Nobel Prize Winners (1907)
Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive
and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to
As we've discussed before (see Orrin's review of Kim), no author is more naturally embattled in trying to maintain his place in the Western Canon than Rudyard Kipling. A white male, an unapologetic imperialist, a proselytizing ethnocentrist, everything about him runs counter to the tide of political correctness that has swept the academy. And indeed, even those of us who still read and admire him must be brought up short at times when we stumble across some particularly brutal and unsavory racialist remark. But I use the term racialist, rather than racist, for a reason. There is no doubt that Kipling--like most of his contemporaries, nearly all of his predecessors, and many of us today--believed that the different races, religions and ethnic groups had certain general characteristics that pertained broadly throughout their groupings. This concept is anathema today, when we instead turn a blind eye to these readily discernible differences and pretend that everyone is either identical or would be were it not for certain environmental factors and racist barriers. Now in Kipling's time, as in our own, there were, and are, plenty of racists--those folks who look at these differences and draw conclusions about the physical and intellectual capacities of the races and about the relative worth of the respective races, and make stereotyped judgments about individuals, based solely on race. This is morally repellent and it is fitting and proper to resist such people. But it is improper to tar everyone who recognizes racial differences with the racist brush. It is possible to believe that various characteristics differentiate the races without also believing that one race is per se "superior" to another or that individuals of a given race must be assumed to fit the broad profile of their race--this is what I mean by racialism. Racialism makes assumptions about large groups based on the evidence before us, but makes no assumptions about individuals; each man is judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.
This perhaps best illustrated in Kipling's great poem Gunga Din:
You may talk o' gin and beer
Now in Injia's sunny clime,
It was "Din! Din! Din!
The uniform 'e wore
For a piece o' twisty rag
When the sweatin' troop-train lay
It was "Din! Din! Din!
'E would dot and carry one
'E would skip to our attack,
It was "Din! Din! Din!"
"Hi! Ammunition-mules an' Gunga Din!"
It was crawlin' and it stunk,
It was "Din! Din! Din!
'Ere's a beggar with a bullet through his spleen--
'E carried me away
So I'll see 'im later on,
And it's "Din! Din! Din!"
Epithets like "blackfaced", "brick dust", "squidgy-nosed", etc., sound poorly in our modern ears, but, despite our visceral tendency to recoil, they should be read in context. That context makes it abundantly clear that despite the casual brutality doled out by the British soldiers, Gunga Din was their equal, or even their superior, as a man.
Nor is this a unique instance in Kipling's writings. His short story Without Benefit of Clergy is a poignant depiction of the love between a British officer and an Islamic native. Their affair is necessarily clandestine, but there is nothing exploitative about it.
Or consider my favorite of Kipling's tales, The Man Who Would Be King. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply another case of his jingoist prejudices at work, with two British ne'er-do-wells hoodwinking the simpleton natives and carving out their own kingdom. But it can equally well be read as an allegory for the entire Imperial experience. Ragtag whites come in and, at first, overawe the natives with advanced technology and administrative techniques, but their enterprise is doomed by native hostility once the initial wonder wears off. That's hardly a dewy-eyed idealization of Colonialism, is it?
Take his great exhortatory poem, If:
If you can keep your head when all about you
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Here is a definition of what makes a Man that makes no reference to race, religion, creed or class. Implicit in the poem is the assumption that it is behavior which defines the person, not immutable physical characteristics. And if you would be a Man, it is required that "all men count with you," but "none too much." Kipling troubles us because he is not color blind--that insipid phrase that even conservatives resort too in today's politically charged debates on racial preferences--but even as he takes note of color, it seems to me that he refuses to use it as the basis for judging men. How then dismiss him as a racist?
Finally, at some point we must trust our own senses, and the writings of Rudyard Kipling exude a love of India and her people, not contempt or racial animus. In fact, his portrayals of India are in many ways more tender and sympathetic than those of the great modern Indian writers like Salman Rushdie (see Orrin's review of Midnight's Children), Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy (see Orrin's review of The God of Small Things). Of course, that odd fact is directly related to the disillusionment that has accompanied Indian independence--the racial hatreds that have erupted, the endemic corruption and the alternatingly unstable, incompetent and/or repressive governments, which is not to suggest that things would be any better had Kipling's Imperialists stayed and continued to shoulder "The White Man's Burden", rather, just noting one of those ironies that adds zest to life.
It is perfectly understandable that parents should be concerned about some of the language and attitudes their children will encounter when reading Kipling--just as they are rightly concerned about Huckleberry Finn (see Orrin's review). These are issues which need to be discussed with children and there is no better way to introduce the topics than via great literature. Make no mistake, Kipling's stories and poems are great literature.
-Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)(kirjasto)
-Kipling Society homepage
-The Nobel Prize in Literature 1907 (Official Site)
-Rudyard Kipling Winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
-Rudyard Kipling: An Overview (Victorian Web)
-AITLC Guide to Rudyard Kipling (The ACCESS INDIANA Teaching & Learning Center)
-BIO: Kipling: a Brief Biography (David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College, Victorian Web)
-Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)(Ben Freer)
-Rudyard Kipling (Spartacus)
-Rudyard Kipling and Scouting
-ETEXT: The Jungle Books (Project Gutenberg)
-ANNOTATED ETEXT: The Jungle Book (Self Knowledge)
-ETEXTS: Rudyard Kipling (Project Gutenberg)
-ETEXTS: A COMPLETE COLLECTION OF POEMS BY Rudyard Kipling
-ETEXTS: Links to Etexts of (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling (Mumbai/Bombay)
-ARTICLE: Marlboro Journal; 1892 Bank Box Opens A Lid on Kipling's Past (FOX BUTTERFIELD, The New York Times)
-ESSAY: Rudyard Kipling & the god of things as they are (John Derbyshire, New Criterion)
-ESSAY: Diamonds are forever? Kipling's imperialism (Denis Judd, History Today)
-ESSAY: Summary of the Mowgli Stories
-ESSAY: Rudyard Kipling and Tacoma (Tacoma Public Library)
-ESSAY: Kipling and Freemasonry (Grand Lodge Webmaster, Grand Lodge of British Columbia)
-REVIEW: of THE JUNGLE BOOK By Rudyard Kipling. Illustrated by Michael Foreman GUNGA DIN By Rudyard Kipling. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Jonathan Cott, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of RUDYARD KIPLING A Life By Harry Ricketts (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
-REVIEW: John Bayley: Paleface, NY Review of Books
Rudyard Kipling and His World by Kingsley Amis
Kipling: The Glass, the Shadow and the Fire by Philip Mason
-REVIEW: V.S. Pritchett: A Gentle-Violent Man, NY Review of Books
The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works by Angus Wilson
-REVIEW: V. S. Pritchett: Contradictory Kipling, NY Review of Books
Rudyard Kipling by Lord Birkenhead
-REVIEW: of QUEST FOR KIM By Peter Hopkirk (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY times)
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