|R.J.K.- Little Friend Of All The World
||[Dec. 15th, 2013|02:53 pm]
Kipling did more than any writer I can think of to prepare Britain and- through Britain- the world for its multicultural future. He didn't know that was what he was doing, but then the choice in his day was between a narrow nationalism ("what do they know of England who only England know?") and an outward looking, culturally inclusive imperialism. Being himself a person of uncertain cultural identity (born of English parents but raised in India) he opted enthusiastically for the latter. He embraced freemasonry for similar reasons- finding in the Lodge a place where men were required to treat one another as brothers, no matter what their status in the outside world.|
When he wrote "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" it was as a proposition to be argued against. There's casual racism in some of the Barrack Room Ballads but it's a racism voiced in character and then placed on trial. "You're a better man than I am Gunga Din" was a radical statement to be making in the 1890s. In Puck of Pooks Hill- where historical figures are magicked up to tell their stories to an Edwardian brother and sister- he makes a point of including a medieval Jew among the honoured ancestors. A late story "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat" has a bunch of cronies visiting revenge upon a pompous anti-semite.
Kipling belongs to the first generation of writers to take English literature out of its European comfort zone. He had a fore-runner (more limited in geographical reach) in Stevenson and a contemporary in Conrad. Before Kipling English fiction rarely ventured any further than Italy. Afterwards the world was its oyster. As a native of India he was able to get behind the orientalism of earlier fiction. His overview of "Mine Own People"- by which he meant Indians of all races, religions and castes- is as broad and detailed as Balzac's overview of the social strata of early 19th century France. In Kim- which is the summation of his early experience and knowledge- a boy of Irish parentage wanders the roads, keeping company- on equal terms- with (among others) a Tibetan lama, a Muslim horse-trader, a British spy-master, an aged Hindu princess and the matriarchal, polyamorous Woman of Shamli. It's a celebration of humanity in all its variety and peculiarity- and an aspirational vision of a world without frontiers.
Love him. I find his poems especially moving. He has such a sturdy willingness to work in rhyme and still get across subtle meaning. That is not easy to do, not at all.
I think to modern ears his words about race and nation are jarring. He says things we would not, not now. But that is a feature of his time. He was writing for, and looking toward, a much more inclusive and just world.
If his words jar I think its often because we're ridiculously over-sensitive.
I have a collection of his stories, which I shamefully must admit that I haven't got round to reading , although I vaguely remember him being required reading at school.
All I can say is, "Take it down and read it". :)
I'd love to own the Collected Works. I have most of what he published but in miscellaneous editions.
He was so wildly popular in his own time! I've got a scan of an article from my local newspaper, from when Kipling lived in the U.S. in the 1890s. Kipling was taking the train from New York to his home in Vermont, and the train paused at New London, where the enterprising reporter jumped on and tried to interview him. The replies are hilarious--and very modern.
Except for Stephen King--whose visage is familiar through his movie appearances--I don't think there's another living author who would be recognized by today's paparazzi.
That was an age of literary celebrity. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton. Some of those guys went out of their way to make themselves noticeable. To be fair to Kipling I don't think he ever hammed it up. His fame was based fair and square on his writing.
it's a racism voiced in character and then placed on trial
I think many of those who claim Kipling is racist fail to see that distinction.
I was brought up on Just So Stories and The Jungle Book (the original book, not the Disney film!), but then only came belatedly to his other writing like Kim, which I loved.
There's something in Kipling for every generation. I loved him as a child and fell in love with him again as an adult.
I still have an image of Stalky in old age coming back in grumpy retirement to an England he no longer understands with his Sikh wife, faithful kitmagar and pet tiger and creating havoc in some Surrey village. :o)
There's a late story called The Tie in which an elderly Stalky and Beetle preside paternally over an incident of adolescent hazing.
I now have an image of Benedict Cumberbatch as Stalky in old age etc.