The time feels ripe for a Kipling revival, and this splendid book by Christopher Benfey is just the thing to launch it.
To the extent Americans today think about Rudyard Kipling at all, it’s probably with some dim sense that he had something to do with Disney’s The Jungle Book. Then there was that wonderful movie with Sean Connery and Michael Caine—what was it called?—ah, yes: The Man Who Would Be King. Didn’t Kipling have something to do with that? And recently in the news was that English university whitewashing Kipling’s poem “If–,” inscribed on a campus mural, and substituting a more politically correct one by Maya Angelou.
Benfey, a distinguished professor at Mount Holyoke College, was warned by an author friend not to write this book: “Don’t you realize that Kipling is the most politically incorrect writer in the canon?”
We’re fortunate Benfey ignored his advice. His account of Kipling’s formative decade in America (1889–99) is a tonic reminder not only of how gigantic a presence Kipling was in his day, but also of how much he’s misunderstood today.
Kipling was like his poet-idol, Walt Whitman: he contained multitudes. Yes, he wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” a paean to U.S. colonialism in the Philippines; but he also wrote “Gunga Din” and “The Man Who Would Be King.” The first ends up a humbling apology for white racism, the second a cautionary tale about white adventurism, set in a land where America continues waging its longest ever war—Afghanistan. Kipling may have approved of some wars, but toward the end, he knelt, humbled. After his son was vaporized by a German shell in the trenches of World War I, he wrote in “Epitaphs of The War”:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
To view him merely as a politically incorrect fossil of Victorian imperialism misses the point by a country mile.
A Vermont country mile, in the context of the present illuminating and entertaining book. It was there, in Brattleboro, that he was first inspired to write The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, the first of the Just So Stories, and the first draft of his masterpiece, Kim. He knew everyone. His close friends included Mark Twain, William James, Henry Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt.
He married a local girl and would have happily remained for the rest of his life had it not been for a dustup with his idiot brother-in-law and an idiotic border dispute between the U.S. and his native England over a Venezuelan border. Leaving America broke his heart.
“There are only two places in the world where I want to live,” he said, “Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live in either.”
The book comes with a stunning bonus, in the form of an epilogue about the profound influence of Kim—the first-ever novel of international espionage—on those who brought about America’s greatest disaster, the Vietnam War.
There’s wisdom to be mined in Kipling. Instead of whitewashing, we ought to be re-reading him.
Christopher Buckley is the author of 18 books. His latest novel, The Judge Hunter, takes place not far from Kipling’s American home.