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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Maksim Gorky (1868–1936)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Johnston
“MAXIM THE BITTER”—this is a pseudonym which it is better to translate—has given us a pen-picture of New York, written while he was in this country and staying at Staten Island, within sight of the great city. We may well read this study, to find the answer to the question: Is Gorky true to life? What he says of New York is livid rather than vivid; it is not so much inspired, as delirious; the color is lurid and fantastical, like a many-hued bouquet of flowers under the stark, yellow flame of sodium; the people he depicts in the streets are like the corpse-hued faces lit by a mercury-vapor lamp: It is all frightfully morbid, but it is something more: it is poignant, arresting, enthralling us from beginning to end, long after we have dismissed the idea of its verity. It is, indeed, New York lit up by a ghastly monochrome, the lurid color of Gorky’s morbid soul.  1
  Russia is, in a sense, a land of mysteries. Perhaps what Gorky writes is true and real there—as in the wonderland of Pushkin’s Prologue to ‘Ruslan and Liudmila’ there were strange things and horrible. We have, as it happens, an admirable answer to this question also. Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, who knew Russia, Russian, and Russians as few beyond her borders have known them, gives it. In measure, he says, as one advances into this gallery of etchings, their variety—which it would be unjust not to recognize—is submerged in a uniform sensation of overwhelming sadness; a heavy nightmare agonizes the spirit and becomes intolerable as it is prolonged. It is in vain that Gorky has scattered over the great roadways and dispersed in picturesque frames the lamentable children of his fancy; the memory which they obsess ends by confusing them, and bringing them all together into the doss-house kept by Captain Kuvalda, retired, the den in which “The Creatures that once were Men” each evening find each other. Gorky has brought together in this social hell the most typical of his models; they come to chatter between drunken hiccups; they turn, these condemned monomaniacs, in their irksome circle: they argue and drink, they drink and argue. The lucid analysis which they make of their moral maladies is ended in the crock of vodka, in which they drown their consciences. One may say of their historian that he paints in vodka; this special humanity literally bathes in alcohol; it flows from page to page, its vapors enfold all Gorky’s work in a lurid, gloomy cloud, like those which he gathers in the gray skies that habitually overhang his landscapes. To read him, one might think Russia was nothing but a huge tavern in a gloomy vault, stinking of sweat, of tallow, of coal-oil, where ragged vagabonds idle, whine, curse, spitting their truths into each others’ faces, and finally founder in an ocean of vodka…. It is too much. The heart-sick reader pleads for mercy. With disgust and weariness he closes the book begun with pleasure. The repetition of these dark and troubled images leaves in him the nausea of the morning after a drunken debauch….  2
  One may ask oneself why anyone should write like this. “Maxim the Bitter” seems to have put to himself the same question. In a strange story called ‘The Reader,’ a gloomy phantom, which perhaps personifies his conscience, thus addresses him:
          “Thou art too poor to give men something precious; what thou givest them, thou givest not at all for the high satisfaction of enriching life with beautiful thoughts and beautiful words, but far rather in order that the accidental fact of thy existence may become something necessary to society. Thou givest in order to take more from life and from men…. Dost thou know at least how to love men?…”
In reply, Gorky makes his Apologia thus:
          “I discover in myself many good feelings and wholesome aspirations: a sufficient quantity of what is commonly called goodness; but the feeling which should unite all the others, the clear and constructive thought that orders all the phenomena of life, I do not find in myself…. What can I say to men? That which has always been said and will always be said, that which gathers listeners, but does not make them better. Have I the right to preach my ideas to them, while I myself, deeply penetrated by them as I am, often do the opposite of what they command?”
  He paints in vodka; he gathers listeners, but does not make them better: perhaps that is the deepest criticism, once we have recorded his lurid brilliance, his bitter intensity, his rhythmic mastery of words. A somewhat sententious historian of literature has said of Webster the dramatist, that “his terrible and funereal muse was Death”; of Swift, that he blew bubbles of vitriol. Perhaps something of both judgments might be applied to Gorky; but one must add the barbaric richness and vastness of his nation. One thinks of two or three ghastly pictures by his fellow-countryman, Verestchagin, the pyramid of skulls, the Turkish refugees, freezing to death; one remembers Musorgski’s grim and grisly music which depicts the battle-haunting raven. In both, there is something of Gorky’s flavor. Had Verestchagin and Musorgski gained sudden success by just these things, they might have been tempted to repeat and imitate them, and, finally, have found themselves unable to return to sane human life. So we have almost identical personages in ‘My Childhood,’ ‘Mother,’ ‘Foma Godeyeff,’ ‘In the Abyss,’ ‘The Creatures that Once Were Men,’ and all the rest of his stories and plays; and, finally, with ludicrous inappropriateness, in Central Park and Madison Square. One wonders what may have become of Gorky’s Russian personages, since the law prohibiting vodka has been in force. Have they all reformed, grown prosperous and happy,—have they entered the army, in a company commanded by Captain Kuvalda,—or do they still meet in some surreptitious doss-house, soaking and whining and catching at each other’s throats? One wonders where Gorky would find models, in a Russia without vodka.  4
  Alexei Maximovitch Pyeshkov (“Maksim Gorky”) was born in Nijni Novgorod, the city of the great fair, in the back room of a dyer’s shop. His mother Varvara Kashirina was the dyer’s daughter. His father Maxim Pyeshkov was an upholsterer. But at four his father died, his mother three years later, and he began a life of wandering. For a little while he stayed with his grandfather, a tyrannous old soldier of Nicholas I., but life there was unendurable. He fled and took refuge with a shoemaker, serving him as an apprentice. Running away again, he was, by turns, a painter, an engraver, a gardener, a dishwasher on a Volga boat. Smuri, the cook, an old soldier, had a trunk of old books. He taught the boy to read, and introduced him to the world of living phantoms. Gogol, Dumas, the Saints, furiously he consumed them all. Then at Kazan, on the elbow of the interminable Volga, he worked for a baker, from his sixteenth to his eighteenth year: “those two years were the hardest in my whole life.” Then came further wanderings down the Volga. When he was twenty-four, he began to write, very rapidly making a mark. At thirty-one, he came to Petrograd and became the hero of the sensation-seeking youth. Since then, he has been a figure of world notoriety, wondered at, rather than loved.  5

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