- Historic Sites
Innocents At Home
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
Gorky was glad to be in America. He looked forward not only to raising funds to promote revolution at home, but to a long rest. He had tuberculosis and he was weary. Thirty-eight years old, black-haired, with a black, drooping mustache, he gave the appearance of being both melancholy and powerful. The last six years had been crowded with work, danger, and sudden fame. Before the ama/ing success of his first book, Sketches and Stories , published in 1898 when he was thirty, Gorky had roamed through much of Russia, earning his living in various ways—gardening, dish washing, singing in a choir, working in a bakery, peddling liquor—and his writings, drawn from those years of tramping the land, portrayed a Russia new to literature. One hundred thousand copies of his collected stories were rapidly sold—an enormous sale for a country largely illiterate. After this success, and at the urging of his new friend Chekhov, Gorky turned to drama, changing and expanding it as radically as he had the short story, by focussing on the derelict and poor and presenting harsher, sharper scenes of life than audiences were accustomed to. His The Lower Depths , produced in Moscow in 1902, appalled conservative critics but fascinated audiences both in Russia and abroad. Gorky did not confine the expression of his revolutionary feelings to literature. He spoke against the Czar’s regime at forbidden meetings, helped collect money for guns and propaganda, and in 1905 was arrested and imprisoned for his activities. Only international protest—from Anatole France, Rodin, Monet, and from artists, scientists, statesmen, and even industrialists in Europe and America—forced the govern: ment to release him in March. In December, 1905, he took active part in a violent Moscow uprising, then escaped to Finland, and then moved on to Berlin, where even the Crown Prince turned out to hear him read. Alter a stopover in Switzerland, he headed lor America.
On Wednesday, his first full day in New York, Gorky looked out of his ninth-story windows at the Belleclaire and was impressed. “Striking,” he wrote that morning to the playwright Leonid Andreev. “Broadway stretches for about five versts. Central Park, a sea of houses, the harbor, and the Hudson River—all this is at our feet. And from the depths of dark city blocks, buildings of twenty-eight, of thirty-three stories rise skyward. It is all stupendous.” Later that morning he told reporters, whom he met wearing boots, black pants, and peasant blouse, that the long view reminded him of his native Nizhni Novgorod, that the Hudson seemed the Volga. He felt at home, he said. All day people called to pay their respects—among them a member of the Nihilist Central Committee anil a former American ambassador to Turkey—and various organizations proudly announced their plans for dinners to be given in Gorky’s honor. The East Side Socialists were planning a banquet; the Aldine Association, a publishers’ club, was planning a luncheon for l he following Wednesday; and the literary dinner proposed by Mark Twain was slowly taking form.
That evening Gorky, with his adopted son Peshkov in low, attended two dinners in his honor. The first was held at Club A, and was mainly an organizational alfair. Gorky, in a blue blouse, sat next to Twain, and young Peshkov acted as interpreter. The two authors delivered short speeches of salute and of encouragement to the revolution. Twain, Gorky said, was “a man of force—one who, when he strikes a blow, strikes hard,” and indeed, Twain’s brief address was forceful. “If we can build a Russian republic to give the persecuted people of the Czar’s domain the same measure of freedom that we enjoy,” he said, “let us go ahead and do it. We need not discuss the methods 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’ hiatus, the Times reported, was significant.
A fund-raising committee had been formed and its imposing membership list was read aloud: Mr. Samuel Clemens, Mr. William Dean Howells, Mr. Finley Peter Dunne, Miss Jane Addams, and—novelists and publishers—Mr. Robert Collier, Mr. Robert Hunter, and Mr. David Graham Phillips.
Gorky left Club A early in order to attend a dinner thai Gaylord Wilshire was giving for him and for H. G. Wells, who had also recently arrived in town. Edwin Markham, still famous for “The Man With the Hoe,” was there too. The party was chatty and informal. After the meal the guests drank Russian tea and smoked Russian cigarettes, and Gorky announced to a reporter that his favorite American author was Mark Twain, and then again Walt Whitman too, and finally Edgar Allan Poe as well. He admired them all. On his second night in New York, Gorky was in high spirits: “America,” he said, “is home as soon as one sets loot on its shores.”
The next morning, Thursday, April 12, the Times headlined its story of the dinner at Club A: GORKY AND MARK TWAIN PLEAD FOR REVOLUTION . The World was running a series called “Socialism in America—What It Means,” composed of letters from its readers. Politically speaking, there was an incendiary air about Manhattan that made the eruptions of Vesuvius that week seem timely and apropos.