Rediscovering Rudyard Kipling

Article excerpt

For the last decade of the nineteenth century continuing through the first two decades of the twentieth, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was unquestionably the most popular writer in the English language--both his poetry and prose-- throughout the world. He was the first Englishman and the youngest writer of any nationality to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Durham, McGill, Strasbourg, and the Sorbonne awarded him honorary degrees. Writers as divergent in their own aesthetic tastes from his, such as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Eliot (who called him "the amazing man of genius") all expressed the highest praise for his writing. His ashes were interred in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Among the pallbearers at his funeral was British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Over the years, an impressive number of his work--novels, short stories, and one poem--have been turned into highly successful motion pictures: Captains Courageous (1937), Gunga Din (1939), Wee Willy Winkie (1937), The Light That Failed (1939), Kim (1950 and 1984), The Man Who Would be King (1975), The Jungle Book (1942,1967, and 1994), and Rudyard Kipling's Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo (1997). Virtually all were major productions featuring some of Hollywood's biggest stars--Shirley Temple, Ronald Coleman, Ida Lupino, Spencer Tracy (whose performance in Captains Courageous won the actor an Academy Award), Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Peter O'Toole, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery.

Writing as Kipling did about what we now term the Third World, the literary intelligentsia regarded him with disfavor. In times of ease and security, such ideas as Kipling's have not been wildly popular in the intellectual class. Actually, however, since the late 1980s, with the war in Afghanistan, the Iran hostage crisis, the Ayatollah Khomeni, 9/11, and most recently Iraq, where young American men in uniform are dying far from home in a very alien land, Kipling's writings are once again being widely read with a special interest. Kipling's soldiers are stoical, hard- bitten, unconcerned with political objectives or lofty ideals:

"What was the end of all the show, Johnnie, Johnnie?" Ask my Colonel, for I don't know, Johnnie, my Johnnie, aha! We broke a King and we built a road--A court-house stands where the Reg'ment goed. And the river's clean where raw blood flowed When the Widow* gives the party."

* Note. The Widow refers to Queen Victoria, who was a widow then.

Virtually all of Kipling's writings are back in print, not that his most popular works have ever been out of print, but now they're being published in new editions with new introductions. One British publishing company, House of Stratus, has been bringing out his entire work in a series of very handsome paperbacks, each bearing the quote from T.S. Eliot: "... the amazing man of genius."

The late critic, professor, and author Edward Said, while distressed by what he perceives as Kipling's support of British imperialism, has nonetheless written a detailed, perceptive introduction to the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of Kipling's finest work, Kim. He concludes his essay by stating that Kim "most assuredly is not a political tract. Kipling's choice of the novel form to express himself, and of Kim O'Hara to engage more profoundly with an India that Kipling obviously loved but could never properly have, this is what our reading should keep resolutely as its central strand. Only then will we be able to see Kim both as a great document of its historical moment, as well as an aesthetic milestone along on the way to midnight 15 August, 1947 [when Britain gave India its independence], a moment whose children have done so much to revise our sense of their past's richness and its enduring problems."

Salman Rushdie, an Indian novelist whose best-known work is Midnight's Children (the midnight being, of course, that of August 15, 1947), is quoted on the cover of the Modern Library's edition of a collection of Kipling's short stories, The Wish House and Other Stories: "There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore. …