Earlier this summer I was on a panel at a literary conference where I happened to say that Rudyard Kipling was a wonderful writer. Immediately, a number of people in the audience began to boo and hiss. Two of my fellow panelists nearly shrieked that Kipling was utterly beyond the pale, being at once racist, misogynist and imperialist. Not entirely surprised by this reaction, but nonetheless flabbergasted by its vehemence, I made a flustered attempt to champion the author of “Plain Tales From the Hills,” “The Jungle Books” and “Kim.” I declared what many believe, that he is the greatest short-story writer in English. This only made things worse. Finally, with some desperation I blurted out: “How much Kipling have you actually read?”
A short silence followed, and, without any answer to my question, the discussion moved on to other, less heated topics. But I felt significantly downcast. So when I got home I sat down and reread “The Jungle Books,” recently reprinted by Penguin because of a new film about Mowgli, the “Man-cub” reared by wolves. I also dipped into a number of biographies and critical works, visited the website of the Kipling Society and tried to clarify my own thoughts about, arguably, the most controversial author in English literature.
Born in 1865, Rudyard Kipling started writing short sketches while a teenager working for newspapers in India. By the time he was 23 he had published his adventure classic “The Man Who Would Be King” and the famous ghost story “The Phantom ’Rickshaw.” Moving to London in 1889, this prodigy soon began to flood the marketplace with even greater short-story masterpieces. Outstanding examples include the heart-rending account of an Anglo-Indian love affair, “Without Benefit of Clergy,” and the harrowing “At the End of the Passage,” a depiction of mental strain and breakdown on the Indian frontier that rivals Joseph Conrad in its intensity.
Kipling, however, wasn’t content to conquer London with his prose alone. In 1892 “Barrack-Room Ballads” appeared and soon the world was reciting “Danny Deever,” “Mandalay” and “Gunga Din”: “Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you,/ By the livin’ Gawd that made you,/ You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” Contemporary critics noted that Kipling’s work had finally given a voice to enlisted soldiers, clerks and ordinary working people. He was also called vulgar for just that reason. A youthful J.M. Barrie — the future creator of “Peter Pan” and briefly a rival to Kipling in popularity — cast all such aspersions aside: “The great question is, can he write? To which my own answer is that no young man of such capacity has appeared in our literature for years.”
By the mid-1890s Kipling was the most famous English writer in the world. Yet having become a doting father, he then spent much of the next decade on children’s books, producing the jungle tales of Mowgli, as well as such bedtime favorites as “Rikki-TikkiTavi” and the glorious “Just So Stories,” which Kipling illustrated himself. In 1901, he brought out “Kim,” a picaresque boy’s adventure partly inspired by “Huckleberry Finn”; it sent Henry James into raptures. Half a century later, the eminent Nirad C. Chaudhuri would still call it “the finest novel in the English language with an Indian theme.” Its most fully imagined characters are conspicuously all non-English and ethnically and religiously diverse: the Irish Catholic hero, the Pathan horse-dealer Mahbub Ali, an elderly upper-class lady from the North-West provinces, the Bengali spy Hurree Chunder Mookerjee and, not least, a Tibetan lama.
Yet when he published this novel, Kipling's reputation was already on the wane. As the two Jungle Books show, their author was a proponent of order and discipline, restraint and duty. He believed in what he notoriously called “the white man’s burden,” the obligation of the superior West to bring civilization to “lesser breeds without the Law.” He defended Britain during the Boer War, became a pal of Cecil Rhodes, and made clear his jingoist reverence for the military virtues. By the time of his death in 1936, Kipling had been out of critical fashion for a quarter-century, even though his later work included magnificent stories that range from the comic “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat” to the immensely moving “The Gardener” and “Dayspring Mishandled,” a complex study of artistic revenge and marital treachery. Today, more often than not, Kipling’s books serve mainly as quarries in which academics dig out instances of racial insensitivity, colonialist arrogance and anti-feminist caricature.
But should Kipling’s various prejudices, however deplorable, keep us from experiencing the real and lasting pleasure of his best stories? Defending his own admiration for Kipling, Neil Gaiman once said, “It would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. It would be a bland sort of world if we could not spend time with people who thought differently, and who saw the world from a different place. Kipling was many things that I am not, and I like that in my authors.” To which I would add further that the very point of reading fiction is to see through eyes other than one’s own. In time this leads to an enlargement of perspective and forestalls any rush to simplistic judgments. The sign of an educated person, it’s been said, is the ability to offer assent or dissent in nuanced, graduated terms.
And what of “The Jungle Books”? It was pure pleasure to revisit them. Still, I suspect many people know only of Mowgli and his foster-parents — Mother and Father Wolf, old Baloo the bear, Bagheera the black panther and the mighty python Kaa — through their jejune film representations. A pity. These stories, by turns thrilling, humorous and touching, need to be read: Kipling’s language is rhetorically thick, every sentence charged, yet the action fast-moving. As well as Mowgli’s adventures, “The Jungle Books” also present quieter, related tales such as “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat,” the life of a kind of Indian Saint Francis, beloved by animals.
While Kipling will doubtless continue to roil 21st-century readers, to simply dismiss his work with a boo or smirk of cultural superiority reveals little but cultural ignorance. Read “The Jungle Books,” the exquisite and ghostly “ ‘They’ ” and “Wireless” and a dozen other stories to discover for yourself their imaginative greatness. As I said at that conference, Kipling is a wonderful writer.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
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By Rudyard Kipling
Edited by Kaori Nagai
Penguin. 381 pp. Paperback, $11