This article originally appeared in the April 12, 1947, issue of The Nation.
In Gorki’s masterwork, “The Lower Depths,” his greatest gifts shine most clearly: his immense—but not quite profound—perception, his concern for the wretchedness of people, his almost romantic preoccupation with nature. And here, above all, is a carefully controlled rage at the lot of men and an insistence on their noble destiny.
In so far as one can tell from this translation, however—which, by the way, seems most uneven—he is far from a careful writer and by no means a great one. He is almost always painfully verbose and frequently threatens to degenerate into simple propaganda..
But though this wordiness persists in every story in the book, in such pieces as Creatures That Once Were Men, In Cain and Artyom; and in such pieces as Red, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, and Chums, the power of Gorki’s sympathy almost succeeds in reducing his flaws to unimportance. There is ironic penetration and great tenderness here which none of the contemporary realists whom Gorki helped to father have yet managed to match. But having said that he is tender, ironic and observant, and that most of his descendants are not, it must also be admitted that he is also quite frequently sentimental—as are his offspring—and that, regardless of how well they succeed as outraged citizens, they are incomplete as artists.
Gorki’s range is narrow and in intention and effect alike he can scarcely be called subtle. He reiterates: men can be gods and they live like beasts; this he relates, quite legitimately, indeed necessarily, to a particular and oppressive society. (“And the men, too, the first source of all that uproar, were ludicrous and pitiable: their little figures dusty, tattered, nimble, bent under the weight of goods t hat lay on their backs, under the weight of cares that drove them hither and thither…were so trivial and small in comparison with the colossal iron monsters…and all that they had created. Their own creation had enslaved them and taken away their individuality.) This is a disquieting and honest report. Its only limitation, and it is a profound one, is that it remains a report. Gorki does not seem capable of the definitive insight, the shock of identification. Again and again we recognize a type with this human attributes sensitively felt and well reported but never realized. For this reason Gorki’s sympathy is often mawkish, his denouements a brutal and self-consciously sardonic trick. He is concerned, not with the human as such, but with the human being as a symbol; and this attitude is basically sentimental, pitying, rather than clear, and therefore—in spite of the boast of realism—quite thoroughly unreal. There can be no catharsis in Gorki, in spite of the wealth of action and his considerable powers of observation; his people inspire pity and sometimes rage but never love or terror. Finally we are divorced from them; we see them in relation to oppression but not in relation to ourselves. In the short story, The Hermit, the lack of psychological acuteness he brings to a story intended to show the power of virtue (Love) and the roads taken to attain it make for a devastating and characteristic failure.
And yet Gorki was possessed by a rare sympathy for people. Such work as Cain and Artyom and even the rather superficial Red and the delightful Going Home would be impossible if this were not so. But his sympathy did not lead him to that peculiar position of being at once identified with and detached from the humans that he studied. He is never criminal, judge and hangman simultaneously—and yet indubitably Gorki. His failure was that he did not speak as a criminal but spoke for them; and operated, consciously or not, not as an artist and a prophet but as a reporter and a judge.
It seems to me that in Gorki’s failure can be found the key to the even more dismal failure of present-day realistic novelists. For as a school they do not even have that sympathy which activated Gorki. They do not ever indicate what Gorki sometimes succeeded in projecting—the unpredictability and the occasional and amazing splendor of the human being. It is a concept which today, and this is understandable, if alarming, is dismissed as mystic or unreal. Without the insight into the mainsprings of human needs, desperations and desires, the concern with squalor remains merely squalid and acts to brutalize the reader rather than to purge him. If literature is not to drop completely to the intellectual and moral level of the daily papers we must recognize the need for further and honest exploration of those provinces, the human heart and mind, which have operated, historically and now, as the no man’s land between us and our salvation.