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Rudyard Kipling Was a Great American

Illustration by Angie Wang

Rudyard Kipling’s creations in verse and prose are among the most familiar in the English language. It would be difficult to shield a child in any Anglophone country from Mowgli’s exploits among the wolves, or from an explanation of how the leopard got his spots. Many teenagers are still exposed to the hammering exhortations of “If—,” recently voted the most popular poem in Great Britain:

If you can keep your head when all about you

   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

   But make allowance for their doubting too...

If you can fulfill all these conditions, Kipling concludes, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

And yet—this is not widely known, even in New England—Kipling wrote The Jungle Books, Captains Courageous, and many of his most familiar poems on the crest of a hillside overlooking the Connecticut River, with a view across the river valley of Mount Monadnock “like a gigantic thumbnail,” Kipling wrote, “pointing heavenward.” It is startling to learn that Kipling, who was born in Bombay and married a young woman from Brattleboro, hoped to remain in the United States. Over the years, he would presumably have become more and more of an American writer—English friends marveled at his American accent—just as the Polish writer Joseph Conrad and the American writer Henry James (who gave the bride away at Kipling’s wedding) became increasingly English in their own adopted country.

Kipling’s four-year sojourn in Vermont, from 1892 to 1896, was a remarkably productive period for this versatile poet and short-story writer, and established patterns, aesthetic and political, for much that came later. Kipling had his reasons for working hard. The leisurely around-the-world honeymoon that he and his wife, Carrie, had planned—with visits to India, where Kipling had first worked as a newspaperman, and to Samoa, to pay their respects to his idol, Robert Louis Stevenson—was aborted in Yokohama by two earthquakes: one actual, the other an international bank failure that wiped out Kipling’s savings. Carrie was pregnant and Kipling was broke. “The night cometh,” his father ominously wrote over their mantelpiece, “when no man can work.”

Kipling, who turned thirty in 1895, would likely have stayed in Brattleboro had not a bitter quarrel with his drunken lout of a brother-in-law put an abrupt end to his New England idyll. The Kiplings had built a beautiful Indian-style bungalow high above the Connecticut River (it is still there), and had hired Carrie’s boorish brother, Beatty Balestier, to care for the meadows and build a tennis court (also still there). Their quarrel over money ended in physical threats and a histrionic court hearing attended by so many spectators and reporters that the proceedings were moved to the largest assembly room in the town hall.

The quarrel happened to coincide with an ugly dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana concerning their common border, where gold had been discovered, with President Cleveland, pumped up after a successful fishing trip, aggressively favoring Venezuela. Kipling was appalled by pervasive anti-British sentiment in Vermont and elsewhere. His dream of an Anglo-American alliance, mirroring his own marriage, seemed doomed. His hurried departure to England in August 1896, Kipling said, “was the hardest thing I had ever had to do.” “There are only two places in the world where I want to live,” he lamented, “Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live in either.”

From the mid-1890s to World War I, Kipling, who won the Nobel Prize in 1907, was probably the most successful writer alive. And yet this consummate craftsman was always an innovator, driven by his own aesthetic promptings, and always a poet first. A new three-volume edition of Kipling’s poetry, meticulously edited by Thomas Pinney, is a major literary event, and an occasion to take a fresh look at Kipling’s still controversial achievement.

Finally some order has been brought to what Pinney wittily calls “the jungle of Kipling’s work,” along with the discovery of some fifty previously unknown (though slight) poems. Kipling published poems in many versions and international venues, appending them in whole or in part to stories, adding or changing titles along the way. He eventually collected them haphazardly in books misleadingly titled Complete Verse and Definitive Edition, deploying them in sequences that ignored chronology or any other obvious principle of selection. “No one has yet made sense of Kipling’s arrangements of his poems in the successive collected editions,” Pinney notes. He has wisely preserved, as the primary reading text, the individual books of poetry that Kipling published over the years, such epochal volumes as Barrack-Room Ballads and The Seven Seas. (The latter, written mainly in America, completes, imaginatively, the around-the-world journey of his honeymoon.) Pinney’s notes are informative, adducing variant wording or punctuation in competing versions of a given poem, while eschewing intrusive interpretation. The result is a general impression of seeing Kipling whole, with an opportunity to revisit and to revise previous assumptions about the man and his art.

Kipling’s cultural reach, extended by Disney and a thousand graduation speeches, is almost as broad as his popularity among children. But his legacy is curiously divided, almost contradictory, with most impressions of him as a poet based on a mere handful of poems. Conspicuous among these are notorious productions like “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), originally conceived as an invitation to Americans, embroiled in the Spanish-American War, to join Great Britain in extending civilization to “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child.” The poem is often invoked as sufficient reason to place Kipling beyond the pale, despite Auden’s claim that Kipling would eventually be pardoned “for writing well.” And yet the mood of the poem is hardly triumphal. Kipling sees empire as something a civilized country reluctantly assumes as a duty. He predicts that the “savage wars of peace” will engender nothing but hatred for whatever benefits they bring: “And when your goal is nearest / The end for others sought, / 
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly / Bring all your hope to naught.” Teddy Roosevelt, to whom Kipling had sent an early copy of “The White Man’s Burden,” approved of the sentiments but judged it “rather poor poetry.”  

A better poem is the hymn “Recessional” (1897), where what is “receding” is the British Empire itself:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

     On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

     Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Nor was Kipling always so downbeat about the “sullen peoples.” The same mind that conceived “The White Man’s Burden” also dreamed up the immortal Kim, a picaresque novel that had its first promptings in Vermont, and “Gunga Din”—memorable works sympathetic to Indian courage, dignity, and cultural diversity.

During his American interlude, Kipling initiated his lifelong practice of adding verse epigraphs to stories, and sometimes verse epilogues and interludes as well, knitting whole books together with an alternating current of verse and prose. The main inspiration, as Charles Carrington, Kipling’s official biographer, pointed out long ago, was probably Emerson, an overwhelming influence on Kipling’s poetry and prose. It was in The Jungle Books, written in 1893 and 1894, that Kipling first systematically adopted a complicated mix of poetry and prose.

Much of the main narrative of the book is built on a contrast between upholders of “The Law,” inculcated by Mowgli’s tutors, the kindly bear Baloo and the severe panther Bagheera, and those who undermine the Law—above all, the monkeys, or “Bandar-Log,” whose herd mentality prevents them from accomplishing anything of significance. Much has been written about The Jungle Books (with Kipling’s encouragement) as in part a political allegory, in which the monkeys figure as American populists, always promising great things and achieving nothing.

Kipling versified “The Law of the Jungle,” specifying the relation between responsible individuals and the collective: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” In contrast was the sprawling “Road-Song of the Bandar-Log.” The prosody in each case matches the subject, with the insistent anapests of “The Law of the Jungle” in clear opposition to the skittishly swinging and swooping “leaping lines” of the monkeys in song and action.

Then join our leaping lines that scumfish through the pines,

That rocket by where, light and high, the wild-grape swings.

By the rubbish in our wake, and the noble noise we make,

Be sure—be sure, we’re going to do some splendid things!

Kipling’s prose in The Jungle Books matched the vigor and the lyricism of the poetry. His first imaginative achievement is to establish, in the opening sentences, a credible family of wolves, neither overly anthropomorphic nor so feral as to be entirely alien:

It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips. Mother Wolf lay with her big gray nose dropped across her four tumbling, squealing cubs, and the moon shone into the mouth of the cave where they all lived. “Augrh!  ” said Father Wolf, “It is time to hunt again.”

When Father Wolf spreads out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips, Kipling turns us all into wolves.

Into this cozy domestic scene a tiny stranger intrudes. Father Wolf identifies the intruder as “a man’s cub,” separated from his terrified parents by the tiger Shere Kahn. Mother Wolf, meanwhile, is nursing her own cubs. “How little! How naked, and—how bold!” she remarks, the last observation coinciding with the man cub’s efforts to muscle his way among the wolf cubs and get some milk for himself. “Ahai!” says Mother Wolf. “He is taking his meal with the others.... Now, was there ever a wolf that could boast of a man’s cub among her children?”

But no moment in The Jungle Books is more poignant than Mowgli’s brief and ambivalent sojourn in the home of his presumed birth mother, Messua, a kindly rural villager who doesn’t know quite what to do—like many a mother since—when her teenaged son wanders back into her life for a few weeks. One thing she does do, however, is to give the child milk to drink, as though her nursing, interrupted so many years earlier, could now be resumed without complication. Suddenly, at this very moment, Mowgli, standing by a window, feels something touch his foot. “ ‘Mother,” says Mowgli, “what dost thou here.” It is Mother Wolf, his adoptive mother, licking his foot. “I have a desire to see that woman who gave thee milk,” says Mother Wolf. Then she growls, possessively, “I gave thee thy first milk!”

Pinney’s edition of the poetry gives us a richer sense of what Kipling was up to in this scene, and of its compositional backstory. In an early poem, “The Only Son,” Kipling placed under a microscope the fraught encounter between a human birth mother and her son raised by wolves. Written in Vermont in 1892 and appended to an early draft of the Mowgli story titled “In the Rukh,” the poem was included in early editions of The Jungle Books. The opening lines describe a mother’s fear about noises in
the night outside:

She dropped the bar, she shot the bolt, she fed the fire anew,

For she heard a whimper under the sill and a great grey paw came through.

Having secured the door, she does nothing more, but her son lies down and dreams a dream, which he reports aloud:

“Now was I born of womankind and laid in a mother’s breast?

For I have dreamed of a shaggy hide whereon I went to rest.

And was I born of womankind and laid on a father’s arm?

For I have dreamed of clashing teeth that guarded me from harm.”

After a few more lines in the same traumatic vein, the Only Son asks his mother to unbar the door since, as he says, “I must out and see / If those are wolves that wait outside or my own kin to me!” The poem concludes as it began, from the mother’s point of view:

She loosed the bar, she slid the bolt, she opened the door anon,

And a grey bitch-wolf came out of the dark and fawned on the Only Son!

In The Jungle Books, Kipling has moved far beyond this horror story of a mother who discovers her son is a werewolf. But where exactly did he find the sources of this more benevolent version of adoption by wolves?

It has long been recognized that there is a biographical basis for Kipling’s stories of deracination. Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling described his early impressions of India as something like paradise: “daybreak, light and color and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder.” His kindly father, John Lockwood Kipling, had decorated pottery for the Wedgwood firm in Staffordshire, and named his son after Rudyard Lake there. Later Lockwood ran an art school in Bombay that sought to preserve native Indian art and craft traditions against invasive British taste. Kipling’s mother was the sister-in-law of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, and Kipling was introduced early on to the Arts and Crafts movement of family friends like William Morris.

Paradise abruptly came to an end in 1871, when Kipling, not quite six, and his younger sister Alice, known as Trix, were sent to England without explanation. The practice of farming out children was common for colonial administrators abroad, as a way to keep them safe from tropical illnesses and to get them started on a proper English education. The children were placed in a boarding house in the South of England, under the care of a retired Naval officer named Holloway and his monstrous wife. Over six brutal years, Mrs. Holloway fawned over Trix but bullied and beat Rudyard, whose only comfort was reading books. Kipling came to call the Holloway place the “House of Desolation.” Kipling’s mother eventually showed up to retrieve him. “She told me afterwards,” he remembered, “that when she first came up to my room to kiss me goodnight, I flung up an arm to guard off the cuff that I had been trained to expect.”

The devastating short story that Kipling wrote about his six years of misery was called “Baa Baa, Black Sheep.” It ends with the rescue of the abused child, and the Black Sheep assuring his sister that “we are just as much Mother’s as if she had never gone.” But the closing lines tell a different, darker story:

Not altogether ... for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light.

Edmund Wilson found the wellspring of Kipling’s art precisely here, in the damaged child who knows that the knowledge of darkness, once experienced, can never be wholly forgotten. Wilson believed that artists like Kipling created imaginary worlds in compensation for childhood suffering in this one.

After the ordeal described in “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” Kipling attended an academy for the sons of military officers, commemorated in the stories of Stalky & Co., and then returned to India to work as a reporter for newspapers. Meanwhile he began to write, with precocious success, tales about life in India and poems about ordinary British soldiers of the kind he met in his reporting, such as “Gunga Din” and the still affecting dialect poem “Danny Deever,” about the hanging of a soldier for shooting one of his comrades in his sleep. “Ho! The young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day, / After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!”

If there are biographical sources for Kipling’s sense of radical displacement, and adoption by wolves in particular, there are literary sources as well. Many of the stories of human children raised by wolves appear to have come from India, where Kipling would have heard them from his father, who had a particular interest in such tales. In his book Beast and Man in India, published in London in 1891, Lockwood Kipling wrote that “India is probably the cradle of wolf-child stories, which are here universally believed and supported by a cloud of testimony.”

One source that Kipling is thought to have drawn on for his Mowgli narrative is titled “Wolves Nurturing Children in the Dens,” first published in 1852, and written by a British official named William Henry Sleeman. The stories are relentlessly downbeat. When the children adopted by wolves are returned to their families, they have callouses on their elbows and knees from crawling on all fours; they prefer raw to cooked meat; they feed among the dogs; they are incapable of learning human language; they die young, and so on. The responsible parties in Sleeman’s suspiciously similar stories are never the villagers, with their negligent parenting that allows wolves to “carry off” their children, but rather the British officials and those employed by them. The need for European “paternalism” is demonstrated at every turn. The local Hindus must be taught to value their children. To teach them such values, one might say, is another of the White Man’s Burdens.

Faced with such stories of predatory wolves, feral children unable to return to human life, and careless unloving parents, Kipling does what he did with his own horrible years in the House of Desolation as a child. He finds a way to reimagine them as somehow positive. It is a mark of Kipling’s originality that he departed from his Indian sources in several key ways. This supposed guardian of empire and the White Man’s Burden chose a native child for his hero and portrayed Mowgli’s native birth mother sympathetically.

One might compare the Mowgli stories with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s eugenic fantasy Tarzan, for which Burroughs borrowed many details from The Jungle Books, including a godlike hero of superhuman strength, agility, and physical beauty raised in the wild by ferocious animals. But Burroughs departs from Kipling in his insistence that Tarzan’s birth parents are English nobility, Lord and Lady Greystoke, and that what this child nurtured by apes learns about proper behavior comes not from the beasts of the jungle but rather from the books his parents have left behind and that he miraculously learns, with no guidance, to read. Mowgli, by contrast, is adopted by wolves who happen to be model parents. He grows up not with callouses on his knees and elbows, cowering in the shadows, but rather as a virile and sensitive leader, powerful in mind and body, who can kill a tiger, make complicated moral choices, and right the wrongs in both human and animal communities. If Kipling did not find such themes in his Indian sources, where did he find them?  

The story of Romulus and Remus was surely on Kipling’s mind: he devoted a minor poem to the subject, in which the founder of Rome is portrayed as “a shiftless, westward-wandering tramp, / Checked by the Tiber flood.” But a more immediate inspiration was, yet again, Emerson. In his verse epigraph to “Self-Reliance,” Emerson invoked wolves to represent a wild and vigorous America in touch with its primitive origins.

Cast the bantling on the rocks,

Suckle him with the she-wolf’s teat;

Wintered with the hawk and fox,

Power and speed be hands and feet.

A quarter century before Kipling took up the theme, Thoreau thought that such an education in the wild for American bantlings (young children) would help prepare the United States for its glorious imperial future: “It was because the children of the empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.” Thoreau added, in a voice reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt and other Gilded Age imperialists, “America is the she wolf today.” As for Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” it was more than a favorite essay for Kipling; it was more like a personal creed. Kipling’s “If—” is simply a recasting of Emerson’s ideas of individualism and self-trust. Kipling’s choice of wolves for Mowgli’s ideal family, and Mowgli’s upbringing in the wild, might well have been inspired by Emerson’s epigraph and by the essay itself.

This idea of the benefits of an education in the wild was widespread by the 1890s, when there was pervasive fear that the United States was fast becoming a land of sissies unprepared for the onslaught of the immigrant hordes. The city of Boston, as T. S. Eliot once observed, was “refined beyond the point of civilization.” The value of a more rugged education undergirds Kipling’s beautiful “Harp Song of the Dane Women.” (“What is a woman that you forsake her, / And the hearth-fire and the home-acre, / To go with the old grey Widow-maker?”) It is also the theme of Kipling’s popular novel Captains Courageous, in which a pampered young New Englander is literally cast out of his luxury liner during a storm, plucked from the seething sea (the “widow-maker”) by a fishing boat out of Gloucester, and taught, in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, how to be a Man.

After his hurried retreat from Vermont, Kipling returned only once to the United States, to visit with American relatives, with disastrous consequences. The family stayed in New York City, where both Kipling and his beloved daughter Josephine contracted pneumonia. Kipling recovered, but six-year-old Josephine did not. He memorialized her in “Merrow Down,” from Just So Stories, a dream vision of a primitive and idyllic upbringing in the wild interrupted:

In moccasins and deer-skin cloak,

     Unfearing, free and fair she flits,

And lights her little damp-wood smoke

     To show her Daddy where she flits.

For far—oh, very far behind,

     So far she cannot call to him,

Comes Tegumai alone to find

     The daughter that was all to him!

An elegiac yearning for lost children pervades some of Kipling’s best later work, including the masterly ghost story “They.”

Kipling’s fantasies of martial valor, expanded during the years leading up to World War I as he supported British interests in South Africa, died as well. He had managed to get his son, Jack, too young for the English Army, into the Irish Guards instead. Jack was blown to bits on his first day in battle at the Belgian bloodbath of Loos in September 1915. Kipling served with distinction on the Imperial War Graves Commission, but his most powerful memorial is “Epitaphs of the War,” bitter as anything in Wilfred Owen. For Jack, he wrote “The Beginner”:

On the first hour of my first day

     In the front trench I fell.

(Children in boxes at a play

     Stand up to watch it well.)

And he summed up the meaning of the war for a generation with this definitive couplet: 

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied. 

Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival (Penguin).