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Kipling: Poet Laureate Of Soldiers, Sailors, And Colonizers

Two new books highlight forgotten chapters of the great writer's life, and remind us of his enduring relevance today.

If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, Christopher Benfey, (Penguin, July 2019), 256 Pages, ; Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War, Sarah LeFanu, (Hurst, February 2020), 381 pages.

Rudyard Kipling would not appear well suited to the 2020s. Poet laureate of soldiers, sailors, and colonizers, Kipling and his vast body of work seems a far better fit for the Cold War 1980s or the crusading early Aughts. This reviewer is surely not alone among youngish conservatives in having once penned a cringe-worthy collegiate column that favorably invoked “The White Man’s Burden.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have now dulled, hopefully for a long while, that inveterate Western temptation to nation-build with bayonets. 

Christopher Benfey, author of an engaging chronicle of Kipling’s American sojourn, claims that his decision to write about Kipling was a potentially career-killing one. A friend warned him, voice rising, that “Kipling is the most politically-incorrect writer in the canon!” (That Kipling is in the canon is a telling concession). Benfey assembles a diverse cast of luminaries—Said, Orwell, Auden, Borges—to briefly defend his subject. Then he is off, beginning with the charming story of a precocious young Kipling’s pilgrimage to meet Mark Twain in Elmira, New York, in the summer of 1889. Twain wrote later, “I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before—though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would.”

Born and raised in India, Kipling was initially fascinated by an America that was just as vast and varied as the subcontinent. He soon found himself living in the United States, albeit by accident. In January 1892, Kipling had married the American Carrie Balestier, the steely sister of his best friend and collaborator, Charles Wolcott Balestier. The peripatetic young Wolcott, variously a mining investor, presidential campaign biographer, editor, and literary agent, had died suddenly of typhoid a month before in Dresden. Rushing back from India, Rudyard proposed to Carrie by telegram. After a hasty wedding in London in the grip of an influenza epidemic, the newlyweds departed on a planned around-the-world honeymoon. On a brief stop in Carrie’s native Brattleboro, Vermont, they purchased a few acres of land from her brother, Beatty.

After arriving in Yokohama, Japan, the Kiplings endured a pair of earthquakes: the first literal, the second financial. Waking one morning to find his empty boots moving across the bedroom floor, Rudyard watched in terror as “a clock fell and a wall cracked, and heavy hands caught the house by the roof-pole and shook it furiously.” Six days later, in a precursor to the Panic of 1893, Kipling’s bank, The New Oriental Banking Corporation, failed. Their entire fortune gone, the Kiplings beat a hasty retreat back to Vermont. They rented a cottage near Brattleboro for $10 a month and Kipling set to writing and earning.

Kipling was initially enchanted by Vermont. He loved the crisp, clean air, “as dry as the very best champagne.” The annual explosion of fall color was tough to do justice in words, while the winters could prompt moments of rapture: “The trees are Emperors with their crowns on and icicles five and six feet long hang from our eaves. It’s all like life in a fairy-tale—life when one sings and shouts for joy of being alive.” That year (1892), he wrote in Carrie’s diary on New Year’s Eve, was “the happiest year of my life.”

Kipling’s four years in the Green Mountain State were also a period of professional fecundity. Ensconced first in the cottage, then in his new home Naulakha (a stately green wooden ship on a hillside), Kipling wrote some of his best known works, including Captains Courageous, The Day’s Work, The Seven Seas, and much of Kim and the Just So Stories. Benfey informs his reader of a curious fact: it was in the wolf-less hills of southern Vermont that Kipling also composed the Jungle Book stories of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves.

Though Kipling proclaimed to his Brattleboro friend Molly Cabot that he was the only man living who could write the Great American Novel, he was not to realize this boast. The closest he came was Captains Courageous, a didactic tale whose research he conducted in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As another biographer has sourly noted, the lone short story Kipling ever set in Vermont “is a boring satire on socialism in which the characters are horses.”

Benfey, however, makes a credible case that Kim, Kipling’s opus, was really his American novel. Kipling, Benfey contends, consciously sought to make himself an American writer. The twin influences of Twain and Emerson undergird Kim. The book was conceived in Vermont, though it was not published until five years after Kipling’s return to England. As Benfey notes in his excellent epilogue, Kim became the inspiration and handbook for a generation of American soldiers and spies at the dawn of the Cold War—with uneven results.

Kipling ultimately found America too lawless for his taste. On his first visit to the country in 1889, he had quickly landed at a house of ill repute in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Presumably engaged in research for the “home-grown fiction on the hoof” that he had promised his employer, India’s Allahabad Pioneer, Kipling found himself witness to a murder during a poker game in the bowels of the building. A decade later, he would maintain that America lagged India in the quality of its universities, post offices, and courts, “while in the matter of safety to life and property I think the comparison would be even more startling.”

Writing for The Times during his honeymoon, he dismissed New York City as “the shiftless outcome of squalid barbarism and reckless extravagance.” Kipling could concede the material advantages: the average American was a “hundred years ahead of the English in design, comfort and economy, and . . . labour-saving appliances in his house.” Civilization though, could not be bought. By 1926, Kipling was instructing the publisher of a British newspaper to inform his readers that America had been “specially exempted from the processes of Evolution.”

While near-mute on African Americans, Kipling did grasp one of America’s founding hypocrisies. In his autobiography Something of Myself, Kipling wrote that he “never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.” When he made this point to his friend Theodore Roosevelt while wandering the Smithsonian, the future president made the glass cases of Indian artifacts shake with his rebuttal.

Kipling nonetheless enjoined the United States to follow Britain’s lead in spreading civilization to the benighted inhabitants of Africa and Asia. “The White Man’s Burden” was written to encourage a hesitant America to embrace its imperial mandate in the Philippines, newly conquered from Spain and in need of American paternalism and rectitude. Twain and Andrew Carnegie, both friends of Kipling, had joined the Anti-Imperialist League. Roosevelt was all for imperialism, though he found Kipling’s advice “rather poor poetry.”

Roosevelt was under fewer illusions than his friend. In a letter to Kipling, the then-governor of New York inveighed against “the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.” War lover though he may have been, Roosevelt was at least free of the crusading universalism of his contemporary and rival Woodrow Wilson.

Kipling’s passion for imperialism was countered, if not quite expiated, by his defense of the common man. His affection for the soldier and the sailor was real and reciprocated. Kipling disdained the “Balliol prig” and genuinely championed the callused class. In the wake of the Boer War, Kipling savagely attacked the athletic but indolent aristocracy that ran the empire in “The Islanders”: “Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls / With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.”

Kipling would forsake America completely before the American century even began. He and his family left Naulakha in 1896, for political and personal reasons. A farcical Anglo-American dispute over Venezuela’s border had threatened war in 1895 (Roosevelt had been for it, envisioning a successful invasion of Canada). Then, shortly thereafter, Kipling’s fraught relationship with his brother-in-law, Beatty, had boiled over. A death threat, a court case, and mass media attention drove the Kiplings back to England.

Far worse was to come. On a short return trip to the United States in 1899 to visit old friends and “cheer up Teddy,” both Kipling and his beloved daughter, Josephine, were struck down by pneumonia. Rudyard was delirious and in serious condition but recovered. Josephine did not. Kipling’s “Best Beloved,” the light of his life, died at the age of six. Brattleboro-born Josephine was, in her grieving father’s estimation, “almost entirely American in her ways of thinking and looking at things.” Shattered by her death, he would never return to America.

His lungs permanently damaged by the pneumonia, Kipling was advised by doctors to spend his winters in a more congenial climate than England’s damp chill. He chose South Africa and was almost immediately an intimate of Cecil Rhodes, the continent’s colossus. When war between the British and the Boers came again in 1898, Kipling was quickly on the scene. 

Sarah LeFanu’s Something of Themselves examines the South African odysseys of Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mary Kingsley (who was to die tending Boer prisoners in Cape Town). LeFanu gives us a Kipling who, as in Vermont, was beguiled and then betrayed by a new land. He was a ceaseless propagandist for empire in Africa. “If,” Kipling’s most celebrated poem, was inspired by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, ringleader of an eponymous 1895 fiasco that amounted to an African Bay of Pigs on horseback.

Unlike Kingsley and Conan Doyle, Kipling saw the Boers as villains, thieves, and cowards who deserved everything they got. The concentration camps, in which tens of thousands of Boer civilians and Africans died, were an afterthought. But British magnanimity in victory infuriated Kipling. After 1908, the Kiplings were to spend their winters in the Swiss Alps.

Benfey and LeFanu stray from their ostensible focus occasionally, but both ultimately deliver highly readable accounts of this singular genius. Both also make a strong case for Kipling’s enduring relevance as a writer and as a man. Uncomfortable in his own country, endowed with uncommon empathy and enormous blind spots, he embodied the contradictions of empire. With a new Great Game potentially upon us, Americans would do well to pick up Kipling anew.

Gil Barndollar is a Senior Fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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