Maxim Gorki was born at Nijni-Novgorod in 1868 or 1869; he is not sure of the year of his birth. His parents were poor people, and they died when he was a boy, leaving him penniless. He apprenticed himself to a shoemaker, but, tiring of the trade, ran away, and worked with an engraver, then with a painter of icons, then with a cook, then with a gardener, then again with a cook, on board a steamboat. This cook was a reader of novels, and Gorki began to read Gogol and Dumas. He was taken, he tells us, with a “ferocious desire” to learn, and he left the steamboat and made his way to Kazan, thinking that a poor fellow could be taught for nothing. He found that it was not the custom, and he got work at a baker’s, living on twelve roubles a month. When he could endure the bakery no longer he began to wander about, reading, learning all that he could, living with vagabonds, sometimes drinking, sometimes working, a sawyer, a coal-heaver, a gatekeeper, a street seller of apples or of kvass. He made the acquaintance of a lawyer, who helped him and lent him books ; but he was soon wandering again, and it was in an obscure provincial paper that he published his first story, “Makar Tchoudra,” a gipsy narrative in which he had not yet learnt to use his strange material simply. In 1893 he met Korolenko, the novelist, who interested himself in him, and helped him to publish one of his stories, “Tchelkache.”
“I was born outside society, and for that reason I cannot take in a strong dose of its culture, without soon feeling forced to get outside it again, to wipe away the infinite complications, the sickly refinements, of that kind of existence. I like either to go about in the meanest streets of towns, because, though everything there is dirty, it is all simple and sincere; or else to wander about in the high roads and across the fields, because that is always more interesting; it refreshes one morally, and needs no more than a pair of good legs to carry one.”
It is this feeling, the feeling which first made him a wanderer, that has made him a writer, and his stories are made directly out of the life which he has lived. In many of them he appears under his own name, telling the story as if it were something which had actually happened to him.
To Gorki the vagabond is the most interesting failure in the world, where everything must be a failure. He has affirmed his independence, he has been resolutely himself, he has had the energy to stand up against the inevitable, realising at least his own courage, perhaps his own strength. Unlike most others, he knows that he has only himself to rely on in the world, and that it is only that self which matters.
Arthur Symons, Studies in Prose and Verse, 1904
Gorky henceforth rejects all traditional methods, and free and untrammelled devotes himself to frankly and directly interpreting life as he sees it. As he has, so far, only lived in the society of tramps, himself a tramp, and one of the most refractory, it has been reserved for him to write the poem of vagrancy.
Maxime Gorky, Twenty-Six and One and other stories from the Vagabond series, preface by Ivan Strannik, 1902