Kipling’s Permanent Contradictions

December 30:  Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay on this day in 1856. Although one of England’s most popular writers at the turn of the century, and a Nobel winner in 1907, by the time of his death in 1936 Kipling was not merely forgotten but scorned and cartooned. To the intellectuals and political Left he was a dinosaur of Empire, a jingoist of pith-helmet patriotism and white-man’s-burden racism; to the modernist writers and the literati he was a mere tale-teller, a balladeer, a journalist. Few questioned Kim and The Jungle Book as children’s classics, but many saw Kipling as a child himself, incapable of moving beyond themes of chin-up resolve, or poems that rhymed:

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing: – “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade,

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

                                                (“The Glory of the Garden”)

Too, Kipling’s anti-Semitism could reach alarming levels, as in the view that Einstein’s relativity theory was part of a larger Jewish conspiracy to destabilize world order. Unsurprisingly, the literary world that had flocked to Thomas Hardy’s interment in Westminster Abbey eight years earlier stayed away in droves when Kipling was placed beside him.

The modern view of Kipling is often different. Recent biographies by David Gilmour and Harry Ricketts make a case for Kipling being, if not misjudged, certainly not a cartoon. In his review of the Gilmour book, Christopher Hitchens says that Kipling is “a man of permanent contradictions,” with evidence available to indicate that he was and was not, “as the smug moderns believe, a racist or an imperialist or a sadist or an anti-Semite or a repressed homosexual.” One of those moderns, Jorge Luis Borges, was a Kipling fan, and thought his literary accomplishments “more complex than the ideas they are supposed to illustrate.”