Kipster, Kippington, the ol’ Kipperino … These are some of the names by which Rudyard Kipling was not known during his residency in Dummerston, Vermont. Picture an abrupt and hard-boiled little Englishman, fearsomely mustached—and then ask yourself why Vermonters never quite got comfortable with him. He appeared among them in 1892, a privacy-seeking writer whose global celebrity would soon oblige the government to provide him with his own post office, and built himself a big weird house on the way up to Black Mountain. “Naulakha,” he called it, Hindi for “precious”; with his wife, Carrie, who had family in the area, he intended to make it his home. “Except to buy things we have no dealings with the aborigines,” he wrote cheerfully to a friend. “Nobody comes to interrupt; nobody wants to see me and I can work as long as ever I please.” Four years later he was gone, having been drawn into a mortifyingly public ruckus with a local character—one Beatty Balestier, who also happened to be his brother-in-law.
Naulakha still floats there on the slope; large and green-shingled, with Indian-bungalow-style eaves, it combines the aspect of a country stronghold with something vaguely oceangoing. You can’t visit, but you can, if you’re feeling moderately fat in the pocket, stay. The Landmark Trust USA, which purchased the property in 1992 after a 50-year abandonment, has restored it beautifully and now rents it out (minimum: three nights, $325 to $425 a night). The rural-intellectual citadel of Brattleboro is but a five-minute drive away, and should you need an office chair or a bucket of fried chicken, there’s an exemplary tract of American retail sprawl at the bottom of the hill. Walking through Naulakha’s front door with your bags, hearing the warm wooden spaces of the house salute you from right and left, you can’t quite believe your luck. Rudyard Kipling lived here! Upstairs is his toilet, its cistern bearing the terrifying legend This is Rudyard Kipling’s toilet. It is 113 years old. Further up is his attic, from which can be seen, on a clear day, the far-off, reproving face of Mount Monadnock. And here’s his study, for God’s sake, its window looking down a dense tunnel of rhododendron bushes. This is where Kipling—industrially prolific as always—churned out Captains Courageous, both Jungle Books, uncounted poems, the short-story collection The Day’s Work, and the beginnings of Kim. You sit in the study, in an armchair or at the desk, repeating these titles to yourself in a kind of mantra of astonishment.
Writers’ houses: what’s the deal? Sven Birkerts, in a recent issue of Agni, considers the generic home of the dead author, and the motivations of we who creep through it—or in this case, sleep and make toast in it. Most of what we find there, he writes, “is self-generated, taking the form of projections and imaginings.” At Naulakha, the predominant vibe (according to my own projections, naturally) is one of accommodated inspiration. Kipling, who as a younger man had sweated his ass off in newspaper offices in Lahore and Allahabad, greatly rejoiced in the “dancing, clear, dry, buoyant weather” of the Vermont winter. It’s not hard to imagine him dreaming in it, waiting, as colors and characters announced themselves against the blank page of snow: quick-moving Mowgli, and Bagheera, “inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.”
It seems an injury to the shade of Kipling to rehearse again the details of his breach with Beatty Balestier. In life it certainly made him miserable. “Rud a total wreck,” wrote Carrie in her diary as the affair spun to its conclusion. “Sleeps all the time, dull, listless and dreary.” Briefly: Beatty lived nearby, drank too much, drove his buggy too fast, and had (according to his friend Frederic F. Van de Water) “a tongue like a skinning knife”; he had helped in the construction of Naulakha, had been a good pal to his sister and brother-in-law, but then—after an accumulation of petty rancors and squabbles about mowing rights—fell out with the Kiplings. The showdown came on May 6, 1896, when the two men confronted each other on the road into town—Kipling, son of Empire, on his bicycle; Beatty the Yankee snarling from his buckboard. Words were said, and Kipling—disastrously—went next day to the sheriff’s office in Brattleboro to report that Beatty had threatened his life. There was a trial, delightedly attended and relayed by the world’s press, and the destruction of Kipling’s sanctuary was complete. The Kiplings left Naulakha on August 29. The sacred space—more imagined than real, perhaps—had been defiled. The writer’s house, almost overnight, had become a relic.