Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters

Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters

Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters

Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters


This volume presents a collection of letters by one of the most important figures in the literary and intellectual life of Russia in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Covering the years between 1889 and Gorky's death in 1936, this selection allows Gorky to tell the story of his life in his own words, and supplies a unique and fascinating commentary on the cultural and political developments in which he was so profoundly engaged. His letters are of considerable interest in terms of their representation of the development of Russian literature, the light they shed on many writers and cultural-political figures of the period (including Lenin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Pasternak) and as period documents in their own right.


'How am I? The same as ever, Mariia Zakharovna -- resdess.' These are Gorky's own words in a letter of 1899 to his friend Mariia Basargina (Letter 17) and they serve as a useful epigraph to any account of his early life. Whilst one might suspect a degree of youthful posturing here -- 'restless' was certainly one of the writer's favourite terms of self-definition at this time (see Letter 7, for example) -- the bare facts of his biography speak for the aptness of the epithet.

As any reader of Gorky's autobiographical trilogy will confirm, the future writer's childhood, youth, and adolescence make for a tale of extreme and virtually unrelieved deprivation, both material and emotional. Born Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov on 16 March 1868, Gorky was only three years old when calamity first struck. His father, a carpenter and cabinet-maker by trade, died after contracting cholera during one of the epidemics which were the scourge of the Volga region at the time. As a result, his mother returned to Nizhnii Novgorod, to the home of her parents, the Kashirins, in whose care the young Gorky was to be left. In effect, the boy was abandoned by his mother, for he saw very little of her from that time onwards except for a short period before her death from tuberculosis in 1879.

Life with the 'Kashirin tribe' (as his grandparents' family is so unflatteringly described in the autobiography) was a harsh and often desperate affair. The root of the trouble was the rapid decline of the family business, a dye shop, which was losing custom to competing enterprises of greater technological sophistication. As their fortunes worsened, so too did relations among the family members. Disharmony gave way to physical violence, which in turn inspired Gorky's grandfather to agree to the division of such assets as the family possessed, which act itself only precipitated the financial ruin of them all. Given the circumstances, it is easy to see why the young Gorky was viewed by his grandfather as an unnecessary encumbrance and how it was that, shortly after the death of his mother, the boy was sent away at the age of eleven to work for a living.

Although he returned to the Kashirin household on a number of occasions over the following years, Gorky spent the bulk of his time away from his family. His first job -- as an assistant in a shoe shop -- was succeeded by a series of equally menial, and sometimes degrading occupations. These experiences were truly soul-destroying and far worse in most respects than life had been at his grandparents', where he had at least known some degree of love and care. Now that he was out in the world, he witnessed the Russian provinces at their very worst. Venal, brutal . . .

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