Maksim Gor’kii’s essays reveal a range and variety at least as great as that of his fictional writing; indeed, at times it is not easy to keep the two apart. In a letter of 1930 he remarked that many of his own works combined the ocherk (sketch or essay) form with that of the story. Thus some of his most notable collections of the 1910s and early 1920s hover between the two genres: his Russkie skazki (1911–17; Russian tales) are satirical pieces on Russia’s political and cultural life in the years following the uprisings of 1905; the quasi-fictional form often provides only the thinnest of disguises for the individuals and occurrences on which they are based. Similarly, his Zametki iz dnevnika (1924; Fragments from My Diary) deals with actual events and at least ostensibly with actual people, though some of the depictions are sufficiently bizarre that Gor’kii would seem to have invented certain details. These highly fragmentary pieces in turn are closely related to his autobiographical writings, most notably his famous trilogy: Detstvo (1913;
My Childhood), V liudiakh (1914–16; My Apprenticeship), and Moi universitety (1923;
My Universities). Here, too, while the writing seems increasingly factual as Gor’kii moves from his childhood years into early adulthood, he appears to have included some fictional elements to enhance his narrative. As with Fragments from My Diary, it is Gor’kii’s eye for the striking detail that makes particular scenes or individuals memorable; the trilogy, though, is also distinguished by his ability to take portions of his life’s experiences and from them create a powerful effect by focusing on a handful of key themes.
Some of Gor’kii’s outstanding memoirs, while clearly works of nonfiction, reveal a literary flair that has led critics to discuss them alongside his belletristic productions.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in this mode is “Leo Tolstoi” (1919). Typically, the work is something of a miscellany, in this case combining a series of brief notes written nearly two decades earlier, when the two writers were both spending time in the Crimea due to ill health, and a long letter originally composed after Tolstoi’s death in 1910. The initial impression is that Gor’kii pulled together random jottings and then filled out his essay with an old letter; only upon a careful reading (or rereading) does it become clear that the choice and ordering of the often startling observations and quotations create one of the most revealing biographical sketches of Tolstoi ever written. Gor’kii occasionally wrote about political figures (most notably, Lenin) and various individuals from his past, but the most remarkable of his memoirs tend to be devoted to writers, such as “Leonid Andreev” (1919) and “Anton Chekhov” (1904, 1923). Typically, at least part of the essay is composed under the immediate influence of the subject’s death, and rather than attempt a full biography, Gor’kii relies heavily on a series of anecdotes, many based on his own contacts with the individual, to provide illuminating insights that finally coalesce into a coherent and effective portrayal.
Thus the satirical writings, the autobiographical sketches, and the memoirs devoted to prominent individuals are all distinguished by a purposefully fragmentary method of writing that tends to highlight the individual description or anecdote, often to the detriment of conventional notions as to what would constitute a well-made work. The autobiographical trilogy and a few of the memoirs maintain at least a chronological coherence and a sense of structure; however, in, for instance, the Tolstoi memoir and especially Fragments from My Diary Gor’kii challenges the reader to create meaning from the natural disjointedness of real life.
Not all of Gor’kii’s essays contain so strong a literary flair, not even those pieces devoted specifically to questions of writing. “Besedy o remesle” (1930–31; “Chats on Craftsmanship”) uses autobiographical examples in a relatively straightforward manner to show other writers how actual experience can be translated into literature. A similar manner pervades his purely political writing. An example is his “Zametki o meshchanstve” (1905; “Notes on the Bourgeois Mentality”), one of his earliest major articles, where he accuses the bourgeoisie of, among many other things, a limited outlook, total self-absorption, a determination to maintain the status quo, and a concern only with its own comfort and well-being. He is if anything even harsher in his judgment of the peasant class; “O russkom krest’ianstve” (1922; “On the Russian Peasantry”) expresses virulent dislike toward a class that he sees as resistant to the new revolutionary order. His strong political commitment to bolshevism appears as well in “Gorod Zheltogo d’iavola” (1906; “City of the Yellow Devil”), written under the influence of his hostile reception in New York and containing a scathing denunciation of American capitalism (in a manner far more one-sided than the actual personal opinions he expressed in his correspondence at the time). After the revolution the capitalist world represents for him an amalgam of social ills and anti-Soviet hostility. For instance, in his “S kem vy, ‘mastera kul’tury’” (1932; “Whose Side Are You On, ‘Masters of Culture’”), Gor’kii remains opposed to capitalist bourgeois culture but has much nicer things to say about Russian peasants, or at least about those who have come to accept the Communist Party’s edicts encouraging collectivization and outlawing private ownership of the land.
However, around the time of the revolution itself Gor’kii expressed many doubts about the direction it was taking. These were eloquently expressed in his columns appearing in the newspaper Novaia Zhizn’ (New life) from Spring 1917 until Summer 1918 and subsequently published under the title of their rubric, Nesvoevremennye mysli (Untimely Thoughts). He mistrusts the Bolsheviks’ desire (and rush) for power, their shrill propaganda, and most of all the violence they are committing in their efforts to consolidate their rule.
Underlying most of Gor’kii’s essays is a strong humanistic thrust. He opposes those who, no matter how loyal they may be to an abstract ideal, are too harsh in their judgment of people. His disagreement with Dostoevskii’s attitude toward individuals led to the bitter attack in “O Karamazovshchine” (1913; “On Karamazovism”), on the staging of a play based on Dostoevskii’s great novel. His early opposition to the Bolsheviks, like that to the bourgeoisie in general, is based on a sense that they commit too much violence against their fellow men and also that they are in some way inimical to culture, which Gor’kii sees as the main path by which humanity can progress. That Gor’kii himself, in other essays, ended up supporting those who committed the very sins he attacked elsewhere, remains one of the paradoxes, and tragedies, of his career.
Born Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, 28 March 1868 in Nizhnii Novgorod. Lost his parents early and worked in various odd jobs, from age II; self-taught. Attempted suicide, 1887; wandered through southern Russia, 1888–89, 1891–92. Published his first story in Kavkaz newspaper, Tbilisi, 1892; wrote for various periodicals in the Volga region, from 1892. Married Ekaterina Pavlovna Volzhina, 1896 (later separated): one son and one daughter. Arrested and briefly imprisoned for revolutionary activities, 1898, 1901.
Literary editor, Zhizn’ (Life), from 1899; editor, Znanie publishing house, St. Petersburg, from 1900; became involved in a secret printing press, and temporarily exiled to Arzamas, central Russia, 1902. Elected to the Russian Academy, 1902, but election declared invalid by the government: several members of the Academy resigned in protest.
Joined the Bolshevik Party, 1905, and supported the 1905 Revolution. Traveled to the United States, 1906; lived on the island of Capri, 1906–13, then returned to Russia.
Founding editor, Letopis’ (Chronicles), 1915–17, and Novaia Zhizn’, 1917–18; helped to launch a series of world classics by Vsemirnaia literatura (World literature) publishing house. Left Russia, 1921, and spent three years at various German and Czech spas; editor, Dialogue, Berlin, 1923–25, and in Sorrento, 1924–33. Visited Russia, from 1928, and settled there, 1933; assumed various editorial posts in Russia, from 1930. Participated in the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers, 1934. Awards: Order of Lenin, 1932. Died (in suspicious circumstances) near Moscow, 18 June 1936.
Essays and Related Prose
Nesvoevremennye mysli, 1917–18; edited by Herman Ermolaev, 1971; as Untimely Thoughts, translated by Herman Ermolaev, 1968
Revoliutsiia i kultura (Revolution and culture), 1918
O russkom krest’ianstve, 1922; as On the Russian Peasantry, translated anonymously, 1976
Zametki iz dnevnika, 1924; as Fragments from My Diary, translated anonymously, 1924, and by Moura Budberg, 1972, revised edition, 1975
O literature, 1933; revised edition, 1935, 1955; as On Literature: Selected Articles, translated by Julius Katzer and Ivy Litvinova, 1960
Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Cbekhov and Andreyev, translated by Katherine Mansfield, S.S.Kotelianski, Virginia Woolf, and Leonard Woolf, 1934
Articles and Pamphlets, 1951
The City of the Yellow Devil: Pamphlets, Articles and Letters About America, translated anonymously, 1972
Literary Portraits (vol. 9 of Collected Works), 1982
On Literature (vol. 10 of Collected Works), 1982
Other writings: many novels (including Foma Gordeev, 1899; Mat’ [Mother], 1906;
Zhizn’ Matveia Kozhemiakina [The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin], 1910–11; Delo Artamonovykh [The Artamonov Business], 1925; Zhizn’ Klima Samgina, 1925–36), short stories (including Russkie skazki, 1911–17), plays, three volumes of autobiography (1913–23), and letters.
Collected works editions: Sobranie sochinenii, 25 vols., 2nd edition, 1933–34;
Sobranie sochinenii, 30 vols., 1949–56; Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (includes Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 25 vols., 1968–76, and Varianty k kbudozhestvennym proizvedeniiam, 10 vols., 1974–82), 1968–(in progress); Collected Works, 10 vols., 1978–82.
Clowes, Edith, Maxim Gorky: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1987
Terry, Garth M., Maxim Gorky in English: A Bibliography, 1868–1986, Nottingham: Astra Press, 1986
Barratt, Andrew, “Maksim Gorky’s Autobiographical Trilogy: The Lure of Myth and the Power of Fact,” AUMLA 80 (November 1993):57–79
Bialik, Boris, Gor’kii—Literaturnyi kritik, Moscow: GIKhL, 1960
Borras, F.M., Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpretation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967
Clowes, Edith W., “Gorky, Nietzsche and God-Building,” in Fifty Years On: Gorky and His Time, edited by Nicholas Luker, Nottingham: Astra Press, 1987
Hare, Richard, Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary, London: Oxford University Press, 1962
Jackson, Robert L., “Gor’kij’s Polemic with Dostoevskij,” Russian Literature 24 (1988):503–16
Muchnic, Helen, “Gorky from Chaliapin to Lenin,” in her Russian Writers: Notes and Essays, New York: Random House, 1971
Ovcharenko, A.I., Publitsistika M.Gor’kogo, Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 2nd edition, 1965
Pel’t, Vladimir Danilovich, M.Gor’kii—zhurnalist (1928–1936), Moscow: Moskovskii universitet, 1968
Pritchett, V.S., “The Young Gorky,” in his The Living Novel, New York: Random House, revised edition, 1964 (original edition, 1946)
Rougle, Charles, Three Russians Consider America: America in the Works of Maksim Gor’kij, Aleksandr Blok, and Vladimir Majakovskij, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1976
Scherr, Barry P., Maxim Gorky, Boston: Twayne, 1988
Scherr, Barry P., “Gorky’s Skazki: Structure and Genre,” in The Short Story in Russia, 1900–1917, edited by Nicholas Luker, Nottingham: Astra Press, 1991
Spiridonova, L., M. Gor’kii: Dialog s istoriei, Moscow: Nasledie, 1994
Steinberg, Mark D., Introduction to Untimely Thoughts by Gor’kii, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995
Todd, William Mills, III, “Gor’kij’s Essay on the Peasantry: Framing the Mirror,” Russian Literature 24 (1988):555–68
Weil, Irwin, Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life, New York: Random House, 1966
Wolfe, Bertram D., The Bridge and the Abyss: The Troubled Friendship of Maxim Gorky and V.I.Lenin, New York: Praeger, and London: Pall Mall Press, 1967
Yedlin, Tova, “The Political Career of Maxim Gorky, 1884–1921,” in Russian and Eastern European History, edited by R.C. Elwood, Berkeley, California: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1984
Zhak, L.P., Ot zamysla k voploshcheniiu: V tvorcheskoi masterskoi M.Gor’kogo, Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel’, 2nd edition, 1983
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