The “Every Dead Author” Challenge: Rudyard Kipling

It’s been a while but it’s time for another “Read Every Author” post. Or, as I’ve decided to rename them (paraphrasing the title of John Connelly’s debut novel) “Every Dead Author” post. In case you don’t know, the object of these posts is to familiarise myself with every “classic” author possible by reading a short piece by them.

This time I’ve decided to focus on just one author – Rudyard Kipling – because there’s quite a lot to say about him.

Kipling lived at a time when British Imperialism was at his height, and Kipling’s allusions to this in his writings – the use of phrases such as “White Man’s Burden” – left its mark. He went from being a hugely popular storyteller (Henry James said of him: “Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius … that I have ever known.”) to someone who was seen as an imperialist apologist.

But, what would Henry James know.

Kipling was nothing if not prolific so the first problem was: what to read? I saw a book called The Best Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling and figured that was a good a place as any to start. (I’m nothing if not observent!) The whole point of these posts is that I only read one or two short pieces by the author, so I picked two stories.

The first story, “At Twenty Two”, is about a mine accident in India but it reads like a “How to Build a Mine” manual from the 19th century and, as such, did little to hold my attention.

The second story from the same collection was “His Majesty the King”, about a young boy living in India with his well-off but unloving parents. While it was more interesting than the first, I began to see a pattern with “Ole’ Rudy” (as I like to call him. He likes it. We’re friends.) Every story had a character talking in colloquialisms: “At Twenty Two” has an Indian character dropping lots of local phrases; “His Majesty the King” has the six-year-old protagonist speaking thus:

“It’s w’ong,” thought His Majesty the King, “to hug Memsahibs wiv fings in veir ears. I will amember.”

Perhaps you could say this makes him the 19th century precursor to Irvine Welch of Trainspotting fame but, believe me, it grates after a while!

So what about the issues of racism and imperialism? Out of interest, I read two of his poems most closely associated with these issues: “Gunga Din” and “The White Man’s Burden”. And it must be said they do indeed contain awfully racist stuff. In “The White Man’s Burden” he refers to the Empire’s Indian “subjects” as:

“Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.”

In an afterword to Kipling’s “Indian Tales”, an unnamed writer tries to mitigate this by claiming:

“… a surprising respect for non-Europeans occasionally surfaces.” (My emphasis)

Hardly a resounding vote of confidence! And, of course, it’s often argued that Kipling was merely a product of his time, but then there were many others who were opposed to British colonialism who were also products of their time, so that claim rings hollow.

But, at the end of the day, I’m here to talk about the writing. My verdict? His stories are vaguely entertaining but he’s an average writer at best. Similarly, his poems contain the odd sparkling line but can also veer too close to doggerel.

Sorry, Rudy!

(Image: Click the pic for credits)

If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!


15 thoughts on “The “Every Dead Author” Challenge: Rudyard Kipling

  1. Nice post, Derek. The racism issue with authors of a different era always offers fascinating insight into the societies they were writing to entertain. For example, you could also argue that the whole “your a better man than I am…” while certainly patronizing, might also have been rather advanced thinking in Kipling’s Britain (that “surprising respect” thing). I’m not making that argument, by the way, just suggesting it. Personally, I agree with you.

    I did a review of Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes” a while back on my blog, like you, just to read a classic I’d never read. And wow… is it ever racist. Casually, dismissively, and pointlessly, like an old movie with the rascist comic relief sprinkled in here and there. Says a lot about the audiences of the time too. Here’s my Tarzan review if you’re interested.

  2. Like your approach of sampling and the whole idea of the “Every Dead Author Challenge”. Excellent post and a point well made re the popular and rather generic excuse of folks being products of their time. Thank you!

  3. Brilliant post, Derek! Having only read the book ‘Kim’ and poem ‘If’, both of which I adored, I was surprised to see a side to Kipling of which I was unaware. I’m sure I’d agree with your opinion, had I only read those 2 stories. Thanks for this post, I love seeing a different perspective on these authors!

    1. Hi Sandy. “If” is a good poem. Never read “Kim” although I think I saw the movie years ago. I reckon his children’s stuff is probably less offensive!

  4. My favourite poem is – If – Rudyard sets a great map to aspire to follow. Because I loved that poem so much I recently downloaded an audio book of his thinking it would be inspiring but ended up with -White Mans Burden – a few others that were equally not worth the listen. I think that there were very few people in his time that that were not racist. It was completely respectable to be so. This is not an excuse but rather an explanation. Today we have the benefit of so much history being readily available and the work of so many who tirelessly gave of themselves attempting to civilize and cultivate the masses. Now if someone is out of line they are quickly blasted and educated in the sensitivity department. Progress has been made and I think that is what we have to take with us from the works of Rudyard Kipling.

  5. Great to see another ‘Every Dead Author’ post! Never been a fan of Kippers and your wonderful post hasn’t changed that. Keep up the good work – and the singing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s