In 1906, after a botched insurrection the previous year in which he was briefly imprisoned, Maxim Gorky crept out of Russia illegally and made his way over continent and ocean to America. The Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party was behind the trip; they hoped that Gorky’s popularity as a writer and revolutionary would win friends to the cause, prevent the Tsarist Government from obtaining a loan from the United States, and most importantly, secure desperately needed funds for the revolution.
It began well. The foremost literary figures of New York—Jack London, Upton Sinclair, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain—formed a committee to welcome Gorky. In particular, Twain’s sympathies were well-known: “It is to be hoped that the roused nation, now rising in strength, will presently put an end to [the Government] and set up a republic in its place.” Though this statement might seem naïve to us a hundred years on (and especially after the events of the 20th century), at the time, the American Revolution served as a successful model for how Russian society might be transformed.
Gorky arrived in New York on April 10th in the company of Mme Andreeva and met up with his stepson and other Russian émigrés. He was immediately impressed. In a letter dated April 11, he wrote to a friend:
Well, Leonid, here is where you must visit. I mean it. It is such an amazing fantasy of stone, glass, and iron, a fantasy constructed by crazy giants, monsters longing after beauty, stormy souls full of wild energy. All these Berlins, Parises, and other ‘big’ cities are trifles in comparison with New York. Socialism should first be realized here—that is the first thing you think of when you see the amazing houses, machines, etc.
That evening, Gorky and Andreeva were honoured at a dinner hosted by the New York literary brahmins. Twain was the main speaker, and The New York Times covered the event:
“If we can build a Russian republic to give to the persecuted people of the Czar’s domain the same measure of freedom that we enjoy, let us go ahead and do it,” said Mark Twain. “We need not discuss the method by which that purpose is to be attained. Let us hope that fighting will be postponed or averted for a while, but if it must come—“. Mr Clemens’s hiatus was significant.
“I am most emphatically in sympathy with the movement now on foot in Russia to make that country free,” he went on. “I am certain that it will be successful, as it deserves to be. Anybody whose ancestors were in this country when we were trying to free ourselves from oppression must sympathize with those who now are trying to do the same thing in Russia.”
Through a translator, The Times also reported Gorky’s response:
“I feel at home, though the language of New York is not my own, and I do not understand a word of it. I never visited a place so kindling to my imagination. I had not been here one hour before I felt that this was the biggest city and the United States the greatest country on the face of the earth. This is the country of all countries to which the social revolutionists can look with hope. In this will be worked out the salvation of humanity.”
There was some talk that night that Gorky would be received at the White House.
This honour, however, never came to pass. In fact, Gorky was shortly scorned, abandoned by many of the literary community—Mark Twain among them. The American trip was cut short, and Gorky, having raised less than $10,000, considered it to be a complete failure.
On October 13, Gorky and Andreeva left New York. Two weeks later, he arrived in Naples and gave a brief statement to the press. The New York Times quietly reported that Gorky “was not dissatisfied with his trip” to New York and that he was, in fact, “sorry he could not remain there longer”. He announced his plan to spend several weeks in the Italian countryside writing a three-volume book on America.
Based on the series of sketches he wrote while in upstate New York (under the title V Amerike), there was some cause for trepidation. In these sketches, Gorky deplored the situation of the American worker, stating that American society enslaved man’s creative instincts by transforming the people into a machine-like mass. The three volumes he promised never appeared, but Gorky did express his disgust for the time he spent in America in a series of stories, most famously, The City of the Yellow Devil.
It should be noted that Gorky had visited other places he later excoriated. Before arriving in America, he stopped in Germany with the same mission, writing bitterly: “The law is a fetish here, a religion. This is why the Prussian is so repulsive and stupid. Only a revolution could save this self-satisfied race from spiritual death. But they do not want a revolution.” A few weeks later, angry that the government of France agreed to loan money to Russia, Gorky wrote in militant, uncompromising, emotional terms about the betrayal of the French. In this context, some negativity regarding America would not be out of character. His stories and articles about America went beyond this, however.
So what exactly happened?
Very simply, Gorky’s arrival in America triggered a cultural collision. A few well-placed comments by his political enemies, the rampant American press, a society of puritanical values, and Gorky’s inflammatory ways all combined to create cultural misunderstandings on both sides.
In Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography, Tova Yedlin writes: “The outcome of his mission was pretty well decided by two photographs that appeared on the front page of the World on April 14th. One was of Gorky and his ‘family’, the other of Andreeva with the caption: the so-called Mme Gorky who is not Mme Gorky at all but a Russian actress Andreeva, with whom he has been living since his separation of his wife a few years ago”.
America’s puritanical sensibilities required immediate action. Gorky and his party were swiftly evicted from their hotel and, in Yedlin’s words, “found themselves in the street, in the middle of the night, with their belongings piled up on the pavement in the rain”. The scandal was played out in the press much like scandals today on cable news programs, with a clamour of voices on both sides attacking, defending, ridiculing, stirring trouble, accusing, and calling for moderation all at the same time.
Gorky’s treatment by the American press was strongly condemned by many. HG Wells, a visitor to New York at the time, weighed in:
I do not know what motive actuated a certain section of the American press to initiate the pelting of Maxim Gorky. A passion for moral purity may have prompted it, but certainly no passion for moral purity ever before begot so brazen and abundant torrent of lies.
But there were deeper issues at play. To the well fed and politically naïve Americans, revolution was still a popular term. What it meant to them, however, was vastly different from Gorky’s ideas of revolution. The Americans believed that political change would bring about the establishment in Russia of a liberal and constitutional order. To Gorky it meant the overthrow of the despised Russian political system by whatever means necessary, followed by the complete transformation of Russian system—from serfdom to socialism.
More significantly, Russia was considered a ‘friendly’ government to America. Politicians and diplomats were unwilling to support a campaign to raise money for a cause that intended its overthrow. In fact, contrary to the rumours of a visit to the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt made his opinion quite clear when he wrote to Upton Sinclair on March 15th (less than a month before Gorky’s arrival):
The abortiveness of the late revolution in Russia sprang precisely from the fact that too much of the leadership was of the Gorky type and therefore the kind of leadership which can never lead anybody anywhere save into a serbonian bog.
Perhaps more than anything else, this sarcastic warning shows that the Gorky mission never had a chance. The President allowed the literati to play out their grand welcome, knowing that the deeply puritanical American society would soon put everyone in their proper place.
There’s no question that Gorky was bitter about his experience in America, but then, he was bitter about many things. His stay deepened his resentment of the economic inequalities of the capitalistic system. He wrote to friends that he had previously been only a reformer; the trip made him a true revolutionary.
The rest, as they say, is history.