Born "Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov" on March 16, 1868, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia--later renamed in his honor--Maxim Gorky would learn early the harsh lessons of life. He spent his early childhood in Astrakhan where his father worked as a shipping agent, but when the boy was only five years old, his father died, and he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents. This was not a happy time for the young Gorky as conditions were poor and often violent. At the age of eight, the boy's grandfather forced him to quit school and apprenticed him to several tradesmen including a shoemaker and an icon painter. Fortunately, Gorky also worked as a dishwasher on a Volga steamer where a friendly cook taught him to read, and literature soon became his passion. At the age of twelve, Gorky ran away from home and barely survived, half starving, moving from one small job to the next. He was often beaten by his employers and seldom had enough to eat. The bitterness of these early experiences led him to choose the name Maxim Gorky (which means "the bitter one") as his pseudonym.
Gorky's teenage years were spent working in Kazan as a baker, docker, and night watchman. At the age of 21, Gorky attempted suicide, shooting a bullet through his lung. Although he survived, his lungs were permanently damaged and caused him to suffer frequent bouts of tuberculosis. After recovering from this incident, he left Kazan and tramped around the country, from his native Nijny Novgorod all the way to the southern Caucasus and back again. During the course of this two-year journey, he became acquainted with the lowest members of society, the derelicts, theives, and prostitutes.
At the age of 24, he decided to rejoin society and took a job as a reporter for a provincial newspaper. Although jailed periodically for association with revolutionaries and for his own outspoken opinion on the existing social order, Gorky managed to publish a few short stories, mostly about the tramps and derelicts he had met on his journeys. These short stories soon became very popular, touching the imagination of the Russian people. Gorky became a kind of folk hero. He was the first Russian author to write sympathetically of such characters as tramps and theives, emphasizing their daily struggles against overwhelming odds. Eventually, rumors reached the Moscow Art Theatre of "a tramp from the Volga with an enormous talent for writing," and when Chekhov introduced Gorky to the company in the spring of 1900, they convinced him to give them a play.
Gorky spent the next two years toiling over two plays. The first to appear on the stage was The Smug Citizen (1902) which portrayed the worker as superior to the average intellectual. The play was produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902, but only in a censored version because Gorky had come to the attention of the Tsarist police. They now had a file on the writer. Because of his outspoken opinions, they considered him a threat. In addition, the authorities had Gorky's election to the Imperial Academy of Russian Artists overturned, sparking a storm of controversy, even from the mild-mannered Chekhov who resigned from the academy in protest. During the premiere of the play, the theatre was surrounded by a squadron of mounted Cossacks in order to discourage any public demonstrations. Although The Smug Citizen is no longer considered an important work, all of the controversy surrounding it insured its success at the time with the Russian public.
Gorky's second play, The Lower Depths (1902), however, was even more successful. Produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902, the play is full of striking characterizations, based mostly on outcasts Gorky had met during his travels. Like all of his novels, short stories, and plays, The Lower Depths was a protest against inhumanity, but Gorky not only wrote about the injustices of his society, he also acted against them. He continued to be involved in revolutionary activities, and his sympathies soon turned towards the Marxists. In fact, the earning from his plays, which were donated to support party activities, constituted a large portion of the organization's income. As a result of Gorky's activities, he also continued to be in and out of jail. During one prison sentence, he composed The Children of the Sun (1905). After the abortive revolution of 1905, in which he was involved, Gorky went abroad to raise money for the Marxists. During this period, he wrote Summer Folk (1903),! Barbarians (1906), and Enemies (1906), The Last Ones (1908), Queer People (1910), Vassa Zheleznova (1910). Russian theatres, however, were forbidden by the authorities to produce Enemies or The Last Ones. Gorky returned to Russia in 1914, just in time for World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Although he agreed with the Bolsheviks in opposing Russia's involvement in the war, he opposed their seizure of power in 1917 and publicly criticized Lenin's methods. Disillusioned with post-revolutionairy life, he again went abroad, this time to Italy, where he remained from 1922 to 1930.
In 1928, Gorky yielded to great public pressure to return to Russia, and upon his return, he was greeted with extravagant festivities. He died on June 14, 1936 at the age of sixty-eight, and there is a bit of a mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death. Although he was receiving treatment for tuberculosis, from which he had suffered ever since his failed suicide attempt at the age of 21, these treatments were standard, and his life was not considered to be in jeopardy. A police chief, Genrikh Yagoda, later confessed to having ordered his death, and although there has been no solid proof, some historians believe Yagoda was acting under orders from Stalin himself.
Gorky left behind a body of work that helped to found socialist realism. His other plays include The Zykovs (1914), The Old Man (1919), The Counterfeit Coin (1926), Yegor Bulychov (1931), and Dostegayev and Others (1933). In addition to his plays, novels, and short stories, he also wrote an autobiographical trilogy consisting of My Childhood (1914), In the World (1916), and My Universities (1923).
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