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Creatures That Once Were Men Maxim Gorky

Introduction By G. K. Chesterton

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It has left them, apparently, the clear and childlike power of seeing the cruelty which encompasses them. Gorky is a tramp, a man of the people, and also a critic, and a bitter one. In the West poor men, when they become articulate in literature, are always sentimentalists and nearly always optimists.

It is no exaggeration to say that these people of whom Gorky writes in such a story as "Creatures that once were Men" are to the Western mind children. They have, indeed, been tortured and broken by experience and sin. But this has only sufficed to make them sad children or naughty children or bewildered children. They have absolutely no trace of that quality upon which secure government rests so largely in Western Europe, the quality of being soothed by long words as if by an incantation. They do not call hunger "economic pressure"; they call it hunger. They do not call rich men "examples of capitalistic concentration," they call them rich men. And this note of plainness and of something nobly prosaic is as characteristic of Gorky, in some ways the most modern, and sophisticated of Russian authors, as it is of Tolstoy or any of the Tolstoyan type of mind. The very title of this story strike the note of this sudden and simple vision. The philanthropist writing long letters to the Daily Telegraph says, of men living in a slum, that "their degeneration is of such a kind as almost to pass the limits of the semblance of humanity," and we read the whole thing with a tepid assent as we should read phrases about the virtues of Queen Victoria or the dignity of the House of Commons.

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The Russian novelist, when he describes a dosshouse, says, "Creatures that once were Men." And we are arrested, and regard the facts as a kind of terrible fairy tale. This story is a test case of the Russian manner, for it is in itself a study of decay, a study of failure, and a study of old age. And yet the author is forced to write even of staleness freshly; and though he is treating of the world as seen by eyes darkened or blood-shot with evil experience, his own eyes look out upon the scene with a clarity that is almost babyish. Through all runs that curious Russian sense that every man is only a man, which, if the Russians ever are a democracy, will make them the most democratic democracy that the world has ever seen. Take this passage, for instance, from the austere conclusion of "Creatures that once were Men":

Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror and went back into the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At the door facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand and a large bag on his back, a horrible old man in rags and tatters, which covered his bony figure. He bent under the weight of his burden, and lowered his head on his breast, as if he wished to attack the merchant.

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Creatures That Once Were Men
Maxim Gorky

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