Maxim Gorky

On this date in 1868, Alexei Maximovitch Peshkov, who later renamed himself Maxim Gorky, was born in the village of Nizhny Novgorod, today called Gorky. After his father died when Alexei was 5, he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather made him quit school at age 8 to go to work. At 12, he ran away, and endured so many bitter hardships trying to survive that he later adopted the name "Gorky," which means "The Bitter One." After trying unsuccessfully at age 21 to commit suicide by shooting himself, Peshkov suffered from lifelong bouts of tuberculosis as the result of damage to his lungs. Gorky undertook a 2-year walking journey as a "tramp," becoming familiar with Russia's oppressed underclass. At 24, he became a reporter and began writing sympathetically about the outcasts, derelicts, petty criminals and prostitutes he had encountered, thus becoming a folk hero. His first collection of short stories was published to great acclaim in 1898. Chekhov befriended Gorky, introducing him to theatrical producers, who invited him to write his first plays. "The Smug Citizen" (1902), created an uproar, although "The Lower Depths" (1902) has endured. He was invited by a host of writers and dignitaries to speak in the United States in 1906. When the New York World pilloried Gorky for supposedly traveling with a woman he was not married to, many sponsors, such as Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt, withdrew their support, although some, such as H.G. Wells, stood by him. Gorky, sympathetic to the Marxist cause to overthrow the government, was periodically jailed, and finally exiled from Russia for several years. Critical of the Bolsheviks and Lenin, he went on a self-imposed exile throughout the 1920s, until one of his harshest critics, Stalin, invited him home. Although Gorky was criticized for endorsing some of Stalin's policies, he is credited with saving the lives of several writers. Gorky's many books and plays include Summer Folk (1903), Barbarians (1906), Enemies (1906), The Last Ones (1908), The Counterfeit Coin (1926), Yegor Bulychov (1931), and an autobiographical trilogy, My Childhood (1914), In the World (1916), and My Universities (1923). The circumstances of his death were murky. While it is possible he may finally have succumbed to tuberculosis or natural causes, he may also have been ordered killed by Stalin. His writings are strongly humanistic and rationalist. D. 1936.

“This 'search for God' business must be forbidden for a time--it is a perfectly useless occupation.”

—Maxim Gorky, quoted in Who's Who in Hell, edited by Warren Allen Smith. Also cited by by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace in The People's Almanac.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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