Its High Time We Let Rudyard Kipling Out of the Penalty Box

The author of The Jungle Book also wrote a lot of jingoistic junk, but judging him by the standards of our time , not his, serves him poorly and obscures his true genius.


During his lifetime, Rudyard Kipling seemed like a human who could do no wrong. Like his contemporary Mark Twain, he possessed the enviable ability to appeal to both children and adults. Critics loved him, too, and so did his fellow novelists. Henry James said, Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete human of genius( as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known. In 1907, at persons under the age of 41, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Kipling, though, induced one big mistake. He was an unabashed fan of colonialism, and that exuberance set him on the wrong side of history and tarnished his reputation beyond mend. Today he is known as the person who is coined the phrase the white mans burden, and that, sadly, is all most people know of him.

He is back in the news now only because a movie made from his narratives in The Jungle Book is posting suchhuge gainsthat Disney has already announced plans for a sequel. And yet, even here, inspired by a movie and a volume that has nothing to do with colonialism or the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization, Kipling has again suffered the sort of ritual beating usually reserved for dishonored dictators and unapologetic eugenecists.

One recent storyonline bore the headline Rudyard Kipling Was a Racist Fuck and The Jungle Book is Imperialist Garbage. Another, slightly less virulent storywas entitled How Disneys New Jungle Book Subverts the Gross Colonialism of Rudyard Kipling.

This has been going on for a long time. In 1942, George Orwell called outKipling as a oracle of British imperialism. If anything, thats too tame a tag. Huckster, pitchman, shillall better descriptions. Because there is no denying that Kipling wrap himself in the Union Jack and sold the idea of a British empire as hard as he could for as long as he could.

But even Orwell refused to condemn Kipling outright, first because Orwell detested the pious liberals who hated Kipling more than he hated Kipling, but second because he grudgingly admired Kipling. Indeed, he goes so far in his Kipling essay as to ardently defend Kipling against those who accused him of being a fascist. He was an imperialist who truly believed that English values would civilize the world. But that did not induce him a fascist. It merely meant that he was, if anything, a sort of deluded idealistmisguided and too often shortsighted( Orwell again: Kipling never understood the money end of colonialism, never ensure that it was a system not merely of superciliously civilizing people but of rending them off as well ), but an idealist all the same.

None of this would matter, to Orwell or anyone else, if Kipling had not been a great writer. There is good reasonbeyond the fact that its in the public domainwhy Hollywood has tackled The Jungle Book stories no less than three times. The tales of Mowgli and his animal brothers are enchanting( and the Mowgli tales account for only about half of The Jungle Book ). They read not like tales that someone made up but like fables handed down through the generations. They never try to do too muchthey surely never strain for any high-minded moralbut they are utterly fulfill, even on repeated encounters, as any adult who has read them aloud to a child can show.

Certain critics, however, typified by those who posted the screeds mentioned above, have no patience with complication. In their accounting, the bad in Kipling always outweighs the good, and in The Jungle Book or Kim , they are content to see nothing but tales of colonialism, racism, and a love of power for its own sake.

You dont need to be a Kipling zealot to see how far short this disapproval falls of any true assessment. You merely need to read the stories themselves to see that they do not supports these analysis.

It is worth noting here that readers in India and Pakistanshare few of the reservations Westerners harbor regarding the poster boy of colonialism. He is often even taught in schools in those countries.

The Jungle Book stories were not written by Colonel Blimp. They are not propaganda. They have no agenda. And they are not, in fact, even very optimistic at heart. If anything, Kiplings tales softly but inescapably leave their readers with a chilly position of lifenasty, poor, brutish, and short( except for elephants, who live practically forever ). First and last, the Mowgli narratives denounce all humans as foolish, superstitious, mean-spirited, and full of hubris, specifically for our propensity to presume superiority over the animal kingdom.

Animals, excepting monkeys, elicit Kiplings respect. Humans, certainly adult humans, rarely do. The family in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the only whites to appear in the narratives, are helpless twits who, were it not for the eponymous mongoose, wouldve all been murdered by cobras. And yes, Mowgli has the ability to stare down almost every animal he meets, but as his teachers Baloo the bear and Bagheera the leopard constantly reminds him, that is not much of a talent given that he has so much else to learn from animals and a long way to go before hes learned it.

The saddest part of the Mowgli tales, though the author doesnt trumpet it, is that Mowgli is a boy with no culture of his own. He knows he cant run with the wolf pack that created him, and his human kin expel him from their village and threaten to kill him( Id be willing to bet that Kipling spends more day skewering human idiocy than almost any other authorhe was obsessed with it .)

But great as it isand surely redder in tooth and claw than the usual children book The Jungle Book is nonetheless still a childrens volume. It proves merely one or two facets of Kiplings genius. To truly appreciate how great he was, you must read the short stories, which are not only wonderful narratives( The Man Who Would Be King, The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes) but just as often brilliant psychological analyses that Chekhov might have jealousy. To quote but one example: it takes a special kind of genius to successfully invade the mind of a childHenry James and Faulkner could it, and Jean Stafford, too, and so could Kipling. Baa, Baa, Black sheep, the vaguely autobiographical story of an English brother and sister sent home from India to live with an aunt, is one of the most claustrophobic, heartwrenching tales I know, and all its power derives from the fact that it never leaves the little boys head: the entire reality of the story, complete with childish misunderstanding, is his, and if any tale ever delivered the reader straight back to those horrors of childhood that weve spend a lifetime repressing, its this one.

None of this will matter, though, to the persons who never pass up an opportunity to blithely dismiss Kipling as a jingoistic fool who wrote a lot of bad poetry. Theyll simply keep telling us how nasty he is. Perhaps they take some grim satisfaction in feeling superior to those in the past who attained bad selections when it came to politics and world affairs. Perhaps they cant should be noted that judging people in history by modern standards is a useless pastime.

The truth is, Kipling wrote a lot of ill-conceived garbage and he wrote a lot of truly wonderful fiction as well, and its usually not at all hard to tell the difference. Even when it is, the effort is justified. Meditating how a writer so good could occasionally go so wrong forces us to contemplate how all of us, even the most enlightened, can be swayed and deluded by the presumptions and beliefs that hold sway in the times in which we live. But doing that requires that we understand that in Kiplings shoes, we might have made the same mistakes. And what fun is that? Surely not as much fun as excavating him up every generation or so and beating him like a piata.

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