Posterity, it appears, still can't quite make up its mind about Rudyard Kipling. As Christopher Hitchens reminds us in his essay in the June Atlantic, "A Man of Permanent Contradictions," few British writers of comparable stature were both as widely beloved and as intensely reviled in their own lifetimes, or have continued to elicit such combustibly mixed feelings among later generations of readers. Yet if an airtight verdict on Kipling's life and work eludes us, Hitchens suggests, that has everything to do with the tangled ambivalences that lay at the core of Kipling's own temperament:
If one were to assemble a balance sheet of Kipling's own explicit contradictions, it would necessarily include his close relationship with the Bible and the hymnal, and his caustic anti-clericalism; his staunch Anglo nationalism, and his feeling that England itself was petty and parochial; his dislike of nonwhite peoples, and his belief that they were more honest and courageous; his love-hate relationship with the Irish; his contempt, and deep admiration, for the United States; his respect for the working class, and his detestation of the labor movement; his exaltation of the empire, and his conviction that its works were vain and transient.
In the spirit of looking into Kipling's many-sided character, we've assembled a balance sheet of our own—a sampling of writing by and about Kipling from The Atlantic's back issues. Spanning nearly the entire course of Kipling's writing life, these pieces collectively bear out the view that only by his contradictions can we know him.
Kipling's early acclaim was built on the short stories and narrative verse he produced at a breakneck pace while working as an editor and correspondent for English-language newspapers in northern India. When The Atlantic printed his story "The Disturber of Traffic" in September 1891, the twenty-six-year-old author had moved to London and his international renown had just begun to crest. His collected works, which included such noted titles as Departmental Ditties (1886), Plain Tales From the Hills (1888), and the short novel The Light That Failed (1890), already ran to several volumes, and were selling briskly in both their British and American editions. Hailed as the most popular "Anglo-Indian" writer of the day, Kipling was a critical success as well: Henry James sung his praises and The Times of London lauded him in an editorial. The demands of fame and the strain of overwork, however, were taking their toll. Kipling spent much of 1891 voyaging abroad, and the following year he and his new American wife transplanted themselves to Brattleboro, Vermont, where they lived in a cottage purchased from her father. It was there that Kipling would write The Jungle Books, which appeared in two volumes in 1894 and 1895.
Although India was still Kipling's great subject during this period, his Atlantic story foreshadowed the direction that much of his later work would take. "The Disturber of Traffic," framed as a story within a story, is set not in the Subcontinent but on the cliffs of the English Channel, told mainly through the voice of a crusty lighthouse keeper who regales a bemused visitor with a cautionary tale from the South Seas about the hazards of his trade. If the story does not rank among Kipling's more masterly fictions, it nonetheless imparts a characteristic color and vigor, and displays Kipling's growing fascination with the mechanical technology that supplied the infrastructure (and, in a more complicated way, the sense of entitlement) for Britain's colonial power. It carries the added interest of anticipating the evolving sophistication of Kipling's approach to character psychology and narrative technique. As Randall Jarrell wrote in his introduction to a 1963 paperback edition of Kipling's stories, "many, even most, of Kipling's best stories are stories of the English in England" that show him to be "one of the great stylists of his language, one of those writers who can make a list more interesting than an ordinary writer's murder."