Monday, January 18, 2016

This Day in Literary History (Death of Rudyard Kipling, Imperial Poet)

Jan. 18, 1936— Rudyard Kipling, the youngest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature at age 41, who saw his reputation decline even in his lifetime for racist, jingoistic tales and poems celebrating the British Empire, died in London at age 70.

At the same time, a counter-reaction, even among liberal writers who loathed his politics, took hold, lauding him for the color and vigor of his work. Among these ambivalent defenders are George Orwell, W.H. Auden and Christopher Hitchens.

These and other champions recognized a crucial element of his life: Though Kipling can be dismissed, he cannot be avoided—not when so many memorable phrases flowed out of his pen and into the public consciousness, including “East is East, and West is West,” “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” “Somewhere East of Suez,” “Paying the Dane-geld,” and “from here to eternity.”

Another one of the phrases, famous in its own time but simply notorious now, is “The White Man’s Burden.” That poem was read, with drama in every line, in a class I took 35 years ago with Columbia University professor James Shenton, who used it to illustrate Kipling’s exhortation to the United States, about to come into new possessions as a result of winning the Spanish-American War, to assume the same kind of responsibilities for “civilizing” natives that had been wielded so long by Great Britain. The United States heeded that call then, with rebellion and suspicion against the Yankee occupiers —in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—that played out over the years.

An equally indelible memory related to Kipling came from a fellow member of my college paper, who became legendary for his Cockney-inflected recital of “Gunga Din.” The poem, already locked in the staffer’s memory, required only liberation from any inhibitions the staffer might have had through generous amounts of alcohol.  Late at night, with friends packed into the neighborhood watering hole, the West End, he would jump to his feet, particularly stressing the line, “You may talk o’ gin and beer.” He rolled on, stanza after stanza, gaining strength from the refrain shouted by friends, “Din! Din! Din!”

These two college experiences of mine with Kipling epitomize, I think, the polarizing nature of his literary legacy. While elementary and perhaps secondary school teachers might teach him to small children or even adolescents, he is unlikely to attract notice from academics except when ironic treatment is required of Dead White Men. Yet on an individual basis, he remains surprisingly remembered and recited.

First, the indictment against Kipling—and it is a loaded one:

It won’t do simply to excuse Kipling’s racism as shared by his contemporaries. Unlike Philip Larkin, whose views on such matters were largely private, the Nobel Prize winner’s were pitched so publicly, pungently and repeatedly as to influence his contemporaries.

Like racism in the U.S., Kipling’s often degraded a class of whites even as it condescended to “new-caught, sullen peoples.” His attitudes toward England’s first colonial training ground, Ireland, were not so infamous as those he professed toward Africans and Asians halfway around the world, but they were every bit as wrongheaded.

Just when Britain’s Liberal Party seemed on the verge of granting Ireland its long-sought Home Rule, Kipling advocated in favor of Sir Edward Carson’s threat of rebellion by Ulster Protestants if the plan were ever implemented. His 1912 poem “Ulster” was as hysterical as it was incendiary:

“We know the war prepared
 On every peaceful home,
 We know the hells declared
 For such as serve not Rome -
 The terror, threats, and dread
 In market, hearth, and field -
 We know, when all is said,
 We perish if we yield.” 

Britain’s delayed fulfillment of its promise ensured that it would have a rebellion on its hands, all right, except not by Carson’s Unionist intransigents but by the small band of primarily Catholics who proclaimed, fought and died for their idea of a republic in the 1916 Easter Rising. It was all unnecessary.

The mythic ideal that Kipling cherished of Britannia was dealt a crushing blow by the news that his son John was reported missing in action and presumed dead in WWI. The writer's subsequent bitterness, anguish, and guilt (he had urged John into the fight, despite poor eyesight that should have disqualified him for service) epitomized how Great Britain had kept its empire but lost the self-confidence that had sustained it.

It wasn’t just that so many recoiled in horror from the demonization of “the Hun” (an epithet that Kipling had helped popularize), but that now the author himself questioned the veracity of the government that put in harm’s way his son and others among Britain’s best and brightest youth.  His poem “Common Form” succinctly captures an epoch of disillusion in one couplet: "If any question why we died,/Tell them, because our fathers lied."

In the end, it did not matter that Kipling was now leading the national revulsion against leaders of the “Great War.” His part in heightening tensions in the prewar period was remembered. That, coupled with the national re-consideration of possessing India as agitation for its independence increased, led to a liberal devaluation of his prolific work.

And yet, Kipling remains, stubbornly, read, and it would do well to inquire why.

George Orwell’s seminal 1942 essay on Kipling didn’t even bother to defend him from the charge of racism, which in this case would have been utterly indefensible. His concluding statement partially explains the Nobel Prize winner’s continuing appeal—certainly then, and perhaps even now: “He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks.” Indeed, “If—,” easily one of Kipling’s most anthologized poems, continues to uplift and inspire with its urge to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.”

But a movie trailer I saw yesterday, of Jon Favreau’s upcoming version of The Jungle Book, reminded me how Kipling’s narrative vigor has translated readily to the big screen, including in Spencer Tracy’s Oscar-winner, Captains Courageous, Soldiers Three, Light That Failed, Gunga Din, Wee Willie Winkie, and Kim.

In their treatment of India and Britain, E.M. Forster (A Passage to India), Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet), and Tom Stoppard (Indian Ink) now receive the plaudits that used to come Kipling’s way for their far more complicated treatment of what Scott called “two nations locked in an imperial embrace.” But his straightforward sentiments and narratives, while anathema to academe, also exude vitality and a genuine affection for the exotic India where he was born, as seen in this passage from the short story “The Miracle of Purun Bhagad”:

“He followed the Himalaya-Thibet road, the little ten-foot track that is blasted out of solid rock, or strutted out on timbers over gulfs a thousand feet deep; that dips into warm, wet, shut-in valleys, and climbs out across bare, grassy hill-shoulders where the sun strikes like a burning-glass; or turns through dripping, dark forests where the tree-ferns dress the trunks from head to heel, and the pheasant calls to his mate. And he met Thibetan herdsmen with their dogs and flocks of sheep, each sheep with a little bag of borax on his back, and wandering wood-cutters, and cloaked and blanketed Lamas from Thibet, coming into India on pilgrimage, and envoys of little solitary Hill-states, posting furiously on ring-streaked and piebald ponies, or the cavalcade of a Rajah paying a visit; or else for a long, clear day he would see nothing more than a black bear grunting and rooting below in the valley.”

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