Maxim Gorky, born Alexi Maximovich Peshkov in 1868, was one of those rare proletarian writers who actually came from the proletariat. While Count Lev Tolstoy, who would later develop a friendship with Gorky, would wear peasant shirts and sympathize with the poor, Gorky actually knew what it was like to be poor. His working-class father died of cholera in 1871, and two years later his mother left him to be brought up by his grandparents. After his mother died of tuberculosis in 1879, his grandfather sent the 11-year-old boy to work in a shoe store, the first in a series of menial jobs. Lacking any sort of formal schooling from that point on, the young boy gave himself his own education, reading whenever and wherever he could.
As a teenager, he encountered the short stories of Anton Chekhov, who would later have a profound impact on his life. After a botched Christmas Eve suicide attempt when he was nineteen (following the deaths of his grandparents), Gorky wandered about, periodically getting in trouble with the law for being a suspected subversive. In 1892, he published his first short story, and used Maxim Gorky (which means "bitter") as a pen name. He continued to have success with his writings. In 1898 he sent his two volumes of collected stories to Chekhov, beginning a life-long correspondence and friendship.
In 1900, Chekhov introduced Gorky to the Moscow Art Theatre and urged him to write a play. His first finished play, The Philistines, was heavily censored when it was performed in 1902. Later that year the Moscow Art Theatre premiered The Lower Depths, directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, who also played the role of Satin. The play soon became an international success. The increasingly political Gorky turned over a good deal of his profits from the play to the Russian Social Democratic Party after meeting one of the party's rising stars, Vladimir Lenin.
Gorky had a falling out with the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904. The theatre's co-founder, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, heavily criticized Gorky's play Summerfolk. Though Gorky ended up extensively rewriting the play after the harsh critique, he took the script elsewhere, and it premiered in St. Petersburg. Gorky continued to get in trouble with the Czarist government for his political activities, and he wrote his 1905 play Children of the Sun while imprisoned. After a couple months, he was released following pleas from numerous Western authors.
The year 1905 also saw a failed upraising against the government, and Gorky fled the country the following year. He ended up in New York where he wrote the novel Mother, reportedly in a house on Staten Island. The novel would later be adapted into a play by Bertolt Brecht and an opera by Valery Zhelobinsky. Gorky wrote the play Vassa Zheleznova on the island of Capri in 1910. His relationship with Lenin was touch-and-go for a while, but when Lenin and his party made Pravda their official newspaper, Gorky contributed financially to the publication.
After the Czar announced in 1913 a general amnesty for non-violent political exiles, Gorky returned to Russia. During the 1917 revolution many people on the right and the left attacked Gorky. The author was still close enough with Lenin to intercede on behalf of numerous writers. He helped Viktor Shklovsky get a travel permit, but tried in vain to help Alexander Blok, securing permission for him to leave Russia for health reasons only after Blok had already died. In 1921, Gorky himself left Russia, ostensibly for his health, but he was clearly disillusioned with the revolution.
Joseph Stalin rose to power after Lenin's death and sought to get Gorky to return. After a couple of visits, Gorky returned to Russia for good in 1931, dying in 1936.