Poor Rudyard Kipling—winner of one of the first Nobel Prizes for literature and once one of the most popular writers in the world—has long since seen his reputation fall into eclipse (which can’t trouble him terribly much, as he’s been dead for seventy-eight years). His reputation first foundered on aesthetic grounds, then political, and we shall address each of these issues in turn.
Rudyard Kipling was born in British India in 1865, wrote his best work in the 1890’s and 1900’s, and had the misfortune to live until 1936, by which point his colorful Victorian narratives seemed woefully out of date. As Robert Gottlieb points out in his introduction to Everyman’s Collected Stories of Kipling, the Nobel Laureate lived to see the publication of Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and other pioneers of modernism. Kipling, a contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard (of whom the latter was his close friend), outlived his own era. And so, when he died, the general feeling amongst the literati was one of “oh, he was still alive?” He’s reminiscent in this respect of E. M. Forster, who published in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, starting in the Edwardian period, and who then lived a largely idle existence until his death in 1970, by which point people like Pynchon and Beckett had taken the novel in directions he could never have conceived of.
So, Kipling did not fit in well with his time. For those who are hung up on literary movements and “zeitgeistiness” (to coin a phrase), that might be troubling, but it’s fundamentally not an aesthetic criticism. If one is willing to look at Kipling’s work for what it is—and particularly the short stories, the form at which he excelled—one finds that Kipling is one of the greatest writers that the English language has ever produced. To Kipling we owe such varied and thrilling stories as: “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “On a City Wall,” “Without Benefit of Clergy,” “The Mark of the Beast,” “Dray Wara Yow Dee,” and “Mary Postgate,” among many others. Borges loved the stories, and Borges was rarely wrong when it came to questions of taste. And Irving Howe says of Kipling’s novel Kim that it contains the most colorful English prose prior to the publication of Ulysses, which isn’t bad for someone who so many of the modernists dismissed. Howe also points out that Kipling’s poems—of which, I must admit, I am not as fond—were a profound influence on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht who never failed “to be absolutely modern.” Kipling was a pioneer of writing vernacular dialogue, and his stories of soldiers and colonial administrators and Anglo-Indian boys who couldn’t distinguish between Hindi and English in many ways anticipate the works of Joyce and Faulkner.
Having established his aesthetic bona fides, let’s move onto Kipling’s more pressing problem, namely his appalling political incorrectness. Because the fact of the matter is that Kipling was a racist and an enthusiastic supporter of British imperialism (he is, after all, the author of “The White Man’s Burden.”) So, ok, he was an asshole. That’s not an aesthetic consideration. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of his British and American literary contemporaries were also racists and imperialists (and anti-Semites and sexists and homophobes, while we’re at it). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his “Sir” for propagandizing on behalf of the British effort in the Boer War; Virginia Woolf’s correspondence is peppered with casual anti-Semitism, despite the fact that her husband was Jewish (!). Jack London believed that there were too many Chinese people and that they should be wiped out with biological weapons (the ostensibly left-wing London, who would say that “I’m a white man first and a socialist second.”) Graham Greene would in later years go back and replace some of the more egregiously racist and anti-Semitic epithets in his earlier novels (such that niggers became negroes and Jewesses just became women, although the opening line of dialogue in Our Man in Havana is still, “You see that nigger over there?”)
|Jack London, who, for the record, was pro-genocide.|
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is all appalling. But the fact of the matter is that these are non-aesthetic concerns. Plenty of writers have been bad people. That has no bearing on the merit of their work. William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake; it has no effect on the quality of Naked Lunch. But unfortunately, in academia today, the approach to literature (and all the other arts) is rarely aesthetic. The post-structuralist theories are all about racial and ethnic and sexual and colonial resentments. Works of literature are artifacts to be mined to illustrate sociopolitical points and “reclaim” suppressed histories. And so I once had an English professor tell us with a straight face that the reason we weren’t reading Kipling was because he wasn’t “politically correct.” And this professor didn’t think there was a problem with that. But my God, if we were to weed out the classics that weren’t politically correct, what would be left? We’d have Olaudah Equiano and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and that would be about it.
But for those of us who value literature as art (and art as art in general), that’s not enough. We seek out works of quality literature because they are beautiful and we find them entertaining and aesthetically gratifying (I don’t like to make the distinction between the artistic and the merely entertaining, but that’s another argument). So, to my fellow lovers of literature—and fellow lefties, for that matter—there is nothing wrong with embracing Kipling’s work. It doesn’t mean you endorse his abhorrent opinions, which should be self-evident to any reasonably intelligent adult. And again, Borges signed off on it, and he wouldn’t steer you wrong.