Who Was Kipling?

A sampling of writing from The Atlantic's past offers a range of views on the many contradictions of Rudyard Kipling.

Rudyard Kipling, by Riccardo Vecchio

Posterity, it appears, still can't quite make up its mind about Rudyard Kipling. As Christopher Hitchens reminded us in his essay in the June 2002 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."

In the productive decade following Kipling's return to England in 1896—capped by his being named the first English Nobel Laureate in 1907—several of his works of fiction received respectful, if not always reverential, notices from Atlantic reviewers. An item in the magazine's June 1898 Contributors' Club, "R. Kipling: Comparative Psychologist," advised readers that the beguiling Jungle Books were not only as delightful as billed but also remarkably instructive:

What Mr. Kipling has done for us is to make us really know and feel that the larger part of our mental composition is of the same substance as that of our cousins the animals, with a certain superstructure of reasoning faculty which has enabled us to become their masters. Mr. Kipling, indeed, has expounded relationships in the psychology of the animal world as far-reaching as those which Darwin discovered in its morphology.

In 1901 a brief review waxed lyrical over the novel Kim, calling it "a fine antidote to all manner of morbidness" and the finest of Kipling's creations to date, a book "that fairly amazes one by the proof it affords of the author's magnificent versatility." H. W. Boynton, writing in the May 1903 issue, found occasion to rank Kipling's Just So Stories among the highest class of "books for the young," a work to be placed alongside Grimm's Fairy Tales, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland in that it belongs "not simply to the nursery but to literature." The one sour note amid this general chorus of approval was a pan of Captains Courageous in December 1897. Kipling's new novel, grumped the unsigned review,

has not the sweep of power that of right belongs to the handiwork of its maker.... Some chapters are floated by mere description, and go crippled like an ocean-liner relying on its sails. It is matter of doubt whether in all Mr. Kipling's other books together one could find so many barren pages as are here.

Atlantic readers were also kept apprised of Kipling's handiwork in verse. In January 1897 Kipling's latest volume of poetry, The Seven Seas, prompted a rave from the usually imperious Harvard savant Charles Eliot Norton, whose esteem for the poems was no doubt colored by his close friendship with the Kipling family. (The story goes that Norton's daughter, Sally, rescued the first draft of Kipling's patriotic ode "Recessional" from the dust-bin and persuaded him to send the poem to The Times of London, whereupon it was published on the same page as Queen Victoria's proclamation on her Diamond Jubilee.) But while Norton's lavish tribute may well have had a certain avuncular motive, it's evident that the fervor and clamor of young Kipling's balladry stirred the old Brahmin to his bones. The Seven Seas, Norton declared,

contains a notable addition to the small treasury of enduring English verse, an addition sufficient to establish Mr. Kipling's right to take place in the honorable body of those English poets who have done England service in strengthening the foundations of her influence and of her fame.

The Atlantic's assessment of Kipling's next collection of verse, The Five Nations, was far more mixed. Reviewing the book in the December 1903 issue, Bliss Perry acknowledged the "exceptional power" of Kipling's art ("Here is verse written by one of the most widely known authors of the English-speaking world. Many of these poems have been cabled across the seas and discussed as events of international significance."), but harbored misgivings over its strident political overtones:

The Five Nations must be viewed, in short, as a brilliant apologia for the British Empire, or at most for the "white man." If one approaches it with prepossessions in favor of its tenets, one naturally rejoices in the force and cleverness of Mr. Kipling's argument.... In such a debate much depends upon the national point of view. It is instructive to note that some of the best minds upon the Continent and among the Latin races—to say nothing of educated Orientals—see in Mr. Kipling's Jingoism a menace to true civilization rather than a bulwark of it.

Kipling had rejected overtures to become England's official poet laureate in the late 1890s, but on the strength of "Recessional" and the many poems in The Five Nations commemorating the English fighting forces in the Boer War, he had come to be spoken of as "the Laureate of Empire." On that point his defenders and detractors could agree; on everything else concerning Kipling's merits there seems to have been only grounds for argument. That acrimony intensified with the onset of the Great War, and though Kipling wrote as prolifically as ever, the tide of intellectual fashion had turned against him. Looking back at this period of Kipling's career in her January 1919 Atlantic article, "The Remarkable Rightness of Rudyard Kipling," Katharine Fullerton Gerould sized up his fall from favor:

Rudyard Kipling, in his later life, has suffered under two great disadvantages: his insistence on a political point of view which was unpopular, and the gradual diminishing of his flow of masterpieces. The dullest people will tell you smartly that he is 'written out'; the cleverest will tell you that he was precocious, but always cheap, if not vulgar.

Gerould, as her title makes clear, would have no truck with the conventional wisdom. Although conceding that Kipling "does not give us so many good stories as once, in the full flush of his genius," Gerould held that his decline in popularity said more about "English political manners" than it did about Kipling's ebbing literary gifts. The English intelligentsia, she believed, were all too ready to dismiss Kipling as washed-up, because they had long ago determined to tune him out:

There are probably several reasons for this critical scorn. One is that he writes short stories, and short stories are not yet as dignified as novels—unless the writer be Maupassant. Some of the critics have never read anything but the earliest Kipling. Largely, it is because they have not the faintest approximation to a Chaucerian or Shakespearean sense of life,—life, good and bad, high and low, grave and gay,—and they find no charm, no 'distinction' in the blessed, common, earthy Englishness of the English scene. Most of all, they are uninterested in the very universality of the emotions and events he deals with: patriotism, love, childhood and parenthood, duty, and death. Nor have they much taste for laughter. As for tradition, they are so busy scrapping it, that they are not concerned with illustrations of its continuity and deathlessness.

In April 1936, three months after Kipling's death at the age of seventy, The Atlantic published a selection of letters and diary extracts written by Edmonia Hill that dated to the late 1880s. Hill was the American wife of an English science professor who oversaw the university observatory in Allahabad, India, in the years when Kipling was making his living there as a journalist. The Hills eventually took him in as a lodger, and Edmonia became a sisterly confidante to the flourishing young scribe she was pleased to call "Ruddy." The ten-page montage, which ran under the headline "The Young Kipling," provides vivid glimpses of a prodigy who was coming into his own. "Young Kipling is certainly all things to all people," Hill wrote. "He talks equally well to High Court Judge or to a scientist, and I hear he can make first-class love to the latest belle in Simla."

As another passage in the same letter reveals, Kipling was already the talk of sitting-rooms and mess-halls throughout the Raj, owing to his ready prowess at churning out lively copy to order:

He soon became known from one end of India to the other by his 'turnovers.' The first page of the C. and M. [The Civil and Military Gazette] is filled with advertisements up to the last column, and for this column Kipling wrote a story, a poem, a clever political skit, or whatever struck his fancy, so that he made quite a reputation. These articles were called 'turnovers' because they were continued to the first column of the second page, after which came the editorial.

In a subsequent letter, Hill testifies (somewhat unwittingly, one suspects) to Kipling's powers of concentration in the heat of composition:

His custom was to push off a sheet from the pad as fast as he had filled it with his tiny fine writing, letting it fall to the floor. A. [Hill's husband, Aleck] picked up the sheets, read and passed them to me, our one complaint being that we could read this thrilling story faster than the author furnished it.

In contrast to Hill's affectionate account of a young author on the rise, Edmund Wilson's two-part Atlantic article, "The Kipling That Nobody Read" (February and March 1941), attempted to puzzle out why Kipling's stock as a serious artist had fallen so sharply by the end of his life. For Wilson, it is this later Kipling, the Kipling that "has in a sense been dropped out of modern literature," that remained the most inscrutable:

But who was Kipling? What did he express? What was the history of that remarkable talent which gave him a place, as a craftsman of English prose, as one of the few genuine masters of his day? How was it that the art of his short stories became continually more skillful and intense, and yet that his career appears broken?

Surveying the various phases of Kipling's work, Wilson contended that Kipling's primary failing was that he lacked the temperament to depict "the moral life of man" with the sense of conviction one finds in the most enduring works of literary realism:

To contrast Kipling with Conrad or Crane is to enable us to get down at last to what is probably the basic explanation of the failure of Kipling's nerve. He lacked faith in the artist's vocation.... Something in him, something vulgar in the middle-class British way, something perhaps connected with the Methodist ministers who were his grandfathers on both sides, a tradition which understood preaching and could understand craftsmanship, but instinctively looked to the powers that governed the material world and never thought of putting the artist on a par with them—something of this sort at a given point prevented Kipling from playing through his part, and betrayed him into dedicating his talents to the glorification of the practical man.

Nonetheless, Wilson concluded, the haunting power of many of Kipling's later stories shows that he was a virtuoso to the end. That fiction may have had none of the enchantment of the buoyant tales of Kipling's youth, but in Wilson's view it perhaps contains his greatest triumphs in concentrated narrative technique:

It is the paradox of Kipling's career that he should have extended the conquests of his craftsmanship in proportion to the shrinking of the range of his dramatic imagination. As his responses to human beings became duller, his sensitivity to his medium increased.

In one of the last columns she wrote before her retirement in 2000, The Atlantic's longtime book critic Phoebe-Lou Adams took stock of Harry Ricketts's recent biography of Kipling in a brief review, which follows in its entirety:

In the appreciative preface to his splendid biography of Kipling, Mr. Ricketts describes him as a chameleon. Salman Rushdie once defined him as two people—Kipling Sahib and Ruddy Baba. Kipling himself gave thanks to "Allah Who gave me two / Separate sides to my head!"

I would go without shirt or shoe,
Friend, tobacco or bread,
Sooner than lose for a minute the two
Separate sides of my head!

He probably meant the reporter who collected facts about molehills and mountains, and the fiction writer who could inflate the one and flatten the other. Born in India to witty parents, schooled in England, back to India as a cub journalist, by age twenty-five Kipling was an author of international reputation and on his way to tackle London, via Singapore, Japan, and the United States. The London literati were quite welcoming, but Rud did not take to people who forever discussed aesthetic principles and the state of their souls. The literati soon became suspicious of a man who wrote about a kind of people that most of them had never met except on accidental progress through the servants' hall, and by 1910 they no longer considered him to be a serious writer. By 1920 his insistence on the beneficial effects of the British Empire (if well administered), his wartime hatred of "the Hun," and his opposition to the League of Nations (which did indeed prove to be a toothless debating society) got him labeled an imperialist and a crotchety relic. But people continued to read him (and still do), whether or not they noticed his early use of the avant-garde stylistic devices that Mr. Ricketts points out. There is a widespread Kipling underground, and if this biography, full of episodes and lively quotation, expands it, a number of deprived persons will discover some wonderful storytelling.

Kipling's life-story, lest we forget, wouldn't be nearly so compelling if it weren't so rife with contradictions. It's tempting to conclude that at times he resembles nothing so much as a creature out of one of his own Just So Stories—the title character in a tale that could be called "How the Paradox Got His Two Heads."