Gorky's earliest years were spent in Astrakhan, where his father, a former upholsterer, became a shipping agent. When the boy was five his father died; Gorky returned to Nizhny Novgorod to live with his maternal grandparents, who brought him up after his mother remarried. The grandfather was a dyer whose business deteriorated and who treated Gorky harshly. From his grandmother he received most of what little kindness he experienced as a child.
Gorky knew the Russian working-class background intimately, for his grandfather afforded him only a few months of formal schooling, sending him out into the world to earn his living at the age of eight. His jobs included, among many others, work as assistant in a shoemaker's shop, as errand boy for an icon painter, and as dishwasher on a Volga steamer, where the cook introduced him to reading—soon to become his main passion in life. Frequently beaten by his employers, nearly always hungry and ill clothed, he came to know the seamy side of Russian life as few other Russian authors before or since. The bitterness of these early experiences later led him to choose the word gorky (“bitter”) as his pseudonym.
His late adolescence and early manhood were spent in Kazan, where he worked as a baker, docker, and night watchman. There he first learned about Russian revolutionary ideas from representatives of the Populist movement, whose tendency to idealize the Russian peasant he later rejected. Oppressed by the misery of his surroundings, he attempted suicide by shooting himself. Leaving Kazan at the age of 21, he became a tramp, doing odd jobs of all kinds during extensive wanderings through southern Russia.
Between 1899 and 1906 Gorky lived mainly in St. Petersburg, where he became a Marxist, supporting the Social Democratic Party. After the split in that party in 1903, Gorky went with its Bolshevik wing. But he was often at odds with the Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin. Nor did Gorky ever, formally, become a member of Lenin's party, though his enormous earnings, which he largely gave to party funds, were one of that organization's main sources of income. In 1901 the Marxist review Zhizn (“Life”) was suppressed for publishing a short revolutionary poem by Gorky, “Pesnya o burevestnike” (“Song of the Stormy Petrel”). Gorky was arrested but released shortly afterward and went to the Crimea, having developed tuberculosis. In 1902 he was elected a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but his election was soon withdrawn for political reasons, an event that led to the resignations of Chekhov and the writer V.G. Korolenko from the academy. Gorky took a prominent part in the Russian Revolution of 1905, was arrested in the following year, and was again quickly released, partly as the result of protests from abroad. He toured America in the company of his mistress, an event that led to his partial ostracism there and to a consequent reaction on his part against the United States as expressed in stories about New York City, Gorod zholtogo dyavola (1906; “The City of the Yellow Devil”).
On leaving Russia in 1906, Gorky spent seven years as a political exile, living mainly in his villa on Capri in Italy. Politically, Gorky was a nuisance to his fellow Marxists because of his insistence on remaining independent, but his great influence was a powerful asset, which from their point of view outweighed such minor defects. He returned to Russia in 1913, and during World War I he agreed with the Bolsheviks in opposing Russia's participation in the war. He opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 and went on to attack the victorious Lenin's dictatorial methods in his newspaper Novaya zhizn (“New Life”) until July 1918, when his protests were silenced by censorship on Lenin's orders. From 1919 onward Gorky cooperated with Lenin's government, also helping to relieve the miseries of his fellow Russian writers during the early post-Revolutionary years. He was often able to see that they received payment, if only for work such as translating.
In the decade ending in 1923 Gorky's greatest masterpiece appeared. This is the autobiographical trilogy Detstvo (1913–14; My Childhood), V lyudyakh (1915–16; In the World), and Moi universitety (1923; My Universities). The title of the last volume is sardonic because Gorky's only university had been that of life, and his wish to study at Kazan University had been frustrated. This trilogy is one of the finest autobiographies in Russian. It describes Gorky's childhood and early manhood and reveals him as an acute observer of detail, with a flair for describing his own family, his numerous employers, and a panorama of minor but memorable figures. The trilogy contains many messages, which Gorky now tended to imply rather than preach openly: protests against motiveless cruelty, continued emphasis on the importance of toughness and self-reliance, and musings on the value of hard work.
The trilogy was finished in his villa in Sorrento, Italy, to which Gorky immigrated during 1921–28. Gorky's health was poor, and he was disillusioned by post-Revolutionary life in Russia, but in 1928 he yielded to pressures to return, and the lavish official celebration there of his 60th birthday was beyond anything he could have expected. In the following year he returned to the U.S.S.R. permanently and lived there until his death. His return coincided with the establishment of Stalin's ascendancy, and Gorky became a prop of Stalinist political orthodoxy. He was now more than ever the undisputed leader of Soviet writers, and, when the Soviet Writers' Union was founded in 1934, he became its first president. At the same time, he helped to found the literary method of Socialist Realism, which was imposed on all Soviet writers and which obliged them—in effect—to become outright political propagandists.
Gorky remained active as a writer, but almost all his later fiction is concerned with the period before the Revolution. In Delo Artamonovykh (1925; The Artamonov Business), one of his best novels, he showed his continued interest in the rise and fall of pre-Revolutionary Russian capitalism. There were more plays—Yegor Bulychov i drugiye (1932; “Yegor Bulychov and Others”) and Dostigayev i drugiye (1933; “Dostigayev and Others”)—but the most generally admired work is a set of reminiscences of Russian writers—Vospominaniya o Tolstom (1919; Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy) and O pisatelyakh (1928; “About Writers”). The memoir of Tolstoy is so lively and free from the hagiographic approach traditional in Russian studies of their leading authors that it has sometimes been acclaimed as Gorky's masterpiece. Almost equally impressive is Gorky's study of Chekhov. He also wrote pamphlets on topical events and problems in which he glorified some of the most brutal aspects of Stalinism.
"Maksim Gorky." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
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