Friday, December 30, 2016

Birthday: Rudyard Kipling and the White Author's Burden

Today is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling. We celebrate it with one of his best-known works, and an appreciation of his life:

Kipling, Rudyard, Captains Courageous, A Story of the Grand Banks (The Century Company, 1st American ed., 1897). Hardcover, green boards with gilt embossing; no dust jacket. Duodecimo; some staining on boards; separated hinges, some loose pages at the back; advertising material appears missing. 21 black and white engraved illustrations, lithographed. Pencil notation by ex-owner on front and rear endpapers: "Chas. G. Wilson, 104 Prescott St., Toledo, O. Oct./Nov.
kipling.jpg1899". HBB price: $30.

Though this edition does not bear it, most of Kipling’s works bore a swastika on their dust jackets or title pages. Michael W. Smith of The Kipling Society has written:

'A question frequently asked of the Society concerns the presumption that Kipling's use of the swastika meant that he allied himself to the Nazi cause. Fortunately it is easy to show that this is a misapprehension, and a number of articles in the early issues of The Kipling Journal explain the provenance of its use.

'This suspicion is nothing new. When the topic resurfaced in more recent numbers there was interesting testimony from, for example, the late Tom Driver, a well-­respected Kipling bookseller in Arundel Sussex, England (Kipling Journal September/December 1984). Mr Driver had found that the author was regarded by potential customers as objectionable because so many of the detested symbols could be seen on the books displayed around the shop entrance. He kept a tally and found that on average, the comment was made about once each week.

'But even those who ought to know better perpetuate misconceptions. As George Webb, the Editor of the Kipling Journal pointed out in a note accompanying Mr Driver's letter, the late Professor V. de S. Pinto, an eminent authority on English literature in his Crisis in English Poetry [Hutchinson, 1951, later revised] revealed a total ignorance of what the pre­Nazi Swastika stood for, and linked its use with some of Kipling's work.

'Kipling's own introduction to the swastika as an Hindu good luck symbol certainly came through his father's encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian art. Indeed an illustration produced by John Lockwood Kipling entitled "Choosing the next King" for a story in Flora Annie Steel's Tales of the Punjab (Macmillan 1894) shows a sacred elephant kneeling before the Prince who was to accede. The top of the elephant's head was covered with a cloth embroidered with a large swastika.

'The use of such a symbol, however, can be traced back in antiquity. In Sanskrit the word means "fortunate" or "well being" but it was used in the Neolithic Europe as a potter's stamp, was incised as a mason's mark in Minoan Crete, was found in Homeric Troy, and in early Indian civilizations.

'Kipling knew, also, that the Hindu trader opens his annual account­ book with a swastika in order to ensure an auspicious beginning. Buddhist migration carried it as far as China and Japan, and other influences to West Africa and America. Early Christian art employed it as a "fylfot", filling the foot of ecclesiastical stained­glass. The extraordinary feature of the use of the symbol by Kipling's publishers was that there was no uniformity in whether the right turn or left turn was used. Edgar Brown's article (Kipling Journal July 1929) stated that neither Kipling nor Edward Bok, with whom the author corresponded about the subject, was certain which was propitious and which the harbinger of misfortune. Subsequently Mrs Miriam Block (KJ January 1930) stated that the point turned to the right was the "good" sign and the point to the left the "evil".

'But even this seems not to be definitive for in John Shearman's letter (KJ March 1980), he said that, having attended a course of lectures at the University of Tehran, he proposed the opposite. He thus ascribed Hitler's hakenkreuz (hooked cross) as ­ appropriately ­ being "evil".

'That both variants are used in Kipling's works is undisputed. Frequently on introductory pages the 'left' is used, although there are even artistic extensions of this, whilst on the 'Ganesha roundel' there is always a small 'right' swastika between the elephant's forehead and the circle enclosing it. Ganesha, the most immediately recognisable of Kipling's "logos" shows the elephant headed God who was the son of of Siva and Parvatti. The elephant is the symbol of wisdom and foresight and shown with the trunk down and curled means good forum. The trumpeting elephant, on the other hand, represents anger and thus ill luck. Ganesha holds in his trunk a lotus flower which is revered throughout the ancient world as ensuring both good health and good fortune.

'Kipling had used the symbol from the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and so to suggest that it associated him with Hitler is clearly absurd. In a note to Edward Bok, written after the death of Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard Kipling said: "I am sending with this for your acceptance, as some little memory of my father to whom you were so kind, the original of one of the plaques that he used to make for me. I thought it being the Swastika would be appropriate for your Swastika. May it bring you even more good fortune."

Edward Bok used the swastika in his own bookplate. Once the Nazis had usurped the swastika Kipling ordered that it should no longer adorn his books. A craft bookbinder at Dartington Hall recently reported that she had bought an original of the block used by Macmillan showing clearly the space from which the swastika had been excised.

The Kipling Journal itself used a frame of black swastikas on its red cover until issue number 36, published in December 1935. The following Journal in March 1936 was, of course, Kipling's obituary number and the swastika frame was replaced by a thick black line of mourning. Thereafter the Society never again used the symbol, replacing it soon with the Lowenthal plaque which met with the general approval of Society members.

David Gilmour refers to Kipling's removal of the swastika symbol, "In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor and quickly established his dictatorship. 'The Hitlerites are out for blood', noted Kipling: 'the Hun [was] stripped naked for war' while the British, still running down their defences, were displaying less forethought than 'incubated chickens'." Kipling was so disgusted by the use of the symbol by the Nazis in their flag that he removed the swastika, a Hindu symbol of good luck, from his bookbindings. It had been his trademark for nearly forty years but it was now 'defiled beyond redemption'."


Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1907

Almost everything about Kipling’s life was out of The Boy’s Own Book of Victorian Stereotypes. His parents were exotic. Father Kipling taught art and sculpture at an Indian college. Mother was from a family of vivacious women (one admirer said, “Dullness and Mrs Kipling cannot exist in the same room”).

His uncles included the artists Edward Bourne-Jones and Edwin Poynter; a cousin was Stanley Baldwin, three times prime minister of the empire.

Kipling and his sister were shipped off to England when Rudyard was five, and boarded with a horrific couple who took in colonial kids for money. It was a misery not unique to that time; interrogation and critique remained popular in the English-speaking world  well into the twentieth century), but Kipling found some value in it, after the fact:

If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (specially when he wants to go to sleep) he will contradict himself very satisfactorily. If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life is not easy. I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture—religious as well as scientific. Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.

Often and often afterwards, the beloved Aunt [with whom Kipling spent holidays] would ask me why I had never told any one how I was being treated. Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established. Also, badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it.

At 12 he was rescued when his mother came home; after less than a year he was packed off to boarding school. When it became apparent he was not sharp enough to win an Oxford scholarship, and could not afford to go on family funds, his father had Rudyard shipped back to India, where he installed the lad - all of 17- as principal of the Mayo College of Art and Curator of the Lahore Museum. An advanced case of facial hair- he maintained a Nietzschean moustache all his life- made him seem at least 22, he thought.

The job didn’t last long, and Kipling moved through a series of Indian and Pakistani newspapers. He hit his stride at an Indian Army gazette, where, no matter how much copy the editor demanded, Kipling produced more. Between November, 1886 and June, 1887 alone, he published 39 fictional tales alongside his regular reporting. He published a book of poems, then collected some of his stories for his first prose book, at the age of twenty-two.

He joined another paper, and got fired in 1889. By then he’d published six collections of stories; he sold the rights to a company that sold paperbacks in Indian rail stations, with the 250 pounds he got and a several from the paper, he returned to Britain by way of the Far East, America and Canada, arriving in London seven months later. The Indian paperbacks were great hits, building up a demand for new work by the time he reached England.

On the way, he called, unannounced, on Mark Twain, who not only let him in but liked him. Twain said between them they had the world of literature by the tail; Kipling wrote about everything there was to be known, and Twain covered the rest.

In London, Kipling wrote a novel with an American writer and literary agent called Balestier; published more stories, had a nervous collapse, and left to see South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand on the way back to India for a visit. Back in London in 1891, he fell in love with Balestier’s sister and married her in 1892. They honeymoon, a planned epic jaunt across America to Japan, was cut short when the bank they used in Tokyo failed; they returned to Brattleboro, Vermont and settled in near his wife’s family’s estate.

Kipling’s Vermont years were among his most productive. He produced The Jungle Books, a bale of short stories and poems, and Captains Courageous. Conan Doyle came for a visit, and addicted Kipling to golf- so much so, that Kipling took to dyeing his gutta percha balls red to be able to play in snow.

He’d have happily stayed there forever, but a growing anti-English sentiment over the clash of a European boundary dispute in South America with the Monroe Doctrine had both countries rattling sabers by 1895, and Kipling’s brother-in-law became an increasingly abusive, financially demanding drunk. The Kiplings moved back to England in 1896, living in various places before finding a 1634 manse in Sussex in 1902. There the Kiplings remained, in an increasingly formal- if reasonably happy- marriage, the rest of his life.

By now Kipling was one of the most popular writers in the English-speaking world. His work took a political tone; the poems “Recessional” and “The White Man’s Burden” marked the end of the storied Victorian Age.

From 1898 the Kiplings holidayed annually in South Africa, staying in a cottage on Cecil Rhodes’ estate. Kipling befriended Rhodes and the other English leaders in Cape Colony, and was a keen pamphleteer for the Empire in the Boer War. His influence was so great- in 1907 he became the first English writer, and youngest ever, to win the Nobel Prize- Kipling was invited by Max Aitken (the press baron who became Lord Beaverbrook and loomed large in UK life in the 1930s and ‘40s) to get involved in the 1911 Canadian parliamentary elections, with great effect. His poem, “If” dates from those highwater years, along with Kim and the Just-So Stories. He wrote several successful science fiction stories, demonstrating his dextrous imagination anew. Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement, borrowed ideas from Kipling's books for his program.

When The Great War came Kipling was a keen war supporter; he pulled strings to get his short-sighted son into the Army and combat. The boy was missing for over a year before being confirmed as killed in action.

Sobered by the carnage and personal loss, he became an active member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, helping establish service cemeteries on the Continent. He suggested taking a line from Ecclesiastes- “Their names live for ever more” as the commemorative message in each field; he composed “Known Unto God” for the graves of unknowns, and “The Glorious Dead” for the Cenotaph in London. He wrote a two-volume history of the Irish Guards- his son’s regiment- that has been praised as one of the best of the genre.


KIpling’s star began to fade before he died in 1936. The times had changed. Orwell, in particular, walloped him in print as a jingo imperialist. As the colonies were divested, and India was set free, his work came under more critique for its racial attitudes and outdated dialect talk. Like his musical counterpart, Edward Elgar, he was a creature of a time best forgotten.

For all that, he remains popular to this day, 150 years past his birth. His narrative and poetic skills remain among the best in the language, and have lent themselves to endless retellings in film and television.

Kipling declined one glittering prize after another: a knighthood, the Order of Merit, the poet laureate’s post. After His death his ashes were placed in The Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

In 2010 a crater on the planet Mercury was named after Kipling.

What to make of Kipling today?

Earlier this summer I was on a panel at a literary conference where I happened to say that Rudyard Kipling was a wonderful writer. Immediately, a number of people in the audience began to boo and hiss. Two of my fellow panelists nearly shrieked that Kip­ling was utterly beyond the pale, being at once racist, misogynist and imperialist. Not entirely surprised by this reaction, but nonetheless flabbergasted by its vehemence, I made a flustered attempt to champion the author of “Plain Tales From the Hills,” “The Jungle Books” and “Kim.” I declared what many believe, that he is the greatest short-story writer in English. This only made things worse. Finally, with some desperation I blurted out: “How much Kipling have you actually read?”

...Today, more often than not, Kipling’s books serve mainly as quarries in which academics dig out instances of racial insensitivity, colonialist arrogance and anti-feminist caricature.

Neil Gaiman has defended Kipling in the past, noting,

It would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. It would be a bland sort of world if we could not spend time with people who thought differently, and who saw the world from a different place. Kipling was many things that I am not, and I like that in my authors.

To that Dirda added,

...the very point of reading fiction is to see through eyes other than one’s own. In time this leads to an enlargement of perspective and forestalls any rush to simplistic judgments. The sign of an educated person, it’s been said, is the ability to offer assent or dissent in nuanced, graduated terms.

And what of “The Jungle Books”? It was pure pleasure to revisit them. Still, I suspect many people know only of Mowgli and his foster-parents — Mother and Father Wolf, old Baloo the bear, Bagheera the black panther and the mighty python Kaa — through their jejune film representations. A pity. These stories, by turns thrilling, humorous and touching, need to be read: Kipling’s language is rhetorically thick, every sentence charged, yet the action fast-moving. As well as Mowgli’s adventures, “The Jungle Books” also present quieter, related tales such as “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat,” the life of a kind of Indian Saint Francis, beloved by animals.

While Kipling will doubtless continue to roil 21st-century readers, to simply dismiss his work with a boo or smirk of cultural superiority reveals little but cultural ignorance. Read “The Jungle Books,” the exquisite and ghostly “ ‘They’ ” and “Wireless” and a dozen other stories to discover for yourself their imaginative greatness. As I said at that conference, Kipling is a wonderful writer.

What to you think, Reader? How do we measure literary merit in parlous times?

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