Innocents At Home

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H. G. Wells, in The Future in America , recorded the curious story of his search for Gorky. When he tried to discover the Russians the next night, he couldn’t find a trace. Wells was astounded at the change in attitude that had come over the city in those few hours. “On one day Gorky was at the zenith,” Wells wrote later, “on the next he had been swept from the world. … It was terrifying. I wanted to talk to Gorky about it, to find out the hidden springs of this amazing change. I spent a Sunday evening looking for him. … I had a quaint conversation with the clerk of the hotel in Fifth Avenue from which he had first been driven. Europeans can scarcely hope to imagine the moral altitudes at which American hotels are conducted. … I went thence to see Mr. Abraham Cahan in the East Side, and thence to other people I knew, but in vain. Gorky was obliterated.”

Reporters too tried to find the obliterated man. They too called on Mr. Cahan, who assured them Gorky was living in a cottage owned by a Mr. Miller, editor of a progressive paper called Die Wahrheit. It was a spacious cottage, Cahan said, with a lovely view overlooking the Botanical Gardens. They went to Mr. Miller, who addressed them in apocalyptic terms. “Gorky,” he announced, “is cut off from the whole world. Only one man knows where he is [Miller was not the man], and he is under oath not to divulge the secret or even that he knows it. … All I know is that Gorky has not left the city, and I do not think he will do so, but his quarters of today will not be his quarters of tomorrow.” The World, which had sunk Gorky, now most assiduously sought him, sending a reporter frequently to Club A, where a series of whispering women told him they didn’t know where Gorky was, and where he saw “a cordon of determined young men with high foreheads who stood at the foot of the stairs and barred ascent to the upper floors.”

Reaction to “the Gorky affair” was swift and varied. Most New York editorials expressed satisfaction with the exile’s exile from society; others felt American inns were endangered as long as Gorky remained in the nation; and the Sunday Times was caught between the praise of its Magazine Section, which had gone to press before the story broke—“he has the tongue of the poet, the heart of the poet—a Burns fired with a infinite pity and zeal”—and the censure of Section One. A far-flung Herald correspondent wired from Yalta an interview with Gorky’s wife. She was, she told the correspondent, “very indignant at the intrusion into the personal and intimate life of a man, and astonished that the Americans, citizens of a free country, are not free from the prejudices dead already even with us in Russia.” Parisian opinion was outraged at New York’s treatment of the novelist. “The inordinate and absurd regime of women in the United States” was held to blame, and the French expected Twain to demolish these “fresh manifestations of the outworn feminine pietist” with a brisk satirical charge.

Twain charged, all right, but in the opposite direction. In late April, he wrote The Gorki Incident . This fable, unpublished in his lifetime, tells of a savage, found in his customary nudity in Tierra del Fuego, who is brought to England, taught to dress, becomes a favorite of society, and is invited to the King’s ball. Donning what he considers his native and most noble costume, he appears at the palace nude, scandalizing king and court. The moral of the tale, in which Gorky is named only in the title and in the next-to-last paragraph, is an unusual one for a satirist: know and obey convention.

The New York Sun faced the incident more squarely, inquiring in an editorial: “Must revolution, to have the support of American amateurs … clothe itself in immaculate and conventional respectability and observe rigidly the tenets of morality…?”Like Twain, the Sun concluded that it must.

It was the American concept of immaculate revolution that Colonel Nikolayev, the chief of Russia’s diplomatic intelligence service in Washington, had counted on to assist him when, in March, he learned of Gorky’s intended visit. The Colonel’s simple counterplot to the rebel’s arrival was based on the conviction that Americans, although they might rush to the call of revolution, would defect at the mention of a mistress. The Colonel possessed photographs of Gorky’s wife and children, and it was he who had supplied the World , which then had the largest circulation of any New York paper, with the pictures. (The World did not credit Russian Intelligence for its assistance; it was only much later that the embassy’s plotting of the exposé was proven.) As if the story had done more damage than the editors intended, the next day the World mentioned Gorky in two editorials that ran side by side—one calmly extolling his writing, coneluding that “but for the comparative narrowness of his field, he might be called the Zola of Russia”; the other blandly remarking how interesting it was to have so many talented authors visiting America—Jerome K. Jerome recently, and now both Wells and Gorky.