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.
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