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Maxim Gorky wrote in many genres, including several novels, of which Foma Gordeyev (1899; English translation, 1901), Mat (1906; Mother, 1906), Delo Artamonovykh (1925; Decadence, 1927; also known as The Artamonov Business (1927), and Zhizn Klima Samgina (1927-1936; The Life of Klim Samgin, 1930-1938) are the best known. He also wrote several plays, among which the most acclaimed is Na dne (pr., pb. 1902; The Lower Depths, 1912). His three-part autobiography, Detstvo (1913; My Childhood, 1915), V lyudyakh (1916; In the World, 1917), and Moi universitety (1923; My Universities, 1923), is perhaps his most moving work. His reminiscences of literary friends, as well as his letters, are valuable documents for the literary history and atmosphere of his time.
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Maxim Gorky appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and of the Golden Age of Russian literature. Thus he spent most of his career writing in the shadow of the giants. Caught in the revolutionary spirit, he spent his entire life fighting for a better lot for his people, mostly through his writings. He was the founder of the new realistic trend best suited for that purpose. To that end he wrote many works, depicting the depth of social injustice and poverty of his people, as best illustrated in his play The Lower Depths. During the revolution, he strove to preserve Russian culture threatened by the wanton destruction, and he did his best to help young writers. In the last years of his life, he was revered as the doyen of Soviet literature, even though he distanced himself from the excesses of the revolution. Some of his stories, novels, and plays are considered to belong to the best works in Russian literature of the twentieth century.
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Maxim Gorky began his career as a short-story writer and originally gained renown for his works in that genre. In 1898, a two-volume collection called Ocherki i rasskazy (sketches and stories) appeared in St. Petersburg. A third volume came out the following year. Although Gorky is today perhaps better known for his work within other genres, he continued to write stories regularly into the 1920’s, and several of his short works are among his finest achievements: “Chelkash” (1895; English translation, 1901), “Byvshye lyudi” (1897; “Creatures That Once Were Men,” 1905), and “Dvadtsat’ shest’ i odna” (1899; “Twenty-six Men and a Girl,” 1902). Gorky’s first published novel was Foma Gordeyev (1899; English translation, 1901), which, like many of his plays and subsequent novels, describes the life and mores of the merchant class in provincial Russia. His novel Mat (1906; Mother, 1906), which was written in the United States, deals with the emerging revolutionary forces in Russia. It achieved enormous popular success and, after the Bolshevik revolution, served as a model for the definition of socialist realism. After working intensively in this genre throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, Gorky published only two more novels during the last twenty-five years of his career. Of these, Zhizn Klima Samgina (1927-1936; The Life of Klim Samgin, 1930-1938), while left unfinished at his death, is a massive four-volume work that offers virtually an encyclopedia of Russia’s social and intellectual currents during the forty years that led up to the revolution.
Gorky’s nonfiction is also an important part of his achievement. Indeed, many would rank his autobiographical trilogy—Detstvo (1913; My Childhood, 1915), V lyudyakh (1916; In the World, 1917), and Moi universitety (1923; My Universities, 1923)—as the crowning work of his career. Also receiving much critical acclaim are his memoirs of writers, notably those devoted to Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Leonid Andreyev. In each case, Gorky manages to create a powerful living portrait out of a few seemingly insignificant details. Finally, Gorky also wrote many literary reviews and essays, as well as writings on social and political topics.
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Maxim Gorky was one of the most prominent figures in Russian literature from the late 1890’s until his death. His importance extended well beyond his purely literary accomplishments. In 1899, he became a member of the Sreda (“Wednesday”) Circle, a group of realistic writers who met to discuss their ongoing work. He rapidly emerged as the leading figure in the group, and in 1903 he began to put out the Znanie anthologies, which published the work of the group’s members and achieved great popularity in subsequent years. Throughout his career, Gorky continued his efforts as editor, publisher, and organizer. After the 1917 revolution, he was instrumental in establishing projects that would give writers both outlets for publishing and an established income. To take care of their material needs, he helped set up several “houses” that provided shelter, food rations, and a place to meet. After leaving Russia in 1921, he continued his journalistic efforts abroad, and during his final years in the Soviet Union, he helped formulate the doctrine of socialist realism, which, for better or worse, became the guiding credo of Soviet literature for at least the next two decades.
Gorky was also deeply involved in politics from the start of his literary career. Although his relationship with Vladimir Ilich Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders was not always smooth, his early support helped give him much authority when they took power. Gorky provided editorial guidance and material aid to countless writers; for that alone his service was of immeasurable importance for Russian literature.
Gorky’s plays, like much of his fiction, are notable first of all for broadening the thematic scope of Russian literature. Most famous in this regard is The Lower Depths. In treating tramps, thieves, and other outcasts of society (a milieu that he also described in his innovative stories of the previous decade), Gorky was moving far from the gentry families and well-off merchants who had predominated on the Russian stage until his time. In Enemies and Posledniye (the last ones), Gorky dealt directly with the political upheavals that were beginning to tear the country apart. He became one of the first to use—or attempt to use (despite some stagings in outlying areas, censorship forbade the presentation of these plays in the country’s main theaters)—the stage to advocate a viewpoint sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.
Several of Gorky’s plays, with The Lower Depths again serving as the outstanding example, are also notable for their unusual structure. Although Gorky was not averse to composing works with relatively straightforward plots and clearly defined relationships among his characters, in many of his best creations he strove for density over clarity, for chaos over order. Characters may come and go; several of the most important figures in The Lower Depths are completely absent from the fourth and final act. Also, as the Russian critic L. M. Farber has noted, that play is actually three plays in one: a four-act drama about the lower depths, a philosophical study in acts 1 to 3 dealing especially with questions of truth and the “consoling lie,” and a political treatise in act 4. Yet in Gorky’s successful works, all the disparate elements ultimately coalesce to create works whose complex form makes them all the more striking in their impact.
Perhaps Gorky’s most lasting contribution to the Russian theater, though, lies in his ability to portray characters and through them entire levels of society. In some of his works, no single character dominates, but he uses a series of individuals to capture the feel of a given environment. In Barbarians, Gorky presents at least three different groups—educated engineers from outside the town where the play is set, the boorish leading citizens of the town, and a sprinkling of provincial nobility—and lets all three sets interact. By the end he has shown that both the local inhabitants and the outsiders are barbarians; the play’s title applies to all. Most remarkable, however, are the individual portraits that Gorky has created, often in plays that are less known (or unknown) among English-speaking audiences. Yegor Bulychov is by now familiar to many outside the Soviet Union, but equally striking are such figures as Vassa Zheleznova (especially in the first version of the play), Antipa Zykov (The Zykovs), and Mastakov (Old Man). All are such powerful creations that they more than compensate for any inconsistencies in plot or structure.
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Maxim Gorky (GAWR-kee) wrote a total of fifteen plays, only three of which were staged during his lifetime: Na dne (pr., pb. 1902; The Lower Depths, 1912), Vassa Zheleznova (pb. 1910; English translation, 1945), and Yegor Bulychov i drugiye (pr., pb. 1932; Yegor Bulychov and Others, 1937). His other plays include Meshchane (pr., pb. 1902; Smug Citizen, 1906), Dachniki (pr., pb. 1904; Summer Folk, 1905), Deti solntsa (pr., pb. 1905; Children of the Sun, 1906), Varvary (pr., pb. 1906; Barbarians, 1906), Vragi (pb. 1906; Enemies, 1945), Chudake (pr., pb. 1910; Queer People, 1945), Falshivaya moneta (pr., pb. 1927, wr. 1913; the counterfeit coin), Zykovy (pb. 1914; The Zykovs, 1945), Starik (pr. 1919, wr. 1915; Old Man, 1924), and Dostigayev i drugiye (pr., pb. 1933; Dostigayev and Others, 1937). All are available in Russian in the thirty-volume Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (1949-1955; complete works), in the twenty-five-volume Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (1968-1976), and in English in Seven Plays (1945), Five Plays (1956), and Plays (1975). The eight-volume Collected Works of Maxim Gorky (1979-1981), is also available.
Gorky wrote about three hundred short stories. Among the most important are “Makar Chudra” (1892; English translation, 1901), “Chelkash” (1895; English translation, 1901), “Starukha Izergil” (1895; “The Old Woman Izergil”), “Malva” (1897; English translation), “V stepi” (1897; “In the Steppe”), “Dvadtsat’ shest’ i odna” (1899; “Twenty-six Men and a Girl,” 1902), “Pesnya o burevestnike” (1901; “Song of the Stormy Petrel”), “Pesnya o sokole” (1908; “Song of the Falcon”), and the collections Po Rusi (1915; Through Russia, 1921) and Skazki ob Italii (1911-1913; Tales of Italy, 1958?). A three-volume collection of his stories, Ocherki i rasskazy, was first published in Russian in 1898-1899. The short stories are available in the collected works; some of the best of them are available in English in Selected Short Stories (1959), introduced by Stefan Zweig.
Among Gorky’s numerous essays, articles, and nonfiction books, the most important are “O Karamazovshchine” (1913; “On Karamazovism”), “Revolyutsia i kultura” (1917; “Revolution and Culture”), Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1924; V. I. Lenin, 1931), and “O meshchanstve” (1929; “On the Petty Bourgeois Mentality”). The collection Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks (1968) includes many of these essays in English translation.
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Hailed by Soviet critics as a true proletarian writer and the model of Socialist Realism, Maxim Gorky is one of few authors to see their native towns renamed in their honor. Many schools, institutes, universities, and theaters bear his name, as does one of the main streets in Moscow. These honors, says Helen Muchnic, resulted from the fact that Gorky, along with Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, “shaped and disseminated the country’s official philosophy.” Stalin admired Gorky greatly, awarding him the coveted Order of Lenin. As chair of the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Gorky delivered an address in which he defined Socialist Realism, a doctrine that was to be interpreted in a manner different from what he intended or practiced; the Soviet Encyclopedia (1949-1958) calls him “the father of Soviet literaturethe founder of the literature of Socialist Realism.”
Although Gorky’s novels are not among the best in Russian literature, they did inaugurate a new type of writing, revealing to the world a new Russia. In contrast to the countless fin de siècle evocations of the tormented Russian soul, with their gallery of superfluous men, Gorky offered a new hero, the proletarian, the revolutionary, such as Pavel Vlassov and his mother, Pelagea Nilovna, in the poorly constructed but ever-popular Mother. Indeed, Richard Hare argues that even today Mother is the prototype for the socially tendentious novel in the Soviet Union, with its crude but determined effort to look into the dynamism of social change in Russia.
Gorky’s highest artistic achievements, however, are his literary portraits; the best, says Muchnic, are those that he drew from life, especially of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Also notable is Gorky’s affectionate portrait of his grandmother. Gorky had a strong visual sense, the gift of astute observation, and the ability to translate these insights into sparkling dialogue. He created an entire portrait gallery of vignettes, most of which can be traced to people he met in his endless wanderings through Russia and abroad.
The child of a lower-middle-class family that faced rapid impoverishment, a self-taught student, a young man whose universities were the towns along the Volga and the steamers that made their way along its mighty waters, Gorky was nevertheless sympathetic to culture. He devoured books voraciously and indiscriminately and encouraged others to study. From 1918 to 1921, not wholly in favor with the new regime, he worked tirelessly to save writers and intellectuals from starvation and from censorship. He befriended the Serapion Brothers (a group of young Russian writers formed in 1921) and later Mikhail Sholokhov, always encouraging solid scholarship.
Estimates of Gorky even now depend on political ideology, for he is closely associated with the Russian Revolution. His vision, however, is broader than that of any political movement. He repeats often in his autobiographical works his dismay at the ignorance of people and their lack of desire for a better life, and he felt keenly the injustice done to the innocent. His writing is permeated by the desire to bring people from slavery to freedom, to build a good life; he believed in the power of human beings to change their world. Courageous, generous, and devoted to the public good, Gorky was timid, lacking in self-confidence, and infinitely modest. His commitment to social justice is unquestionable. These qualities may be what Chekhov had in mind when he said that Gorky’s works might be forgotten, but that Gorky the man would never be.
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Barratt, Andrew. The Early Fiction of Maksim Gorky: Six Essays in Interpretation. Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1993. Excellent essays on Gorky’s early works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Borras, F. M. Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpretation. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. One of the more astute interpretations of Gorky’s works, especially his novels and plays. Unlike many other books that concentrate either on biography or political issues, Borras’s book emphasizes Gorky’s artistic achievements. Chapter 2 analyzes his short stories.
Figes, Orlando. “Maxim Gorky and the Russian Revolution.” History Today 46 (June, 1996): 16-22. Argues that Gorky’s journalism and correspondence revealed in Soviet archives shows Gorky was not a devout Bolshevik and had doubts concerning the revolution and the course it took after 1917, all of which forced him into exile in 1921.
Gorky, Maxim. Maxim Gorky: Selected Letters. Edited and translated by Andrew Barratt and Barry P. Scherr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. An important collection of letters beginning in 1889 and ending with Gorky’s death in 1936. The letters reveal Gorky’s life story in his own words, shed light on many writers, including Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, and are representative of the development of Russian literature.
Gorky, Maxim. Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks: 1917-1918. Translated by Herman Ermolaev. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. A splendid collection of critical articles that denounce the Bolshevik system of government, depict the Russian national character, and render a vision of the future.
Hare, Richard. Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. The first substantial study of Gorky in English since Alexander Kaun’s book (listed below). Hare combines the political aspects of Gorky’s biography with critical analyses of his works, with the latter receiving the short end. Contains some interesting observations obtained from (anonymous) people who knew Gorky well.
Kaun, Alexander. Maxim Gorky and His Russia. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1931. The first book on Gorky in English, written while Gorky was still alive and supported by firsthand knowledge about him. It covers literary and nonliterary aspects of Russia’s literary life and the atmosphere in Gorky’s time. Still one of the best biographies, despite some outdated facts, corrected by history.
Levin, Dan. Stormy Petrel: The Life and Work of Maxim Gorky. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. This reprint of the author’s 1965 work contains the detailed notes he excised from the original edition. An engrossing biographical and literary interpretation.
O’Toole, L. Michael. “’Twenty-six Men and a Girl.’” In Structure, Style, and Interpretation in the Russian Short Story. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A structuralist analysis of the story.
Peterson, Dale E. “Richard Wright’s Long Journey from Gorky to Dostoevsky.” African American Review 28 (Fall, 1994): 375-387. Discussion of the influence of Gorky and Dostoevski on Richard Wright. Notes similarities between Gorky’s and Wright’s writing, but claims that Wright moved away from Gorky’s faith in collectivist culture and social engineering.
Scherr, Barry P. Maxim Gorky. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Chapters on the writer and revolutionary, his literary beginnings in the short story, his career as a young novelist, his plays, his memoirs, and his final achievements. Includes a chronology, detailed notes, and annotated bibliography. The best introductory study.
Terry, Garth M., comp. Maxim Gorky in English: A Bibliography. 2d rev. ed. Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1992. An indispensable aid for any student of Gorky.
Troyat, Henri. Gorky. New York: Crown, 1989. A translation of a Russian biography of Gorky that presents his life and works. Bibliography and index.
Weil, Irwin. Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life. New York: Random House, 1966. The most scholarly book on Gorky in English, skillfully combining biography with critical analysis. Valuable especially for the discussion of Soviet literary life and Gorky’s connections with, and influence on, younger Soviet writers. Contains select but adequate bibliography.
Yedlin, Tova. Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. A biography of the Russian writer that focuses on his political and social views. Bibliography and index.