transliterated as Maksim; also Gorki and Gor'kii; pseudonym of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov) Russian short story writer, novelist, dramatist, essayist, autobiographer, diarist, and poet.
Recognized as one of the earliest and foremost exponents of socialist realism in literature, Gorky, in his brutal portraits of Russian life and sympathetic depiction of the working class, inspired the oppressed people of his native land. From 1910 until his death, Gorky was considered Russia's greatest living writer. He was likewise acclaimed in the Soviet Union as the voice of the proletariat and the model for all future writers. This was in large part due to the publication of his famous Mat' (1907; Mother), the first Russian novel to portray the factory worker as a force destined to break down the existing order. And, while Gorky is typically remembered for his Detstvo (1915; My Childhood), V liudiakh (1916; My Apprenticeship), and Moi universitety (1923; My Universities), considered among the finest autobiographies in the Russian language, many scholars believe his short stories represent his most enduring literary accomplishment. In these gritty, yet romantic, tales Gorky dramatized the figure of the bosiak, a carefree vagabond, thereby introducing a new type of hero, drawn from the dispossessed masses of a slowly and painfully industrializing society at the turn of the century, into the history of Russian literature.
Gorky was orphaned at the age of ten and raised by his maternal grandparents. He was often treated harshly by his grandfather, and it was from his grandmother that he received what little kindness he experienced as a child. During his thirteenth year, Gorky ran away from Nizhniy Novgorod, the city of his birth (later renamed Gorky), and lived as a tramp and vagrant, wandering from one job to the next. 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 the 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 later volumes of stories, known collectively as Rasskazy (1900-10), along with the production of his controversial play Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths), assured his success and brought him acclaim in western Europe and the United States. Gorky's fame in the West coincided with increasing suspicion from Russian authorities, however. In 1901 he was briefly jailed for publishing the revolutionary poem "Pesnya o burevestnike" ("Song of the Stormy Petrel") in a Marxist review. Ultimately, negative reaction to his political radicalism, including his establishment of the Znanie publishing firm to provide a forum for socially conscious writers and his activities during the failed 1905 revolution, necessitated that Gorky flee into exile abroad. Allowed to return home in 1913, he resumed his revolutionary activities and actively supported the 1917 Revolution. Subsequently, he left Russia one last time and settled on the island of Capri for health reasons. In 1928 he returned to a national celebration of his literary, cultural, and moral contributions to the socialist cause, which took place on his sixtieth birthday. His death several years later, allegedly by poisoning, is still enveloped in mystery.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Gorky's short stories generally portray the subjugation of the Russian peasantry and the dismal lives of social outcasts—tramps, small-time hoods, and other down-and-outers. Many of these tales, such as "Makar Chudra" and "Chelkash," are based upon actual peasant legends and folk allegories. "Makar Chudra" (Gorky's first short story, originally published in 1892) follows the brief life of Loiko Zobar, a young man who falls in love with and marries a willful gypsy woman. Rather than become enslaved to her, he stabs her. Learning of this, the gypsy's father vindicates her death by slaying his son-in-law. In "Chelkash" Gorky champions the wisdom and self-reliance of his prototypical vagabond while criticizing the brutality and pettiness of the decaying bourgeoisie. Though a thief, Grishka Chelkash honors the request of his one-time accomplice Gavrila for a share of their ill-gotten loot, even after he learns that this man had planned to kill him and seize all of the spoils. One of the most accomplished of Gorky's stories, "Dvádtsaf shest' i odná" ("Twenty-six Men and a Girl," published separately in 1902) details the pitiful lives of twenty-six bakers forced to suffer in sweatshop working conditions. In an effort to transcend this dreary existence, the men focus their attention on a lovely and innocent young seamstress, Tania. Rather than offering them moral enlightenment, Tania disappointingly succumbs to the seductive advances of a swaggering ex-soldier. Disillusioned by her lost purity, the bakers sink back to their original, degraded state. Many of Gorky's other stories also introduce topics that he was to explore more fully in his subsequent novels and plays, although critics observe that he rarely did this with an equal degree of artistic success. "Konovalov" represents such a tale by describing the life of a "superfluous man," a common figure in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian literature.
The first national publication of the story "Chelkash" in 1895 brought Gorky considerable notoriety. The appearance of the majority of his short fiction over the course of the next decade soon secured his position as Russia's most popular writer at the turn of the century. Later, he was hailed as the father of Soviet literature and the originator of proletarian humanism. Such laudatory titles, however, have since taken on a somewhat ironic tone as critics have reassessed Gorky's reputation, noting the limitations of his often sentimental, coarse, and careless style, seemingly motivated by ideology rather than artistry. In response, some scholars have endeavored to instead accentuate Gorky's political and social influence, while others have focused their attention on Gorky's autobiographical texts and early short stories. In these, many contend, Gorky most fully realized his artistic powers. Critics have since observed in this shorter fiction Gorky's skilled blending of romanticism, realism, and social criticism, as well as his compelling characterizations and evocations of atmosphere. And, though they are occasionally marred by a moralizing tone and stylistic flaws, many commentators find in these early works, and their depiction of the sordid lives of those at the bottom of society, Gorky's most artistically significant fictional accomplishment.